When one wants to write about riots in India words fail. Whatever you want to say about a riot, it would seem, has already been said, including possible headlines. Even book titles. They’ve all been used and reused many times, in one form or another. ‘Riot after riot’ or ‘Anatomy of a riot’, for instance. The former being the title of a 1991 book by M.J. Akbar. In those days he loathed and reviled the RSS, blaming it for riots in India. Today, he would call it differently.
Of course, times have changed. And with the times, the blame-game too. But one line lingers in my mind from Akbar’s book. “Lies are the staple of every communal disturbance,” he had observed.
Indeed, the shocking evidence of stockpiles of weapons, including crude bombs, country-made firearms, and lethal projectiles exposes the lies in the “spontaneous uprising” theory. Hundreds of empty cartridges and rounds of gunfire, with over 80 sustaining bullet injuries and a body-count of 42. Planned and purposed disturbances to coincide with US President Donald Trump’s India visit?
It is against such lies that I write this column. Those lies, sedulous or seductive, that we allow to creep into our souls. The lies that corrupt and contaminate both our polity and civil society.
As also, our individual lives and our precious conscience, which is blunted, deadened or destroyed by them. Nothing is unholier or more hideous than such lies. Lies that corrode our very beings.
Even the emotions that accompany lies get tainted. Emotions, such as rage or fear, hatred or revenge, stripped of sympathy or compassion. Of what worth are such emotions? Or empty words that accompany them?
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A partition within the country
The picture of a city divided, so movingly flashed on national television, remains stuck in our mental screens.
Under the Jaffrabad Metro flyover in Delhi, a barrier divided two communities, Hindus and Muslims. Like a border or boundary right within our own country. An internal partition in the capital of the nation.
Mobs on each side of the partition pelting stones, bricks, rocks, and other dangerous projectiles at one another; the police chasing one group now, another group then; smoke and dust engulf the surroundings; acrid flames of burning tyres; shops shutters down, but still set afire; a menacing, muscular man brandishing a country revolver pointing it at a law-enforcement officer. Across the barrier, shots going off at random and petrol bombs flung from rooftops.
Right next to a young female reporter, who is repeatedly asked her name, lies a dead body in the middle of the street, left abandoned, unclaimed. Someone’s son or, perhaps, father. Mutilated. Or charred beyond recognition.
All this was happening nowhere else but in one’s own city. So lived in and loved. Home to close to twenty million souls.
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When my city burned
As a Delhiite and citizen of India, I too am stunned and shell-shocked as my city — one of the world’s great, historic capitals, the site of ancient civilisations and the heart of a modern republic — limps back to normalcy after a devastating outbreak of dreadful violence.
Over forty persons dead. Both Hindus and Muslims, almost in equal measure. What is worse is the horror of several unidentified dead, in fact, close to a third of them, listed simply as “unknown”. Why “unknown”? Shouldn’t they have the dignity of being called Indians? Or will we start asking for papers of the dead? And what about the manner of their slaughter? Physical assault, stabbing, gunshots, stone-pelting: the official terminology cannot hide the disgust and inhumanity of our own acts, which resulted in their untimely deaths.
This is what we have done to each other. Let us get out of this atrocious blame-game that has now engulfed us. Let us take responsibility for what happened. No one should try to escape blame for the Delhi atrocities. Instead, let us all own up to our misdemeanours, whoever we may be — ministers, lawmakers, politicians, policemen, journalist, analyst, intellectuals, commentators, agent provocateurs, paid arsonists, assassins, professional agitators, neighbourhood musclemen, casual combatants, amateur rioters, unwitting participants or ordinary Delhiites. All those who had both something to gain and something to lose. Both perpetrators and victims. Accomplices and witnesses. Active contributors and passive onlookers. Social media crusaders and unorganised hate-mongers. Let us all admit to our own share of responsibility.
Riots, like wars, begin in the minds of men. But their cure lies not in men’s minds, but in their hearts. It is hearts that we must try to heal.
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Nothing right about a riot
Even as we try to recover from this riot, we must recognise the deep psychic wounds, not just body blows it leaves behind. To nurse and repair our divided city, we must first remove animosity from both our hearts and minds. We must also deplore those who incite hatred, whatever their reasons or justifications may be. Mutual recriminations, retaliation, mimetic acts of viciousness or violence — all these need to stop forthwith, regardless of which side we are on politically or ideologically.
The state must maintain law and order. It must protect the lives and properties of its citizens.
We must rise as one to take our stance against such riots as we have witnessed. “Riot” may well half-rhyme with the word right, but there’s nothing in the least that is right about it. It is all wrong, from start to finish. It is unacceptable in today’s India. It must not be allowed to fester or explode again. That is the message that we must shout out loud as Indians.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.