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Genealogy of a Pogrom

Reflections on the mob violence against Muslims in Delhi
Photograph of Indian police walking through a neighborhood in Delhi

Communal violence is a structural given of Indian society. In seventy-odd years of independence, hardly a season has passed without murderous attacks on vulnerable castes and religious minorities—crimes that generally go unprosecuted. Even pogroms have a long history here. In Delhi in November 1984, nearly three thousand Sikhs (official figures peg it at 2,300) were butchered in just three days, as mobs incited by leaders of the Congress Party engulfed the city in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Though the scale of the carnage was different, there are parallels between the events of 1984 and the horrific attacks on Muslims in northeast Delhi last month. In both cases, the state remained a bystander, while the perpetrators—drawn largely from among the foot soldiers of the ruling party—were allowed to wreak mayhem. However, in the state-led dominant discourse, the “de-nationalization” of the Sikhs had begun earlier, to counter the Khalistan movement for a separate Sikh homeland that had erupted in the 1970s. The movement gained sizeable support among the Sikh youth after Indian army’s Operation Blue Star (1984) to flush out militants from the Golden Temple collaterally resulted in killing of a huge number of pilgrims and destruction of the shrine. When the prime minister was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards as an act of revenge, the Congress Party flagrantly communalized matters. Eliminating a Sikh body was made into a kind of “national cause”—a means, no matter how grotesque, to reaffirm one’s patriotism.

The Delhi attacks likewise come in the wake of mass protests, with a proud and visible Muslim presence, against 2019’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which introduces a religious qualification for citizenship, offering undocumented migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan a route to naturalization, provided they are not Muslim. (In this it resembles the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany and Law of Return of Zionist Israel). The CAA, coupled with the currently stalled National Register of Citizens, threatens to deprive a large section of India’s Muslims, now forced to scramble to find the right “papers,” of their citizenship entitlements. It represents yet another step in the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s decades-long campaign to denationalize Muslims. The powerful civilian resistance evidently upset the government. “Bharat Mata ki jai” (Glory to Mother India) and “Jai Sri Ram” (Glory to Lord Ram) reverberated in the air as armed Hindu men went around in the third week of February, punishing Indian Muslims for their opposition to Mr. Modi’s diktat.

The violence began on February 23, 2020, and continued unabated for the next two days: as stone pelting and intermittent skirmishes between pro and anti-CAA factions gave way to targeted attacks by armed Hindu gangs on Muslim lives, their homes, petty establishments, mosques, and madrasas. Credible accounts confirm that the marauders were allowed a free run and were even given an occasional helping hand by the police, arguably making the state complicit in the violence. Video images now floating across social media platforms capture the callousness of the officials and the participation of a section of the constabulary. Not a single shot was fired to restrain the mobs, even though the dead include a policeman.

For most of Delhi’s middle-class residents, the violence seemed to be happening at a distance, perpetrated on a shadowy populace who deserved it.

The slaughter strangely coincided with the state visit of President Donald Trump to the city—it was his interactions with Modi, not the mob attacks, that India’s television stations chose to cover—which now serves as an alibi for the city police to explain its state of inertia. As of this writing, the death toll has exceeded fifty, with several still missing, and many killings may remain unreported. Scores of others have been left brutalized, with severed limbs, gunshot wounds, acid burns, lost livelihoods, and scarred memories. (A fraction of those killed and injured are Hindu residents, as well.) Reports make it clear that this was a premeditated terror attack, not an impulsive outburst.

The Northeast district of Delhi, the main theater of violence, is a working-class neighborhood that has endured years of neglect and suffers from a scarcity of amenities. Nearly one third of its population are Muslims who either are daily wage earners or work in the low-paid, unauthorized sweatshops that dot the area’s congested lanes. There are others who over the years were able to establish their own shops, businesses, and trades—many of which were gutted in this communal fury.

The Northeast never features in representations of Delhi as a global city. The miserable Muslim poor have been entirely removed from the dreamworld of the middle class, an economic and spiritual apartheid whose depth was made evident by the shocking indifference with which a majority of Delhi-ites ignored this public pogrom. While the capital’s northeast district was burning, for the rest of the city-dwellers it was business as usual. Offices, shops, footfall in the malls and the theaters, schools and colleges, traffic snarls—the ingrained routines of metropolitan life remained unaffected. For most of Delhi’s middle-class residents, the violence seemed to be happening at a distance, perpetrated on a shadowy populace who probably deserved it.

This is not to suggest that middle-class Hindus have no culpability in what happened. For years they have been perpetrating hate from their living rooms and offices, spreading a continuous flow of venomously anti-Muslim online material: distorted images, rabid speeches, and disinformation meant to keep the pot boiling. Even as Muslims were being killed on the streets, WhatsApp groups of old schoolmates, resident welfare associations, citizen groups, and sundry other groups participated in the virtual propaganda war, tacitly registering their participation in the kill-fest. This cocktail of apparent apathy, even callousness, and hateful online messaging shows the extent to which majoritarianism has come to shape ordinary Indian/Hindu selves.

The BJP’s thumping victory in the general elections last year reflects the consolidation of right-wing hegemony in India. The party initially rose to prominence in the late 1980s, when it took up the cause of building a Ram temple in place of historic Babri mosque at Ayodhya (this is known as the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign). The eventual demolition of the mosque in December 1992, a crime in which several BJP leaders were implicated, only cemented the party’s newfound popularity among Hindus. The period also coincided with the liberalization of the country’s economy and the consequent expansion of the urban middle class, who became the BJP’s social base. Since then the party has advanced a two-pronged strategy—pathological nationalism that survives on minority-baiting on the one hand, and a fanatical neoliberal commitment to economic developmentalism on the other—that has come to find wider favor in the country, among both the affluent and the impoverished.

Asad Ashraf

Yet it would be a mistake to measure the BJP’s power in purely electoral terms. Its ultimate aim has always been to reconfigure India—which is nominally a secular, democratic country—along principles of racial purity, religious nationalism, and ethnically differentiated citizenship. In pursuing these goals, through both political and cultural projects, the party has brought about an astonishing change to Indian society, weakening governmental institutions, unleashing communal demons, eroding the rule of law. Today it would be at best a half-truth to describe India as a constitutional republic: for foundational ideas of democracy, freedom, and justice have been turned upside down. Vigilante groups and lynch mobs are free to kill Muslims and instill fear in the community. BJP leaders are allowed to openly spew hate speech, even calling for violence on the Muslim community. Television media parrots and amplifies the government’s communal line. In courts, justice has come to mean reparation for imagined historical wrongs on the Hindu community. For instance, last year the Supreme Court ruled that a Ram Temple should be built on the site of the Babri mosque.

The speed with which India has embraced such virulent forms of Islamophobia cannot be explained by the BJP’s propaganda alone. The party has taken root in soil that was already communalized. The loyalty of Muslims, India’s largest minority, has been held suspect in the majoritarian narratives ever since Independence and partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Equating religion with a form of a nationality, Hindu nationalist thinkers have presented Muslims as a fifth column for Pakistan.

Yet this portrayal of Muslims predates Partition. Its origins go at least as far back as the nineteenth century, when a modern “Hindu” consciousness was being forged in the crucible of colonialism. Drawing on British orientalist historiography, which presented Islam as a “foreign” religion, Hindu reformist thinkers came to imagine the modern nation of “India” as a spiritual homeland for Hindus, besieged by foreigners both European and Muslim. Over time they developed a baroque, hoary mythology about the so-called Muslim conquest, focused on the forceful abduction, violation, and conversion of Hindu women by Muslim men. In the early twentieth century, as colonial institutions based on communal representation were opened to the natives, a panic around shrinking numerical strength, not to mention physical and political potency, became entrenched in the Hindu nationalist imaginary.

This form of “othering” has found its most virulent expression in the discourse of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the cultural outfit which essentially controls the BJP. Founded in 1925 in Nagpur by a group of upper-caste Brahmins, and explicitly modelled on Mussolini’s fascist party, it is the oldest, largest, and arguably the most successful far-right group in the world today. The RSS instills in its cadre a ferocious hatred of Muslims, who are viewed as a barbaric internal enemy—fanatically driven by the sword, hypersexual, and bearers of divided loyalties. Writing in 1939, one of the organization’s longest serving chiefs, M.S. Golwalkar, laid down the conditions under which the Muslim could be accepted into India: they would be “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s right.”

For the RSS, stereotyping and demonizing of the Muslim has served the equally important purpose of cementing the Hindu nation, beleaguered as it is by its own internal segments of hierarchically organized caste groups, cults, and sects. V. D. Savarkar, perhaps the most influential Hindutva ideologue, spelled this idea out in his 1923 tract, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu, a founding document for the far-right Hindu movement: “Nothing makes [the] Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with non-self. Nothing can weld peoples into a nation and nations into a state as the pressure of a common foe.”

The Hindu right remained politically marginalized for the first four or so decades of Indian independence. Yet during this period, the RSS spread its communal venom at the grassroots level, indoctrinating youth at its schools, spiritual camps, and “shakhas,” or training units in villages and towns across the country. (The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a cultural organization that provides the shock troops for the RSS, also participated in numerous communal attacks across the country.) Things changed in 1990, when L. K Advani—a RSS graduate and the then BJP president—embarked on a Rath yatra (roughly “chariot pilgrimage”), traveling with followers across North India, holding politico-religious rallies at which he exhorted Hindu youth to join the Ram Janmabhumi campaign.

Advani’s Rath Yatra, which left a trail of communal killings and destruction in its wake, was finally abandoned when he was detained in Bihar by the state’s secular chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. But by that time his task had been more or less achieved—the forging of a new Hindu public for whom secularism, a constitutional guarantee, was reinscribed as minority appeasement towards Muslims. Indoctrinated into the Hindutva ideology, right-wing Hindus began to demand sovereignty of faith over state in matters related to Hindu religiosity. In this pernicious new discourse, any advance in the protection of minority cultures or demands of parity between Hindus and Muslims came to be dismissed as “pseudo-secularism” (this remains a popular term of abuse in right-wing Indian circles).

The persistence of communal violence in India has prompted two broad responses from liberal intellectuals, neither of them really satisfactory. One school, comprised largely of Gandhian and other anti-modernist thinkers, has come to question the very efficacy of secularism in the Indian context, underscoring—more or less—the concept’s foreignness. It is unreasonable, these thinkers argue, to expect the Indian masses to cast aside their religious attachments. Instead, they seek to recover an “ancient” tradition of authentically Indian tolerance, rooted in religiosity yet simultaneously secular, which they offer as an antidote to rising fanaticism. The weaknesses of this position are self-evident. In the first place, the “Indian tolerance” narrative is based on an idyllic past which never existed; episodes of communal violence, as historians like Christopher Bayly have showed, occurred even in pre-colonial India. More perniciously, this anti-secular argument caters to the Hindutva theory that Hindus are an innately “tolerant” people, led astray (probably by the bloodthirstiness of Abrahamic faiths). Indeed, the anti-modernists offered a counter politics uneasily reminiscent of nineteenth century Hindu cultural rejuvenation.

The police and security apparatus of the state has viewed minorities—be it Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs, or Adivasis (Indigenous people)—as the nation’s demonic other.

The other response comes from modernists and left-wing intellectuals, who insisted on a stricter application of the principles of secularism. They endorse something akin to the French practice of laïcité—an equidistance from all religions, a wall of separation between church and state, and the idea of a rootless, abstract citizenship. Under the cover of neutrality, however, this modernist approach frowns upon minority protection—such as affirmative action for Muslims and separate marriage laws— condemning these as illiberal and divisive. In an unfortunate way, this attitude too resonates with the Hindutva critique of the “pseudo-secular” state.

In any case, such discussions were largely limited to academia. Since independence, the Indian state’s actions have been governed by pragmatic considerations, rather than any lofty secular or constitutional principles. The Congress Party and other secular parties, which have ruled India for much of the past seventy-odd years, blended elements of both the contesting views: without really giving up on majoritarian rhetoric, they kept hopes in the system alive for the minorities. Thus, every incidence of violence against minorities, was almost invariably followed by institution of Inquiry Commissions, pronouncements of compensations, and assurances of justice—seldom if ever met. In sum, the Congress regime practiced a kind of ambivalent secularism, a half-hearted commitment, that made symbolic gestures towards the minorities when in distress while condoning communal violence at the ground level.

Worse still, entrusted with the task of securing the nation, the police and security apparatus of the state has viewed minorities—be it Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs, or Adivasis (Indigenous people)—as the nation’s demonic other, essentially sharing the attitude of the criminals they are tasked with restraining. The record of state complicity in communal violence is long and dismal. In Moradabad in 1980, the police opened indiscriminate fire on protesting namazis at an Eidgah leaving hundreds dead; in Hashimpura in 1987, police rounded up forty-two innocent men, and their decomposed bodies were fished out later from an irrigation canal; in Bhagalpur in 1989, violence raged on unabated for nearly two months, and the needle of suspicion pointed to the top brass of the city police, who delayed filing of First Information Reports (FIRs) against the real criminals, then filed FIRs against unknown persons—even when perpetrators were recognized by victims—conducted shoddy investigations, thus ensuring impunity; the Srikrishna Commission Report set up to investigate the Mumbai “riots” that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, listed eleven incidents in which thirty-one police officers were found actively participating in violence targeting Muslim residents. And this is not even considering police complicity in the caste atrocities and land-grabs of Adivasi territory that are the ambient violence of modern India.

The malevolent pragmatism of the Congress Party has now given way to a more full-blooded, and brash majoritarianism under the BJP. We were given a taste of the BJP’s “handling” of communal violence in 2002, when the state of Gujarat, then overseen by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, witnessed a horrific, protracted anti-Muslim pogrom—an event widely understood as marking a turning point in Indian politics. The trouble is said to have begun when fifty-odd Karsevaks (RSS activists), returning from Ayodhya where they had been agitating for the Ram temple, were mysteriously burnt to death inside a train. This incident is supposed to have provoked three months of retributive attacks against Muslims, a reign of terror and unspeakable barbarism that left nearly two thousand dead, besides numerous others injured and uprooted.

The malevolent pragmatism of the Congress Party has now given way to a more full-blooded, and brash majoritarianism under the BJP.

Accounts of police officials and findings by citizen’s groups highlight how the rioters were allowed to take their revenge on ordinary Muslims. Indeed, this was probably the first time in modern India that the state made no pretense of neutrality and impartiality during the orgy of rape and killing. All through the pogrom, local police either watched as bystanders, or actively participated in the crimes, while the central reserve were prevented from deploying. In terms of logistics and mechanics of violence, Delhi in 2020 mirrors what was seen and observed in Gujarat in 2002. In both cases, the attacks were sophisticated—gas cylinders, usually in short supply, were aplenty and produced in advanced, used to burn down shops, houses, mosques and schools. Then as now mobs moved into the lanes and bylanes of localities with diverse populations, and with near immaculate precision, were able to distinguish what was Muslim from that which was not—which rebuffs the argument that the violence was spontaneous.

In the aftermath of the Gujarat brutality, Modi’s state government came down heavily on Muslims accused of burning down the train carrying RSS activists, trying them under the freshly minted anti-terror law, POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act). By contrast, the Hindus accused of arson and killing, on the other, attracted the provisions of ordinary Indian Penal Code. Muslims, who by far made up the majority of victims, were being framed as perpetrators simply on the basis of their religion.

The BJP response this time around has been more galling, if that is at all possible. After the killings in Delhi, there was not even the fig leaf of posturing from the ruling party: no imperative to assuage memories of brutalities, no assurance of reparations, little talk of relief camps for victims. Home minister Amit Shah’s remarks about the attacks in Parliament was illuminating. He offered no community segregated figures of death and destruction, placed the burden of igniting and inflaming violence on Muslim activists and anti-CAA protesters, and spared even a mention of leaders from the Hindutva camp, many of whom were caught on camera making incendiary speeches. In a nutshell, the BJP government imputed that Muslims inflicted violence upon themselves, as they did on some Hindus. Shah assured the Indian people that the perpetrators would be made to pay for their intransigence.

Riots in India have been typically followed by efforts to displace blame. And when the victims of violence are disproportionately Muslim, as is usually the case, attempts are made to justify the perpetrators’ crimes. “Every action has its reaction,” Modi infamously declared in 2002, implicitly blaming the Muslims for the savagery unleashed on them, while also subtly making a case that the Hindu violence was a just and spontaneous response.

Even mainstream politicians and commentators tend to occlude history when discussing communal attacks, reducing events to their immediate trigger: whether it is an allegation of cow slaughter, sacrilege of some kind, or an innocuous flare-up involving members of the two communities (from the early history of Hindu-Muslim violence, the nodes of incitement, which implicitly lay the blame on Muslims, have remained virtually unchanged.) A new paranoia of the Hindu right is “love jihad,” the idea that Muslim men lure innocent Hindu women into romantic relationships, and by extension, into global jihad (though this also reworks the staple of Hindutva trope of hypersexual Muslims). Yogi Adityanath, the BJP monk turned Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, called upon Hindu youth to entice a hundred Muslim women for each reported case of “love jihad.” Such narratives, invoking fear, terror, and horror of the other, are the routine precursors to conflict, a match that sets off a familiar flame.

The very sight of a Muslim has become an anathema to the Hindutva consciousness.

What is novel about the Delhi pogrom is that there was no identifiable trigger, though the BJP has made some efforts to concoct excuses in retrospect. After all, the anti-CAA protests, despite innumerable provocations (including threats from gun-wielding vigilantes) have remained adamantly peaceful. Constitutionalism has been celebrated; portraits of the document’s architect, Dr. Ambedkar, adorned the walls of various protest sites—a display which exposed the thinness of right-wing commitment to constitutional values. The protestors also have felt compelled to reaffirm their own patriotism, decking various occupations with the national flag, which amounted to breaking up the BJP’s vile monopoly over national allegiance.

But for the killers, who set out in the garb of pro-CAA protesters, such gestures meant little. No amount of patriotism would douse their blinding fury. No symbol of constitutionalism was sacred in their eyes. And indeed in India today, no longer do terrible crimes need be attributed to the Muslim to legitimate her brutalization. And no amount of structural humiliation—incarcerations, disenfranchisement, relentless economic marginalization—will satiate the Hindu right’s bloodthirst. The very sight of a Muslim has become an anathema to the Hindutva consciousness. It would appear the long-drawn project aimed at weaponizing the supposedly “Hindu nation” is at last complete.