Riot-starters as regime changers
There are some striking parallels between the happenings in Syria and those taking place in riot-infested Western Uttar Pradesh
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Communal tensions can be controlled before they escalate into full scale riots. This was the assumption and belief with which many district officials operated in Uttar Pradesh and in other states with considerable success. Another related imponderable that impacted communal violence is the role of politics—or, to be precise, whether a political party came to power through minority votes. If indeed it did, as in the case of Uttar Pradesh, then that government invariably protected the minorities against majoritarian violence.
In deconstructing riots in such a manner, it seems that the country had found a solution to the issue of riot management. For 12 years, no big riots took place in India, as citizens devoted their energies to the pursuit of capital. Now, unrest has reared its ugly face again. All these long-held assumptions about taming the riots have been shattered ever since violence broke out in Western Uttar Pradesh a few months before the Parliament elections. Although the elections are long over, killings continue unabated. Why is it happening? Are local social methods used for controlling riots not working? Is there an extraneous factor that keeps the communal cauldron boiling all the time through targeted killings, and churning of the rumour mills? Even before we can investigate certain credible conspiracy theories—of countries that have become a hunting ground for mercenaries, covert operatives and other agent provocateurs who prosper in the deaths and killings of ordinary people—we must explore how established paradigms proved so weak in this new round of violence.
The Jat and Muslim alliance that underpinned the region’s communal amity proved so fragile that it could not really withstand the pressure mounted by politicians to reorder society according to their divisive imagination. Not only was the party that had tweaked this relationship—Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal—wiped out, but communalisation of votes took the wind out of the ruling party in Lucknow.
The Samajwadi Party government attempted to choke other parties, like Congress and BSP that were vying for minority votes, by allowing space to Hindu religious organisations in performing certain rituals. This move was quickly followed by pursuing aggressive and preposterous minority appeasement policies that incensed the majority community. The impression grew that the ruling SP government had ordered state police not to register crimes against Muslims, even when they involved crimes against Hindu women. Some of these cases were inflated and made up, but so low was the credibility of the police and the state government that there was no one who could do a fair arbitration to the satisfaction of the incensed communities. Besides, the conflict was feeding the age old insecurities amongst the Hindus that their daughters were being entrapped by young boys of the other community. Dressed up in post 9/11 vocabulary, these ‘Love Jehadis’, by implication, were performing a religious duty by using their charms to lure nubile young women to their fold. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 were triggered by one such incident.
Since then, scores of such episodes with nary a flavour of communal unrest have spun out of control because of clumsy-footed administration. Many contradictory narratives were sent out on social media, with people on both sides believing whatever they wanted to believe. False pictures and videos transmitted through Whatsapp and Facebook added to the pandemonium. People eagerly consumed unsubstantiated tales of gore and violence, enthusiastically passing them around to friends and relatives.
In this very chaotic scenario, some officials have done their job quite well in standing up to the challenge of those using riots to re-order societies as vote banks. Some police officials, like SSP Dharamveer Yadav, valiantly stood up to the pressure exerted by the local BJP leadership. Some in the administration realize that much of the violence was systematically unleashed before the Assembly elections. According to investigations conducted by a prominent newspaper, more than 600 riots have taken place since May 16 in Western Uttar Pradesh. These riots have mostly taken place around the issue of putting amplifiers outside places of worship. In Kanth, Moradabad, the nasty face-off was between Dalits and Muslims over the use of loudspeakers. As media investigations have shown, a major reason for the confrontation between Dalits and Muslims may have been over the use of public address systems, but there is a larger game plan to prevent Dalits and Muslims from coming together—a coalition that Mayawati has been trying to forge for a while, with limited success. Even before the Parliament elections, there were reports of small riots between Dalits and Muslims sweeping Western UP. A source told this writer that the spats were reordering support bases in a manner not seen before. The method evidently put the lower castes—Dalits—and their traditional tormentors—the Jats—on the same side of politics. How did that happen? Not only were the lower castes promised co-option in the larger Hindu family, there was also the troubling aspect of land-grabbing when- and wherever Muslims were ousted. Increased valuation around Delhi is perceived as a major reason to occupy victims’ lands. Following the Muzaffarnagar riots, the government has so far failed to restore the lands lost by those forced to flee.
As inhabitants of a prosperous area are more likely to try to avoid violence, the belief persisted that after the elections people would go back to the ordinary business of life. That hasn’t happened yet. In fact, random killings and allegations of rape have aggravated the situation, which could evolve into something far more incendiary than what has been witnessed before.
Local newspapers are full of stories of how hooded motorcyclists have been stopping stray people, asking their names and shooting them. This is a pattern reminiscent of random killings that triggered off sectarian clashes in parts of Pakistan and even Syria. In Homs, Syria—where this writer visited at a time when violence was slowly acquiring fearsome proportions—there was talk of random sniper shootings and hooded murderers who would kill for no apparent reason. This sort of wonton aggression has contributed much to undermining the power of the police and local administration, as well as triggering a cycle of endless bloodshed. Who are these outsiders who don’t want peace to return to this prosperous region? What do they really want? Is it short-term or will it be allowed to fester till the region becomes hellish? As sectarian fires burn in the Arab world and parts of South Asia, confusion prevails about how this will all unravel, especially with a new government in Delhi that has its own views on how minorities should conduct themselves.
Some international agencies have begun to see a parallel between the happenings in UP and those in Syria. It may be far-fetched, but if the police and the government do not step in firmly and resolutely, the hate that has been methodically spawned could make the images of Partition look tame in comparison.