Riots are like nucleus events in India’s politics. A lot of it is conducted as if in a lead-up to them, and a lot of it flows from those periodic cataclysms, as a consequence. Politicians are naturally interested in their ebb and flow, like investors tracking stockmarket indices. A curious ambivalence marked that day, February 24, at the grandiose but unusually deserted BJP headquarters in Delhi. The few mid-level leaders present were glued to the television, watching the Modi-Trump bonhomie fill the air at Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium. Then the channel broke for ‘other headlines’. Chiefly, the violence in northeast Delhi. At the centre of all the news then: a small-time Delhi party leader called Kapil Mishra.
Mishra’s antics were eliciting strong disapproval. “Why is he doing this?” asked a leader. “He wants to be the Delhi state president. Manoj Tiwari is under fire and Mishra is trying to endear himself to the top,” replied another. Mishra couldn’t have found a more fertile ground, explains a party leader with roots in the city. “It takes little to trigger passions in northeast Delhi. It has a huge desi migrant population—from Bihar and UP—as also Bangladeshi immigrants. It’s always been a flashpoint, whether in 1984 or 1992. Right now, with Muslims living in fear of CAA-NRC, it’s easy to play on their insecurities,” he adds.
But as the acrid smoke began to clear at last over that haphazard skyline, there was a common question being asked of politicians of all hues. Simply, where were they? As scenes of soul-crushing violence left the country reeling, why had they abdicated so completely? Was it accident or design? Why did the BJP government not bring the might of the State down on violence? The spectacular failure of policing will fill out many future theses. But why didn’t Union home minister Amit Shah—to whom Delhi Police report—send erring cops packing to signal that he means business? Why did it take Prime Minister Narendra Modi over three days to appeal for peace? Where was the darling of Delhi’s masses, the Aam Aadmi Party, when mohallas were burning? Was the Congress, whose name stretches back to the ignominy of 1984, ruminating on karma?
Riots in Jafrabad.
On February 26, finally, the Delhi High Court too asked questions: why were no FIRs filed against the three BJP leaders who gave provocative speeches? Besides Mishra, the court referred to Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma, who had made incendiary speeches in the run-up to the assembly polls. That speechifying and this violence are seen as umbilically linked: the corpses as victims of the intense communal polarisation of pre-poll Delhi.
NCP leader Nawab Malik calls it the export of “a 2002 Gujarat model”, complete with police inaction or complicity. Ahmedabad-based political analyst Ghanshyam Shah agrees, and links it to both the BJP’s desperation after the defeat in Delhi, and its future electoral agenda. The polarisation may not have yielded seats in Delhi (even if its voteshare increased from 30 to 38 per cent), but Bihar votes later this year; West Bengal and Assam next year. All three are hotspots where the Hindu/Muslim theme can resonate deeply. This time, shaped by the CAA-NRC polarisation.
Whenever any movement has threatened the BJP’s ideology, explains Ghanshyam Shah, the party seeks to deliberately turn it to its advantage. “It’s the anti-CAA movement now, where new secular forces have emerged, even if isolated and segmented,” he says. In 1974-75, he recalls, the RSS/Jana Sangh/ABVP joined the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan against Indira Gandhi’s autocratic rule and got a foothold in mainstream politics for Hindutva. “A similar ‘turn’ was imparted in the 1980s on the Assam movement,” Shah adds. Originally against Bengali immigrants, the BJP spun that into an anti-Muslim sentiment. Four decades later, that thicket of bamboo is flowering again. Delhi is but a pit-stop.
Bhajanpura after the clashes.
The BJP’s politics is eminently transparent, if unpalatable for many. But the diehard loyalists of AAP and Congress are squirming at the uncomfortable questions they are facing. Forever loud in their protestations over India’s secular democracy being torn apart by the BJP, what do these parties have to show for action as a tempest of hate raged in their midst? Nothing.
Among them, who was the most inexplicably absent? None other than Arvind Kejriwal, recrowned chief minister of Delhi less than a month ago with a massive 62/70 tally.
No Pehlay AAP
The perennial grouse—and now defence—of Team Kejriwal has been that Delhi Police do not come under the Delhi state government’s jurisdiction. But that has never before produced such ringing silence out of AAP. And there’s plenty a doughty political leader can do on the ground. Kejriwal actually opted, deliberately and visibly, for inaction.
Worse, it seems the chief minister turned down suggestions of concrete action at an AAP meeting. His party leader Sanjay Singh had apparently suggested that they hold a peace march in riot-hit areas. The third-time CM is believed to have vetoed the idea, instead preferring to pray for peace at Rajghat. Why this?
A February 25 meeting with Amit Shah, after which Kejriwal reposed faith in Delhi Police, and a belated tweet a day later calling for the army did little to forbid the conclusion: Kejriwal has his sight firmly fixed on national expansion and wants to stick to his soft Hindutva blueprint.
Even a BJP leader took a dig at the AAP leader: “Why is Arvind Kejriwal playing it safe now? The elections are over and he has won. What stopped him from going to the affected areas? It’s a huge letdown for the people who voted for him just a few days ago.”
Sphinx and the Rest
Then there’s the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi had walked right into Noakhali, people recalled on social media. What about those who carry that surname today?
Well, Rahul Gandhi, according to political gossip-mongers, was out of the country. No one knows really, but the Wayanad MP was certainly conspicuous by his absence at a CWC meeting called by his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, on Wednesday, February 26—three days too late. Yes, she finally emerged to address a rare press conference, asking clearly for Amit Shah’s resignation. But why did she not speak sooner? Sonia continues to enjoy a central place in India’s polity despite her party’s attrition: why did she not harness it? Why did she not convene the CWC meeting on February 24-25 itself? Why did she not dispatch delegations of party leaders to riot-affected areas earlier? That I&B minister Prakash Javadekar was quick to pounce on the chance to rake up 1984—“Those responsible for massacre of Sikhs, how can they talk about our success or failure in controlling violence?”—was the least of the discomfiting questions.
Policemen stand guard at an anti-CAA protest outside a metro station in northeast Delhi.
Sources in the Congress attribute the initial inertia to a section of Delhi leaders wanting “to see how the re-elected AAP government dealt with the situation”. Leaving the initiative to the local leadership would count as nothing short of criminal neglect. It’s a headless corpse, riven by “ego battles” among leaders still blaming each other for last month’s electoral rout. “There’s no leadership to galvanise workers for relief efforts in riot-affected areas,” a former Lok Sabha MP from Delhi tells Outlook. Another senior Congress functionary said there was “no clear message from the high command”. Then, a lame acceptance: “Many leaders were wary of the BJP’s offensive if the Congress was seen as going all out to help the predominantly Muslim victims. The fear of polarisation and its electoral impact has taken deep roots in the Modi-Shah era, making us all nervous.”
What about other Opposition parties? The past six years have seen multiple occasions when they have rallied together to condemn the Modi regime. However, even after three days of riots, that usual spectacle—a joint Opposition delegation to the President seeking immediate action—is nowhere in evidence. Even the basic task of moving court was left to civil society and the victims themselves.
“I agree the Opposition’s response could have been stronger,” says RJD Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha. “We should have been there from the time tensions began and jointly explored remedies. We failed.” The RJD had contested the Delhi polls in a seat-sharing alliance with the Congress; all its four candidates had forfeited their deposits.
The Left too waded in late, with some of its luminaries calling for Amit Shah’s resignation and visiting victims in hospital on February 26. But its old reputation for being a formidable votary of communal harmony (and for organising massive protests) lay abegging in the face of its diminishing street cred. While CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, busy addressing anti-CAA rallies in Karnataka, tweeted his condemnation, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, no shrinking violet, has been quiet. Banerjee makes her party’s participation in any joint Opposition move conditional on the exclusion of the Left, but usually never misses a chance to criticise the Modi regime. Her aides Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra—both vocal MPs courted aggressively by the Delhi media for soundbites—kept their outrage limited to social media.
Dalit-Muslim Bhai Bhai
The riots also brought out the faultlines at another level: the much-talked-about convergence between Dalits and Muslims, which was in display throughout the nationwide protests against the citizenship law. If the picture of Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad on the footsteps of the Jama Masjid represented a euphoric moment of bonhomie, now a section of Muslims is unhappy about his “absence when the heat actually began”. After all, it was on the Bhim Army’s call that a large group had turned up at Jafrabad on February 23, and that’s where the violence started. It was meant to be part of a nationwide shutdown against the recent Supreme Court ruling that said reservation is not a fundamental right—Muslims joined enthusiastically, and a linking up of the anti-CAA/NRC spirit with reservation politics was to betoken deeper ties.
But after the mobs progressed from stone-throwing to arson and lynchings, and poor Muslims were left orphaned, signs of a rift began to surface in social media and elsewhere. On the ground, Dalits often protected their Muslim neighbours in the poor and vulnerable bastis, as did other Hindus and Sikhs, but the openly expressed disaffection for Azad played into existing faultlines—a section of Muslims was always uncomfortable with Azad being crowned the “new imam” and wished for the community not to hang on to somebody else’s coat-tails.
Old antipathies fostered this. A ‘Muslim’ leadership often means the natural ascendancy of upper-caste Ashrafs, who do not entirely share the Dalit-Pasmanda unity that comes about via shared living practices. Some also recall that Dalits have often been Hindutva footsoldiers on the frontline of marauding rioters.
Bhim Army spokesperson Kush Ambedkarwadi attributes the rift to deliberate conspiracy. “It’s a creation of the BJP government, which is scared of Dalit-Muslim unity—it’s bad news for them when they come together, as during the anti-CAA protests. In Seelampur and other places, Dalits saved Muslims brothers,” he says. Azad himself, organising a massive show in front of the gleaming, new RSS office in Gujarat, is also serving an official court ban from Delhi—and had sought permission to enter. But in his absence, the debate got far ahead of him.
Many feel it’s natural for the marginalised groups to come together, but even a Mayawati has not often managed a joint front with great elan—often owing to her own indiscretions. It’s in this space that the anti-CAA protests brought in a new paradigm, blending Ambedkar’s ideals with a new vocabulary of citizenship. “The two communities should have been fighting together from much earlier,” says historian S. Irfan Habib. “They have common causes, and are united by class.” And caste, some would add. Some deny it too. A Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind spokesperson, for instance, says Islam treats everyone equal—often cited as a classic evasion of caste. “It’s not only about Dalits or Muslims. We want to take everyone along in the protests against CAA. We are neither in favour nor against the Bhim Army,” he says.
Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM is another actor here. His ‘Jai Bhim, Jai Meem’ slogan—Bhim stands for Bhimrao Ambedkar and Meem is the Urdu alphabet ‘M’, for Muslim—plots a similar map of unity, in line with his plans to expand his party’s footprint. After tasting success with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi in Maharashtra, Owaisi was eyeing the Bhim Army for a possible Bihar tie-up. Azad’s presence at a recent AIMIM rally signalled a growing bond. However, the violence in Delhi has muddied the waters…along the predictable ‘Ashraf vs Dalit’ lines. “Owaisi’s party is hurling baseless allegations against Azad,” says a Bhim Army leader. “Muslims are with Dalits. Azad was denied police permission to go to Jaffrabad. We also asked to meet the L-G the day before. That too was denied.” He also cites Azad’s arrest in Hyderabad on January 26 as a sign of Owaisi’s “love for Dalits”.