Has the Narendra Modi regime normalised violence in a way that could hurt the Prime Minister himself? Has he created a Frankenstein monster that he cannot destroy?
That is the real question to ask, as we sit back and reflect on the Delhi violence that could have been a pogrom. It began on Sunday as a confrontation between police and protesters. After BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s provocation, it became a Hindu-Muslim riot on Monday. By Tuesday, it had become one-sided anti-Muslim violence that reminded everyone of 1984. I write these lines on Wednesday noon when there are some indications of the violence that engulfed the national capital for three days ebbing. Official death toll at this moment is 24 – informal estimates put it at double this figure – but there are no fresh incidents of murderous assaults of the kind we witnessed on Monday and Tuesday.
The violence that threatened to spread to other areas of East Delhi on Tuesday evening has been contained to the original hotspots in the northeast of Delhi. Mobs that were ruling the street Tuesday as Delhi Police personnel stood watching or joined them are finally being chased out. Our 24×7 crisis management and support team tells me that since Tuesday midnight, police are responding positively to their calls for help. The heroic 2 am intervention by the Delhi High Court to order police to allow safe passage so that the injured could be taken to the hospital has certainly helped. We may have just stepped back from the brink of another 1984-type pogrom in the national capital.
What saved Delhi from a much bigger disaster? And what led us in that direction of the disaster in the first place? Delhi riots conform to the good old wisdom about mass violence in India: political will matters. Our police force is not such a professional organisation that can be trusted to combat violence, no matter what the regime is like. Sadly, our police force is very pliable. Non-transparent recruitment, poor quality of training, inherited prejudices, shoddy working conditions, and lack of mechanisms of autonomy or accountability have turned our police into a force that the ruling party can bend to its political requirements. The police cracks down or looks the other way depending on how the political masters want it to.
This begs deeper questions: why was Delhi allowed to burn for two days? What was the political logic behind this violence? And why were the brakes applied when they were?
There are two obvious theories that answer these questions. Many Modi critics believe that this was part of a grand political design by his regime to silence its critics and the anti-CAA protests. His supporters have floated a theory that this was a Muslim conspiracy to embarrass the regime when US President Donald Trump was visiting India. Neither of these theories fits the facts of the case.
Given the track record of Modi and Amit Shah (Home Minister), it is easy to believe in any conspiracy theory. But the fact remains that the timing of the riots made no sense from the Modi regime’s point of view. The Delhi election was over. The US President’s visit mattered a lot to the Modi government, and, cringingly so, to the PM personally.
This was also a moment for Modi to recover his image in the global media, something he craves for. The last thing anyone in his position would have liked to see was the national capital up in flames along the divide everyone suspects him to be fuelling. Yes, Donald Trump is not exactly a bleeding-heart liberal. And he could be relied upon to spout inaccurate inanities when asked questions about religious tolerance in the press conference. Yet there was no way the bitter and embarrassing truth could be concealed.
More than its religious intolerance, what came across was the Modi regime’s tolerance of street violence and hooliganism, right under its nose. To a foreign investor, India must have looked like Pakistan or Nigeria. This must be a nightmare not just for the diplomats, but also for the political class. So, as soon as Trump departed and the political attention was back on Delhi, orders were given to stop the violence from spreading further.
The idea of a grand Islamic conspiracy to malign India during Trump’s visit is even more ridiculous. The fact is that the call for a Bharat Bandh was for 23 February, a day prior to Trump’s landing in Delhi. The call was not on CAA-NRC-NPR, but on the issue of caste-based reservations. This was not supported by any major organisation or coalition involved in the anti-CAA protest.
Predictably, the Bandh failed. Only three out of nearly two dozen Delhi sit-ins responded to this call for ‘solidarity’ by blocking nearby roads. Most anti-CAA protesters kept away, if not dissuade the protesters who blocked the road in Jaffrabad area. The protesters could be accused of irresponsibility or adventurism, but it would take special imagination to read into this isolated act in a corner of Delhi a grand conspiracy to embarrass Modi during Trump’s visit. At any rate, such a ‘conspiracy’ would not have succeeded without active collaboration by BJP leader Kapil Mishra and the street goons shouting Jai Shri Ram. Islamic conspiracy must indeed be grand if it can rope in Sangh Parivar cadre at will!
My theory is relatively simple. Modi did not want, far less design, street violence in Delhi during the high-profile visit of Trump. His opponents did not – and were in no position to – plan or execute this violence. But this was no accident. It was the result of a package of explosives that this regime has assiduously stacked together.
This stack has three elements. One, there is a climate of hate. In recent times, top BJP leaders have injected an incredible amount of anti-Muslim venom, fanned by the BJP’s propaganda machine and disseminated by the obedient mass media. This provides for dry ammunition, ready for a spark. It also keeps opposition parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) quiet, lest they lose Hindu sympathy.
Two, Modi’s BJP has also created an unprecedented career incentive for purveyors of political hatred. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s career graph shows a path to Kapil Mishras of the world. MP Pragya Thakur’s continuation in the party assures them of political immunity. Thus, there is a steady supply of adventurous ‘leaders’ ready to play with communal fire.
The third element in this equation is a pliant police and bureaucracy. Systematic assault on autonomous institutions has ensured that no one speaks up. After the criminal assault on Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), everyone in Delhi Police knows that it is wise to look away from violence perpetrated by goons affiliated to the BJP.
That is exactly what happened in northeast Delhi. BJP’s election campaign had spread hatred and distrust in the air. Kapil Mishra ignited it. The AAP government dithered. And the police looked the other way, even on a day that the PM may not have wanted this to happen. It needed a direct intervention from the very top to halt this normal pattern of violence from escalating further.
Come to think of it, this auto-triggered violence is more dangerous than a designed riot.