On the morning of Tuesday 25 February, even as 35 companies of paramilitary forces were deployed in North East Delhi, India, and Commissioner of Police Amulya Patnaik claimed that the situation was under control, violence broke out in the Maujpur area, with shops ransacked and set ablaze, vehicles torched and stone-pelting between groups from two communities.
As the day passed, violence continued in the densely populated lower middle class and poorer colonies in the North East district of Delhi. It even spread to some new areas in the vicinity. By evening, the death toll was reported to be 10, with dozens injured.
The preceding night saw 45 incidents of arson, including setting fire to the tyre market at Gokulpuri. On 24 February, seven people were killed, including a police head constable. Reports suggest that nearby Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital treated at least 165 people with gunshot wounds and other injuries. Dozens of others injured have not dared to go to hospitals for fear of getting arrested.
Violence erupted on Sunday 23 February after a small mob of people led by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, who was an ex-member of the legislative assembly (MLA) then representing Aam Aadmi Party, started and provoked a clash with anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters. Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, who controls the Delhi Police, is reported to have held a series of meetings with top officials.
In the violence, gangs of men armed with acid bottles, petrol bombs and weapons roamed the narrow streets of the localities, attacking and burning at will. A Sufi saint’s shrine was reportedly burnt in Gamri on Monday 24 February. A mosque was reportedly attacked in Ashok Nagar on Tuesday. The violence was widely recorded by people on cellphone cameras and many videos purportedly show groups shouting “Jai Shri Ram” as they ransack shops and start fires. Police personnel were alleged to have been seen standing by or in some cases even throwing stones.
On Tuesday 25 February, rioters had become more alert and several journalists were attacked and forced to delete videos. The anti-CAA protesters, mainly from the Muslim community but supported by many Hindus, too, are reported to have also reacted with stones and bottles. But, as happens in such situations, the odds were heavily stacked against them because of numbers and the police bias. The commissioner of police is reported to have admitted that adequate police forces were not available.
Clearly, this eruption was going to happen. The speed at which the BJP and its allies moved in with the armed gangs and the police inaction couldn’t be spontaneous. Nor could the fact that Mishra, the ex-MLA and a known hatemonger, appeared, incited and disappeared.
But the groundwork was laid before Sunday. And this is what Delhi and the rest of the country needs to observe.
First, the siege of minorities
Ever since the BJP won the general elections last year in May-June and came back into power, it has openly been pushing through an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) agenda, which considers Muslims as aliens (or even enemies). Several significant steps for marginalising this community have been undertaken: the abrogation of Article 370 and splitting of Jammu and Kashmir (the only Muslim-majority state) into two Union Territories; the repeated assertion that “foreigners” will be thrown out of India; the repeated promise to prepare a National Register of Citizens (NRC); the claim of settling the Ayodhya dispute in favour of Hindus; and the passing of a discriminatory citizenship law (the CAA).
These moves have been backed by incendiary campaigns – in elections or during religious festivals – of aggressive Hindu nationalism, both public and through social media networks. This had been going on earlier but acquired a new edge after BJP’s election victory. Perhaps the party thought its dream of establishing a Hindu Rashtra could be fulfilled straight away?
Of particular note was the fact that senior BJP leaders indulged in fanning this hatred. While ostensibly explaining the benefits of their legislative or policy moves, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Shah, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and a phalanx of lesser leaders in states or elected representatives at various levels went about fulminating against “foreigners” and “infiltrators” while shedding crocodile tears about the tragic fate of Hindu minorities in neighbouring, largely Muslim countries.
Toxic Delhi election campaign
Of particular note was the BJP’s campaign in the run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections earlier this month. Newsclick has charted the course of this never-seen-before barrage of poison, lies, half-truths and hate in various reports. BJP leaders openly incited audiences to shoot the traitors, and thundered that “they” (Muslims) would enter the houses and rape their daughters and kill them if BJP was not given a majority. Leading BJP members of Parliament warned darkly about the looming Mughal Raj, if people were not vigilant.
As pointed out repeatedly, this strategy was not just some loud mouths gone rogue nor was it flowing through secretive whisper campaigns. It was out there, naked in the public domain, thundered through public address systems.
Delhi was stunned with disbelief and worry. Such dire prophecies would worry and disturb anybody. As far as the immediate elections were concerned, most Delhi-ites preferred to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party, led by incumbent chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. But tragically, the BJP’s hate campaign left its mark. Once the elections were done and dusted – and the BJP decisively defeated – this communal impact simmers below the surface.
Remember that the BJP is the ruling party at the centre. Its sanction for hostility towards Muslims, or other minorities, creates a sense of impunity. Violence against minorities will not be met with a just and firm hand, especially if it is mob violence. Even if masked people, armed with iron rods, enter a university and thrash teachers and students – nothing will happen. Even if the police enter libraries and beat up students – nothing will happen. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the police have brutally suppressed protests against the CAA, arrested dozens, slapped hefty fines on indigent families and killed over 20 people.
Harvest of these poison seeds
It is a result of this vicious and politically driven campaign of hate that protests against the new citizenship law and the proposed NRC are now being used to target the Muslim community. Although it’s true that the bulk of protesters at the dharnas against the CAA-NRC-NPR are Muslim women, the identification of the whole anti-CAA struggle as a treacherous Muslim move is one of the weapons first unleashed by BJP in the Delhi election campaign. With elections over, and stung by the defeat, the stage has been set for violent mob attacks and all the other features of fully fledged communal strife.
After United States President Donald Trump’s departure, the Modi government and its street fighters will have become freer – either to continue with the present attacks or to try and sort out things in some peaceful way. Going by the past record, with nobody from the government ever trying to build bridges with the protesters since December, and continuing aggression, it’s unlikely that any amicable solution is on the cards.
The only way out may be for people from all communities to come together and defend the Constitution, which gives the right to dissent and equality before law, and also urges a secular polity. Otherwise, the capital will descend into chaos and violence will destroy untold lives.
This article was first published by Newsclick.