The Hindu Middle Class Is Driving Opposition Silence On Delhi Riots, Says Author Revati Laul

Betwa Sharma
·12-min read
A Muslim girl is consoled in a shelter camp after she and her family fled their home during the Delhi Riots in February.  (Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters)
A Muslim girl is consoled in a shelter camp after she and her family fled their home during the Delhi Riots in February. (Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

NEW DELHI — At a press conference in June, eight lawmakers denounced the arrest of the students and activists who had protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act in December and January and were subsequently blamed for the Delhi riots in February. This video conference organised over the Zoom app in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was attended by six of Muslim MPs and two Hindus, one from the Communist Party of India and the other from the Rashtriya Janata Dal. One journalist even asked what it said about the state of the Opposition when such a press conference was called by a collective of human rights defenders instead of a political party.

The communal violence in northeast Delhi in February claimed the lives of 53 people, including 40 Muslims, and more Muslim that Hindu homes and shops were destroyed, according to a Delhi Police affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court.

In its aftermath, the Delhi Police, which answers to the Narendra Modi government, have pinned the Delhi riots on the students and activists behind the mostly peaceful CAA protests, while leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Kapil Mishra and Anurag Thakur, whose hate speeches are in the public domain, are free.

HuffPost India spoke to Revati Laul, a political analyst and author of The Anatomy of Hate, a book on the 2002 Gujarat riots, about the Congress Party-led Opposition’s reaction to the communal violence back then, and the silence of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party on the Delhi riots in the political landscape of Hindu majoritarianism that exists today.

Laul, a reporter of 25 years, who covered the Gujarat riots, traces this silence to rise of an “illiberal” middle class as a dominant political entity since India’s economic liberalisation in the 90s.

“The problem is not with Kejriwal or Modi,” she said. “The problem is with our middle class that is constantly making right wing Hindutva-vadi leaders succeed one after another whether it is in the government or in the Opposition. This is a mirror of who we are as a middle class.”

The problem is with our middle class that is constantly making right wing Hindutva-vadi leaders succeed...

The political landscape in 2002.

In 2002, even though the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government was in power at the Centre, it was an NDA where the various allies of the BJP had some power and some say. It was a much less unipolar alliance than it is now. Like the Samta Party (12 seats), which is why George Fernandes was given the defense portfolio. Not just the NDA partners had a say within the government, but the whole parliamentary system functioned a lot better. The Congress had many more seats (BJP - 182 seats, Congress - 141 seats). Now, the Congress is a zero voice. Now, the only party visibly performing the rule of the Opposition is the Trinamool (All India Trinamool Congress or TMC).

The Prime Minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had famously said that he was considering having Narendra Modi sacked as Chief Minister of Gujarat for his alleged political complicity in not containing the violence. A lot of what Vajpayee said can never be taken by any serious political journalist. I was a reporter at the time and it was clear that there was a lot of doublespeak within the BJP at that time. But the fact that Vajpayee needed to articulate that he wanted Modi out and condemn the violence tells you that communal violence was not an acceptable political position to have. In 2007, the Gujaratis voted for Modi overwhelmingly, but nationally and internationally 2002 was viewed with a lot of disfavour.

What did the BJP take away from the 2002 riots?

When they lost (the Lok Sabha election) in 2004, they understood that it was largely because their development platform didn’t work, but also because their consolidation of Hindu voters was not complete. It was a half realised goal that would take the next decade to complete.

There were several significant things in that decade. India had been liberalised since 1991. That made us much more dependent on the market and therefore the middle class became the largest political voice, which the Congress did not recognise. Post 2009, you can see the middle class that had been illiberal for a very long time but was not recognised as a political entity was going to snatch power for itself. The BJP recognised it and gave it that space.

What did this mean for the Congress Party?

There was an acquiescence across the board, including in the Congress, that Hindutva politics is the only politics and that there would be soft Hindutva in order to appease the middle class. And they fell on their faces as a result. They have been eclipsed into nothing as an Opposition party.

The centralising force that BJP and Modi have come to represent from 2014 onwards further weakened an already hollowed out parliamentary system that has been on shaky grounds since the economy was liberalised, it became more market driven, many more MPs (Members of Parliament) have assets worth Rs 50 to 100 crore minimum in order to contest an election. All those things have weakened the checks and balances and the ability of the Opposition to have a stridently different voice from the ruling party. The parliamentary system has become such a centralised one-person show that the Opposition has been obliterated. There isn’t any. And that is why there is a different response to the Delhi violence as compared to 2002.

The parliamentary system has become such a centralised one-person show that the Opposition has been obliterated. There isn’t any.

What about the Aam Aadmi Party?

It is not a coincidence that Arvind Kejriwal, who is the next big leader on the political landscape after Modi, forms a new party that is also rightwing. It is not a coincidence that the Opposition is also of the same stripe as the main party. The problem is not with Kejriwal or Modi. The problem is with our middle class that is constantly making right wing Hindutva-vadi leaders succeed one after another whether it is in the government or in the Opposition. This is a mirror of who we are as a middle class. This is not about individual politicians. It goes much deeper than pinning the blame on two masks. When you unmask them, you see yourself. And that is what we refuse to look at and that is why structurally we never addressed it.

It goes much deeper than pinning the blame on two masks. When you unmask them, you see yourself.

There was pushback from the Opposition in 2002.

It was very palpable to anyone reporting at the time that the Opposition vehemently condemned the 2002 violence. They laid it at Modi’s door saying that you are the Chief Minister of the state and if it has happened in your state then you are to blame for it. You are to blame by omission or commission and at that time they blamed him by commission. From the leader of Opposition in Parliament Sonia Gandhi to the Left parties. The Left parties still stay the same thing but they hardly have members in Parliament (5 seats). But at that time, it wasn’t like that. There were MPs from the CPI, CPI (M), the Forward bloc (43 seats). In 2002, the Trinamool had tied up with the NDA, and BSP was in and out of bed with the NDA.

Samajwadi Party.

The Samajwadi Party had condemned 2002 in the strongest possible terms because its vote base is Muslim.

It did not condemn the Delhi riots.

They were a marginal voice then (20 seats), and a marginal voice now (five seats), if you look at the national level politics. The strongest voice then was the Congress Party and everything has gone missing with their collapse. Its voice is obliterated. No other Opposition has taken its place. No other party has built itself up with a base and a cadre. But civil society is still very robust. What’s happened is that the Opposition has got confined to spaces outside Parliament. There are a few MPs that are speaking but they are speaking to their regional audience. There is no Opposition that is speaking to a national audience.

The strongest voice then was the Congress Party and everything has gone missing with their collapse. Its voice is obliterated.

Did the Opposition sustain its criticism of the 2002 riots?

What happened after 2002 is that the victims looked desperately towards the Congress in Gujarat for help and the Congress was seen to let them down massively when it came to actually holding their hands through riots cases, but civil society stepped in. The Congress was singularly missing from the picture at the regional level. At the national level, they were consistently and stridently against this. That began to change post 2009-2010. In UPA (United Progressive Alliance)- 2, they were on such shakey ground. The shifting sands of various political parties ate up all their time and they were paralysed by that. After 2009-2010, the Congress had begun to be the Congress we see today. Basically, a tired party that has stopped fighting in ever diminishing circles of existence, both ideologically and physically in terms of cadre. In states that they used to be strong in the pre 2002 era, they started losing ground very quickly. The middle class gained ground there and they wanted the Hindutva identity politics.

After 2009-2010, the Congress had begun to be the Congress we see today.

The BJP also became more strident in saying what about the anti-Sikh riots.

That whataboutery is just for TV debates. It does not have any real value on politics on the ground. It is just something that the BJP can use to silence the Congress in a TV debate, which they do, but there is enough ammunition that the Congress can use. It (anti-Sikh riots) has no value for the voter on the ground or the shaping of party policy.

What is the difference in how the public reacted to the Gujarat riots in 2002 and the Delhi riots in 2020.

We are talking about two different countries. We are talking about two different states and people that are two or three generations apart. They are not the same people. People who have been through the Delhi riots would not even know that 2002 happened. The next generation of people in Gujarat today do now know about 2002 unless they are Muslim. Hindus do not know. You can’t draw any lines.

Even if the people are different, there are times when a nation’s conscience is shaken. The Delhi riots is not one of those times. What about the Gujarat riots?

That same year, Modi carried out a Gaurav Yatra to restore the pride of the Gujaratis. But there are layers to this. On the surface, it may have looked like the rest of the country did not like what had happened in Gujarat, but there was a growing dark mass that — although Modi denies having said every action has an equal and opposite reaction — began to feel this irrespective of whether Modi said it or not. And this is something that was worked on. People began voting for that kind of politics. If there were other potent political forces present in our midst, they would show themselves, but they don’t because it’s not there. There might have appeared to be a vehement condemnation by the nation, but this was on the surface. There isn’t any such thing as a national consciousness. There never has been in this country. It’s too diverse, differentiated, and there are too many layers. The opposite of anything is also true at the same time.

There was a significant amount of condemnation of 2002 that appeared in the national media and that people assumed represented the voices of its readers — the middle class. That condemnation has broken down because the national media has started to behave very differently now. I think there is a lot that is coming apart but it will not show for quite some time. We don’t know for how long. There is a lot of dissent but in a centralised failed parliamentary democracy how is one to discern that, unearth it and see it? What are the avenues of representation when the media is functioning as the arm of the government.

The media then and now.

There was a different media then and a different media now. And the media then did not function as much as a PR agency of the government then as it does now. It was much more diverse. And much less controlled by one political party. There is the English media, Hindi, the national media, the Gujarat media. There have different audiences and different consumption patterns.

What difference has technology like WhatsApp made?

Rumours spread. Technology only adds a layer to what is already there. WhatsApp makes rumours spread faster. But rumours spread very fast. I will give you an example that I used in my book. The day that the riots began on 28 February, 2002, one of my protagonists was fed a rumour — he was a member of the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and Bajrang Dal and later became a member of the BJP as well. He was made to believe that Muslims had either raped or molested Hindu women and Hindus must come together to protest themselves from marauding Muslim mobs. He did not watch any TV. There was no WhatsApp. He did not have a mobile. The number of people who died in that violence is far greater than in Delhi that is in a WhatsApp space.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.