Delhi can learn from Mumbai's violent history: Communal riots follow a classic pattern of provocation, reaction and police inaction

Jyoti Punwani

The Delhi riot is following the classic communal riot pattern. First, the Hindutva leaders try to provoke Muslims. Muslims react violently. Then the police descend on the scene, often helping the rioters. At the end of the riot, you have more Muslims killed, more Muslim properties destroyed, and more Muslims arrested than Hindus.

This has been the story of almost every communal riot. A top Shiv Sena lawyer explained this to me thus: "We never begin the violence; they do. But once we are attacked, we retaliate with our full might. Naturally, they end up the losers. We are in the majority, after all.''

What the lawyer left out was their role in provoking the violence. No policeman stops them: whether the provocation is by lingering outside a mosque and throwing gulal on it during a procession, or through a barrage of inflammatory speeches. These actions are offences but when has the police been known to act on every offence?

Delhi police did nothing as Kapil Mishra threatened that he and his pro-CAA followers would clear out the anti-CAA protesters whether the police did so or not in the matter of three days. Nor did they stir when the slogan "goli maaro saalon ko" was raised during his speech.

Hardly surprising considering no substantive action was taken when this slogan was raised by a minister in the capital less than a month ago. Who's going to take action when the man, that the Delhi Police report to, asked Hindus to send a current through those (Muslims) protesting at Shaheen Bagh?

Delhi's communal temperature was raised during that election campaign. But, notwithstanding all the hate spewed at Shaheen Bagh then, it's worth noting that apart from one individual shooter, there was no mob attack on the protesters.

Personnel try to douse fire in one of the shops in Gokulpuri areas in New Delhi. PTI

Personnel try to douse fire in one of the shops in Gokulpuri areas in New Delhi. PTI

That means that the large number of Hindus supporting the CAA aren't inclined to harm those opposing it. Even those who felt inconvenienced by the Shaheen Bagh protest or who felt that blocking the road was wrong, were not going to take their antagonism to a physical level. That's why this riot has to be seen for what it is: an organised attack, facilitated by police inaction.

Significantly, the father of a Hindu who died blamed Kapil Mishra for his death.

But why single out the Delhi Police? Which Hindutva leader has been arrested for hate speech? Bal Thackeray was in 2000, for what he wrote in 1993. But the Mumbai Police were acting on the orders of the then Maharashtra Home Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, who had made Thackeray's arrest his personal agenda.


To be fair, the police rarely arrest any leader for his hate speech, Hindu, Muslim or Dalit. Those with political clout get away with saying anything they want. It's only those with no such clout, such as Sharjeel Imam, who get hunted down. Akbaruddin Owaisi was arrested for his infamous speech at Nirmal in 2013 only after the AIMIM withdrew support to the Congress government in then Andhra Pradesh. Till then, the government had ignored his inflammatory utterances.

It was Lalu Prasad Yadav who arrested L K Advani when his hate-spewing rath entered Bihar in 1990. In his long reign as the chief minister, Lalu sent the message to his police force that he would not tolerate Hindu Muslim violence. Who's going to send that message to the Delhi police?

Given all this, the Delhi police force's conduct over the last two days fits the classic riot pattern. In this communal clash, a Hindutva leader provoked Hindus into attacking Muslims, and not only did the provoked Muslims retaliate, they even drew a gun at a cop. Three Muslims and two Hindus were killed, and one cop died of gunshot wounds, but it was a barrage of stones that felled him. Another was critically hurt by stones.

Angry Muslims argue that the retaliation by their community members in Delhi were acts of extreme frustration or self-defence, and cannot be judged harshly. They probably were. But the ugly reality of our secular country is that in a Hindu-Muslim riot, any violence by Muslims, even in self-defence, invites a disproportionate reaction from the police. This was evident across Mumbai in January 1993, the second phase of the post-Babri demolition riots. If the violence is against the police, then heaven help them, for the entire force avenges it. Additionally, the stereotype of the "violent Muslim attacking the poor outnumbered police'' gets strengthened among the majority community at large.

Let's not forget, in every communal riot, Hindus in the affected areas see the police as allies and vice versa. Police station themselves in the Hindu area, often in a temple; Hindus feed them. Muslims simply expect the police to do their duty, alas, in vain.

The history of Hindu-Muslim riots points to just one guideline for one of the parties: howsoever grave the provocation, do not react with violence.

That's a near-impossible task for anyone faced with aggression by a mob backed by the police. But there are people who've done this: Medha Patkar for instance. Police have dragged her from the street by her hair in Mumbai when she was demonstrating against slum demolitions; mobs have attacked her in Gujarat because of her anti-Narmada dam agitation. But neither she nor her supporters have ever reacted violently. Her slogan is: hamla chaahe jaisa hoga, haath hamara nahin uthega.

Rare is the leader who succeeds in making non-violence a policy among followers, as Patkar has. But look at the women at Shaheen Bagh. They didn't react even when a gunman shot at them. And they were leaderless. That's one of the reasons the desperate attempts to instigate riots before the Delhi elections failed. Elections were not only held, but the BJP was trounced. Imagine the party's frustration.

The Shaheen Bagh women can be an example to learn from. But besides this superhuman commitment to non-violence in the face of provocation, there's another way to force the police to change. The late social reformer Asghar Ali Engineer tried for years to rid the Mumbai Police of their anti-Muslim prejudice by holding workshops with them, breaking the stereotypes they held.

This too needs to be done by citizens, since no government has ever done it.

There is yet another way: making the police pay for their deliberate neglect of duty. They've never had to, that's why they keep repeating it. Take them to court. Today with videos being made at every step, it's not impossible to provide evidence of the way they protect rioters and torment victims. Only, we not only have to convince victims' families to take this courageous step, but also make sure to support them all the way till the end of the legal process. Again, it is citizens who'll have to do this, for no government will.

Another near-impossible task. But is there a choice?

Also See: 'Don't want repeat of 1984', says Delhi HC, directs police to decide on FIRs against BJP leaders over hate speeches by today

Delhi violence: DCW receives complaints from women in violence-hit areas; chief Swati Maliwal meets police officials

Delhi Violence Over CAA Protest Updates: Police conducts patrolling in affected areas for 'almost 12 hours'; toll rises to 27

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