Remaking the riot

Christophe Jaffrelot

In 1984 and 2002, thousands of people died as violence continued unabated for days, and, sporadically, for weeks. The Delhi riots appear to be part of a new pattern. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The recent Delhi riots have been compared to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. Their common features are obvious. First, in all the three cases, the police remained passive or joined the rioters. Second, these rioters were mostly activists connected to the ruling party. Third, in all the three cases, nobody was spared, not even the oldest members of the communities whose houses were set on fire. Last but not least, in the three cases, well-armed outsiders attacked pockets where members of the minority community lived in large numbers. In 1984 and 2002, thousands of people died as violence continued unabated for days, and, sporadically, for weeks. The Delhi riots appear to be part of a new pattern.

This pattern emerged in the 1980s when communal violence became a tool to polarise voters. This technique was systematically used during the 1989 election campaign in places including Indore and Jaipur. The maps of riots and the BJP’s electoral success almost overlapped then. A similar “coincidence” was clear in Gujarat in 2002. Thereafter, no mass violence of a similar magnitude has taken place. So, why has a previous pattern come back, though in a different form?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had blamed the Gujarat riots for the BJP’s defeat in the 2004 general election. However, some BJP leaders were keen to reinvent the polarisation strategy. After all, their party had lost the election despite the economic success — the BJP’s campaign slogan was “India Shining”. The 2004 results showed that economic achievements did not guarantee electoral victory. For instance, in UP, the BJP’s tally fell from 22 seats to 10 seats. So, the BJP leaders — Vajpayee retired soon after the poll debacle — proposed a revival of the polarisation strategy. The idea was to step up low-intensity riots.

Uttar Pradesh, a key state due to its large number of Lok Sabha seats, was the testing ground for this strategy that combined victimisation, outrage and polarisation. In their work, Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh, Sudha Pai and Sajjan Kumar describes the UP “model” of riot: “Rather than instigating major and violent state-wide riots as in the earlier phase, the BJP-RSS have attempted to create and sustain constant, low-key communal tension together with frequent, small, low-intensity incidents out of petty everyday issues that institutionalise communalism at the grass roots, to keep the pot boiling.”

This approach was motivated by political intentions, but not just that. The aim was no longer only to polarise society prior to elections for immediate electoral gains. The goal had also become the promotion of social and even “civilisational” majoritarianism in a bid to permanently Hinduise the country by terrorising minorities and delegitimising their cultures, and secularism — to create what I call a de facto Hindu Rashtra.

The second distinctive feature of this “model” has to do with the actors involved. To instill Hindutva ideology deep in the society, they had to further integrate the masses and promote what Pai and Kumar call the “non Brahmanical Hindutva”. The best way to achieve this was to proceed in a way the local Sangh Parivar leaders could recruit peripheral support for recurrent mobilisation. “This group often trains a larger fuzzier group, often the educated, unemployed youth in backward states such as UP who are treated as a reservoir of support during agitations and lie dormant during lean times,” Pai and Kumar write.

Third, these men were invited to take part in frequent and regular campaigns — against cow slaughter, conversion to religions other than Hinduism, inter-community marriages and so on. These mobilisations created an atmosphere of tension between Hindus and Muslims, making it possible to provoke a riot at the first available opportunity, as in Mau in 2005 and in Gorakhpur in 2007, and even Muzaffarnagar in 2013. The persistence of tension and the frequency of clashes were intended to prevent any return to normalcy — hostility between the two communities was supposed to become the rule, the new normal under which Hindus and Muslims were supposed to avoid interaction, a process running parallel to ghettoisation.

Implementation of this plan translated into a recrudescence of low intensity riots, enabling the Sangh Parivar to polarise society while staying “under the radar”, except when the number of casualties reached levels nobody could ignore — like in 2013 when more than 55 people died in western UP. Even when the violence was somewhat contained, the societal effects resulting from it were long term, as evident from the unprecedented ghettoisation the Muzaffarnagar riots started in rural parts of western UP.

In UP, between 2007 and 2017, the number of riots remained in the range of 580 to 943 annually, while the number of casualties remained much smaller than in Gujarat 2002 — 37 in 2012 to 91 in 2017. 2017 was a bad year because it was a very important election year for BJP, and particularly for Adityanath. Incidentally, the description of the rioters that Pai and Singh offer fit in well in the case of the Hindu Yuva Vahini cadres.

The recent Delhi riots partly fit in the Pai and Singh “model”. Indeed, their timing may not be explained only by the conflict between anti- and pro-CAA activists; it has much to do with the atmosphere created by BJP leaders in the context of the election campaign. But this time, riots took place after the polling days. They took place in some of the few consistencies that the BJP had won or lost with small margins.

In that sense, the Delhi riots have initiated a new pattern: They are not only intended to polarise, but also to teach a lesson to the Other. These ideas — of “revenge” and “lesson” — take us back to the killings of 1984 and 2002. The magnitude of Delhi riots may be different, but its impact in terms of ghettoisation will probably be equally strong. Mixed neighbourhoods are bound to further shrink in Delhi as they have in most of northern and western India (Muslims in Indian Cities, edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer). In that sense, the Delhi riots recall the long-term effect that the UP “model” of the 2000s was intended to achieve. The problem has become structural indeed.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris and professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute