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Left and liberals should stop looking for the perfect victim in Delhi riots

There's damning evidence of state complicity in the Delhi communal riots. This matters more right now.

Rioters set ablaze a shop during clashes between those against and those supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in northeast Delhi's Gokulpuri, on 25 February | File photo: PTI
Rioters set ablaze a shop during clashes between those against and those supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in northeast Delhi's Gokulpuri, on 25 February | File photo: PTI

Social media has been consumed in the last few days in futile, and often unresolvable, arguments over which ‘side’ — whether ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ mobs — committed which particular atrocity. These slanging matches are not just unseemly but also divert attention away from the one clear fact that matters right now — the state’s complicity in the riot, in which at least 42 people have died so far and more than 250 injured.

A section of the Left liberal and Muslim intelligentsia has become overly invested in the ‘perfect victim’ narrative. This narrative insists that there was either no violence committed by the Muslim side or the violence committed was purely ‘defensive’. This insistence draws them into dissecting each episode of violence for ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ mob responsibility.

But in the Hobbesian mayhem of riots, there are rarely ever perfect victims. Unless a minority community is rendered powerless by its meagre numbers, such as in the case of the 2002 Gujarat riots or the 1984 Delhi anti-Sikh riots, there would likely be no singular victims or perpetrators. Muslims account for approximately 30 per cent of the population of Northeast Delhi, the epicentre of the violence.

Truth, especially in an event as murky as riots, is messy. And when we become overinvested in narratives, we either deflect from or reflexively dismiss any evidence that might complicate our narrative of an incident.

Also read: Lies are the staple of every communal disturbance and Delhi riots are no different

Avoiding the ‘one-sided violence’ narrative

While much of the violence from the Muslim side might have been ‘defensive’, there has emerged, in what has to be acknowledged, a significant body of evidence that indicates targeted attacks on Hindus by ‘Muslim mobs’.

In Brahmpuri, for instance, a mob surrounded a Hindu father-son duo passing on a motorcycle, lynching the father and severely injuring the son. The son recalls the crowd chanting Muslim religious slogans. Another Hindu resident of Brahmpuri was stoned to death. The barricades that overnight sprung up in the lanes of this region Tuesday, for ‘security’, were enacted by both Hindus and Muslims.

According to an article in Scroll, “roads on both sides of the canal” in Brijpuri that indicated areas of Hindu and Muslim majority were found “strewn with bricks and..lined with charred shops”. Other accounts of the events in Brijpuri Tuesday suggest the existence of rampaging mobs from both sides. 

The family of Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma has emphasised that it was a Muslim mob that was behind his disappearance (and killing) from Chand Bagh.

Clinging to a purely ‘one-sided violence’ narrative in the face of such evidence would neither be moral nor prudent. 

The debate over these riots must not be allowed to devolve into who killed whom or a macabre comparison in body counts. Even if some Muslim mobs carried out targeted attacks, the political and moral responsibility of the violence would still rest on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its underlying ideology of Hindutva.

And acknowledging the Hindu victims of these riots (the Hindu death toll is now a double-digit figure) isn’t preventing scholars like Ashutosh Varshney from terming the violence ‘pogrom’. Varshney, who is one of the foremost researchers on riots, notes that pogrom mainly means when violence against an ethnic minority is organised and “officially condoned by authorities”.

The clips showing Delhi Police either looking on or abetting the Hindu mobs certainly demonstrates this culpability of the state authorities. Indeed, as Varshney noted in a tweet on 26 February: “Delhi riots of this week are now beginning to look like a pogrom…”

Also read: Kejriwal is wrong. Delhi to Gujarat, outsiders blamed in riots, but most victims know attackers

The three stages of Delhi’s riot production

The most damning evidence of state complicity is the very fact that riots continued unabated for several days.

Steven Wilkinson, who has compiled and analysed several decades of data on riots, concluded in his book Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India that “in virtually all the empirical cases I have examined, whether violence is bloody or ends quickly depends not on the local factors that caused violence to break out but primarily on the will and capacity of the government that controls the forces of law and order.” This is because, Wilkinson cites studies to argue, rioters are “unwilling…to confront armed and determined police who are prepared to use deadly force to stop them”.

What is important is not the patchy details of a communal riot, which deflects from the ruling party’s complicity, but the dynamics of what political scientist Paul Richard Brass calls the “institutionalised system of riot production.”

Riots, Brass writes in his book The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, are not spontaneous eruption of mass frenzy but carefully produced, like a theatrical production.

The Delhi riots perfectly display all the three phases of Brass’ system of riot production, and demonstrate the sole responsibility of the ruling party.

The first is preparation, where Hindu-Muslim tensions are kept on the boil through various inflammatory and inciteful acts. This was achieved during the 2020 Delhi assembly election, where the centrepiece of speeches of Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was stoking fears and anxieties over protesting Muslims.

The second is activation, where (political) leaders signal the start of violence and mobs are led to activate the violence. BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s speech, and the arrival of Hindutva mobs on the Jaffrabad protest side on the first day of violence, precisely encapsulates the second phase.

The third phase is explanation, which we are entering now, where the cause of the riot would be obscured, and violence would be presented as spontaneous eruption of religious passions from both sides. It should be noted here that liberal journalists who present the ‘clashes’ as ‘political Hindutva vs radical Islam’ must desist from falling into this trap.

Also read: Delhi riots neither designed by Modi govt, nor Islamic conspiracy. It’s far more dangerous

Holding BJP to account

It suits the BJP if the framing of the violence is done mainly in terms of the competitive victimhood or relative responsibility of Hindus and Muslims. After all, the very purpose of riots, according to Wilkinson, is to be “a solution to the problem of how to change the salience of ethnic issues and identities among the electorate in order to build a winning political coalition”.

A more sagacious strategy, then, would be to move beyond this plane and emphasise the question: ‘Who let Delhi burn? And why?’

In our polarised times, it is the latter question that is more likely to inflict political and moral costs on the BJP, and hold it to account.

Also read: The Delhi pogrom 2020 is Amit Shah’s answer to an election defeat

As Brass notes, the duty of public commentary in the aftermath of a riot is to “fix responsibility and penetrate the clouds of deception, rhetoric, mystification, obscurity and indeterminacy”.

The author is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Views are personal.