Delhi riots a redux of the 1984 carnage

Rahul Bedi, Senior journalist

New Delhi: The recent sectarian rioting in northeast Delhi, which claimed over 53 lives, largely that of Muslims, and palpably rent asunder the communal fabric of not only the Capital but also the country, has uncanny similarities with the November 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in the city.

And though the fatalities are mercifully unmatched, the likenesses between the two blood-spattered events, separated by 36 years, are analogous in their ferocity and avowed goal of a section of the majority Hindu community, backed by the State, seeking revenge upon two minority populations in the same city.

In a redux of the 1984 carnage, the attackers in northeast Delhi in late February were largely outsiders and, like in the earlier instance, seemingly linked to the party in federal power. Armed with iron rods, lathis, bricks, stones, acid and petrol bombs, they attacked the Muslims without let or hindrance, showing no quarter to either the old, women or infants in their orgy of violence and arson.

The rioters selectively set alight houses in mixed neighbourhoods, torched places of worship, vehicles and commercial establishments with impunity as the Delhi Police personnel, in most instances, stood by insouciantly. It is, after all, axiomatic that such murderous crowds, by their very nature, are intrinsically cowardly, receiving mutual encouragement from one another for their shameful deeds.

It’s also a given that the larger the mobs, the bolder they are in their savagery, an aspect that more than manifest itself in 1984 and once more in northeast Delhi. Police inaction and alleged complicity was the bonus force multiplier for the killer mobs on both occasions.

Thousands of emergency calls to the police, like in 1984, were ignored, as violence-stricken labyrinthine alleyways, settled by an indigent populace decades earlier, smouldered. It’s almost as if the carnage template employed in 1984 had merely been kept temporarily in reserve for expedient deployment at a later, politically strategic moment for eventual electoral profit. The foremost difference, however, this time round was the stark prevalence of social media to record the barbarism for immediate dissemination and for posterity to subsequently view with ominous implications.

But all was not doom and gloom. There were, once again like in 1984, innumerable accounts of humaneness. Hindus rescued Muslims from homicidal mobs and vice versa, both communities provided each other temporary succour and sanctuary. Nevertheless, like fear abounded for Sikhs after the 1984 pogrom, thousands of terrified Muslims too fled their homes in northeastern Delhi for the safety of ghettoes, either elsewhere in Delhi or across northern India, further augmenting the community’s segregation.

The origins and motivations in both brutal occurrences were indisputably political. The 1984 carnage was the first in independent India to be manifestly perpetrated by the State — in this instance, the Congress party-led establishment — and ably backed by a conniving and participatory Delhi Police. It eventually led to the Congress securing a record 404 Lok Sabha seats in the General Election that followed in the largest ever mandate obtained by any Indian political party before or since. The freemasonry in bloodshed had guaranteed rich political dividends.

Thereafter, unending expiations were mouthed by the Congress that established innumerable inquiry commissions into the pogrom, whose deliberations dragged on for over three decades, or for over one generation-and-a-half of survivors. Eventually, a handful of protagonists was jailed — some as recently as 2018 — with many senior Congress party politicians and Delhi Police officials accused of direct involvement in the horrific killings — dying naturally in the intervening years. The State, it seemed, had neither the will nor the impulse to accept responsibility for the bloodbath or to render justice.

Alongside, there was much heart-wrenching by the political parties, officialdom and civil society, all of who collectively pledged that such cataclysmic events would never recur in what they claimed passed for a civilised polity. But they did, only with greater deliberations and ruthless efficiency — first in Gujarat in 2002 and then 18 years later, once more in Delhi.

The build-up to Delhi’s two slaughters followed a largely similar pressure-cooker pattern of gestated tension. Through the early 1980s, Sikh militancy had gridlocked Punjab, intermittently spilling over into Delhi and terrorising it too in equal measure. The final heave came with the killing of Indira Gandhi and the whiplash riposte by Hindu mobs that erupted across Delhi leaving some 3,000 Sikhs dead and the Congress party’s blood lust satiated.

Conversely, last month’s rioting in northeast Delhi had more devious, diabolical and carefully-calibrated origins, over which reportedly looms the baleful shadow of the Hindu supremacist and paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s guiding force. Incidences began incrementally after the BJP government assumed office in 2014 with a steady stream of Muslim lynchings by Hindu mobs over beef consumption and cow protection issues that were meticulously videoed and circulated on social media. Few perpetrators were arrested for these murders for lack of evidence and the handful who were have since been exonerated.

These hangings were supplemented by a miasma of love and land jihad propaganda alongside assorted egregious anti-Muslim measures, with the twin purpose of ‘demonising’ the minority community and of uniting Hindus as a BJP ‘vote bank’. Matters climaxed last December with the enactment of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, followed by a hate blitzkrieg launched by senior BJP leaders in the Delhi Assembly elections.

Union Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh even went to the extent of declaring that India had committed a ‘major lapse’ by not forcing all Muslims into Pakistan during Partition. Such vitriol, however, failed to deliver the BJP an electoral victory in Delhi and, expectedly, like in 1984, the communal bile that had peaked necessitated vindication.

In conclusion, the bad news, regrettably, is that all prospects of justice or police accountability in the February killings in Delhi are remote. The worse news is that the sectarian situation will, in all probability, get imminently worse.