Many learned people have been quick to draw parallels between the riots of Feb 2020 and the anti-Sikh pogrom of Oct 1984. The comparison may appear to be ludicrous. However, observers with perspective and experience cannot be stopped from making relative assessments of the two tragic incidents. Both of them took place in the national capital of Delhi.
In my opinion, according to one particular visual way, the Feb riots appeared to be comparable to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. In 1984, the entire nation - including the Sikhs - was glued to the television watching the funeral of the assassinated Prime Minister of India. Many Sikhs in Delhi who returned home in the evening after watching the cremation of Indira Gandhi found to their horror that their neighborhood was under attack; many of their houses had been set on fire.
Likewise, this time around, the whole nation - including the Delhi'ites - seemed to be caught up in the spectacle of the Trump-Melania visit to Gujarat. The great show put up by the Prime Minister in his home state appeared to have taken the attention of the people and his federal government - the crucial being the Home Minister - away from what was happening in Delhi. Intelligence gathering had indicated that something sinister might brew in Delhi during or following the visit of the US President and the First Lady.
In yet one more major respect, the two riots share similarity. Once again, the needle suggesting the ultimate responsibility for escalating violence stops at the law enforcing agencies, mainly the police. The law enforcement machinery is mandated to intervene the moment the first move is made with a view to disrupting the civic order. Blocking a major road or a public pathway without proper orders from the authorities is a disruption of civic order and a violation law.
The police in most such cases say they were not given free hand or proper authorization to deal with the situation. We are all so well familiar with this: Above the police on the ground are the higher officials and above them are the civic authorities who happen to be politicians.
From the story of the recent flare ups what I gathered is that Kapil Misra, the local BJP and pro-CAA activist, exhibited in his tweet how entrance and exit to the areas across the river Jamuna (popularly called Jamnapar) were sealed by the demonstrators opposing the CAA, many of them were the Muslim residents of that area. In addition to being a replication of the Shaheenbagh demonstration, obviously, unauthorized cutting off and isolation of a vast area would have been illegal and inconvenient to all -- Hindus, Muslims and the rest.
Kapil apparently issued an ultimatum (in the presence of a police official) demanding clearance of that unauthorized blockade by the evening. The implication was that if the police failed to do so, they (the people) would take up the laws in their own hands. The police should have moved into action to avoid a conflict.
The press and the opponents of Kapil interpreted his ultimatum as an extreme provocation and possibly the starting point of the escalation.
The reality is the provocation first came on the scene when a section of people masquerading themselves as anti-CAA demonstrators sealed the major roads and stopped the flow of traffic. Kapil’s response might have been threatening or, in today’s noisy uncivilized way of life, way out of the track. But he was representing the right demand of the people.
Unfortunately, India currently finds herself at a point in history where people seem to be far removed from the truth and reconciliation. We perceive and project reality according to our own biases. Even the judiciary, the courts, administer justices in ways that are highly controversial.
On the Shaheenabagh issue, the Supreme Court dragged its feet and didn’t deliver instructions that would have facilitated execution of the law and order. It granted by implication legitimacy to a group of people who had continued to violate the laws. Even if it chose the path of mediation, it should have first asked for the clearance of the blockade and restoration of public convenience. The result was for everyone to see: the parties grew recalcitrant that gave encouragement in other places to replicate the same lawlessness.
We the people have also become prisoners of our own prejudices. We selectively pick up a series of incidents that suit our own narrative. That tendency has always been there. However, in this day and age, social media makes us feel more comfortable in our own echo chamber. Recall, how neighborhood rioters were proclaimed as Jamila Milia University students; how the responsibility to initiate violence in January on the JNU campus wasn’t pinned on the Students’ Union leaders who had forcibly prevented students from registering.
Indians have to rise above political party or caste-communal interests and do what is best in the interest of the nation and the vulnerables. Pattern of violence and riots isn’t new to India. In any outbreak of major violence, the so-called minorities might first appear to be overwhelming, but in the end, they are the worst sufferers because the majority comes down heavily on them with the aid of the state machinery. Communalism on one side feeds the other.
In between, sadly, the everyday citizen interested in educating their children and leading a normal life of happiness also pay a heavy price through their lives and treasure.
Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.
Dr. Prasad administers a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.