“We’re holding back for
now—once Trump leaves, Muslims will not be safe.” That was a local priest at Babarpur
in northeast Delhi, centre of the anti-Muslim violence rocking the national
capital. Even as the US President and his entourage were sitting down at
Raisina Hill to a dinner curated by five star chefs, violent mobs roamed the
streets of trans-Yamuna colonies just a few miles away, looking for a fight
with the residents. Reporters on the scene spoke of policemen looking on or
looking away, or saying they had no orders to intevene. By the end of the fifth
day the death count stood at 42 (over 50 now), including a head constable and an Intelligence
Bureau operative, hundreds were injured and two mosques among the property
destroyed. As an introduction to the new India this was a unique window into
the contradictions of a government at war with its own in the capital’s worst
violence since 1984.
Perhaps it is a bit early to pass judgement but certain facts stand out. In the recent Delhi elections the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won a landslide in the Lok Sabha election, suffered a rout. But it made a strong showing in the East Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, winning two seats. This is the scene of the violence. Its large Muslim population and shady reputation, for drugs and gang violence, are further attractions for anyone looking to muddy the communal waters.
And there seem to be many, ministers, MPs, CMs, ex-MLAs and assorted BJP strongmen during an assembly campaign notable for extremely provocative language against Muslims. Union home minister Amit Shah was particularly active in whipping up emotions. Union minister of state for finance Anurag Thakur went a step further, calling BJP’s opponents traitors who should be shot. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was more careful his language was equally polarising. In effect, they were telling voters, either you’re with us or against us. You’re Muslims or traitors, or both.
The ostensible bone of contention was the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) but the real target was chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, his Aam Aadmi Party and Muslims, not necessarily in that order. Delhi voters rejected that hate decisively but neither Shah nor Modi seems able to process defeat, personally or at party level. The rioting, caused mainly by police inaction, raises questions when we remember that Amit Shah as Union home minister controls Delhi Police. How does he explain such gross incompetence? This was a riot that energetic police action could have contained swiftly. But it continued for three days. So either he is not fit for the job or kept the police from doing theirs. That is an entirely different charge, dereliction of duty, plain and simple.
As for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recall that at the start of the anti-CAA rallies he said protesters could be identified by their clothes, meaning they were Muslim. But this is the smallest of infractions. Modi’s tenure has been marked by a trashing of institutions in the service of suppressing dissent. And Muslims, increasingly insecure since BJP victories after 2013, are the biggest targets of vigilante violence but neither victim nor survivor even looks like getting justice.
Politicians are by nature thick-skinned but this Prime Minister seems so insecure that he hasn’t given a single press conference, not even at the one Trump held forth so volubly, providing answers to all and sundry. The riots in Delhi began on Feb 23 and got worse by the day but he found time to address it only four days later with a pro forma appeal for all to stop the violence. There was no reference to police culpability in the riots. Perhaps he was too busy with the really serious stuff, like great deals with his good buddy Donald, to pay attention.
On the face of it, the Delhi riots are an embarrassment to the government, exposing its incompetence. To the ruling party, however, it has incalculable value as a tool to polarise voters. Having made a dog’s dinner of the economy in its first term, sab ka vikas is a dead slogan. The calculus of hate is its best bet as a vote-getter in future elections. From that perspective Delhi is more like job done, as good a way as any to distract attention from the economy. It may be just the beginning of a new cycle, given that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh face assembly elections later this year and next year. With the Ram temple at Ayodhya due to rise imminently, there’s a world of opportunity for Muslim-baiting triumphalism. This final solution could make Delhi look like a small foretaste of things to come.