On 24 February, in the throes of Hindu-Muslim riots in northeast Delhi, various videos of the Delhi Police started going viral. One video showed the police harassing young, injured Muslim men. This kind of evidence helped cement the popular perception that the Delhi Police had either been complicit or negligent in failing to contain communal violence.
India has seen plenty of communal violence in the past, but in today’s time of social media, these aggressions are not just restricted to the regional or local population, the entire country is taken along. The fog of rumours, innuendo, and hate that act as kindling in a local communal clash immediately spread across India through social media.
This has reduced the social distance between local communal conflict and national communal polarisation. Today, a local communal conflict can be made a national issue in seconds, and a larger communal narrative can quickly be constructed from a patchwork of local incidents.
It might be tempting to see the phone videos as a democratic tool to educate the public beyond the dominant, communal narrative, but this would neglect the extent to which similar tactics are used by ‘the other side’. Just as police harassment of Muslims went viral, so did videos of a young man, purportedly Muslim, brandishing a gun at the police. Such videos were used to unfairly paint the rioters as an unruly Muslim mob.
We often analyse the role of social media in spreading fake news or in stoking communal passions. We rarely ask the opposite question. After a local communal incident has taken place, what is the role of social media? How has the speed and spread of information in the social media age changed the way in which communal violence is engineered? How does the popular penetration of social media change our theories of when and why communal violence occurs?
What we know about communal violence
The pressures of political correctness often lead analysts to ‘spread the blame’ in communal incidents. The empirical reality, however, is that violence is often disproportionately meted out to one group. The violence in northeast Delhi was no different.
Out of the 46 confirmed deaths in the Delhi violence, a predominant number were seemingly Muslim men. To be sure, the real number of deaths in communal violence is hard to ascertain and we may never know the true extent of the violence.
This scale of communal violence is often layered upon existing tensions. For instance, in the 2002 Gujarat riots, economist Saumitra Jha has shown that Gujarati medieval port towns, which had stronger social and economic bonds between Hindus and Muslims, were 25 percentage points less likely to experience communal rioting. This is consistent with foundational work by political scientist Ashutosh Varshney who has carefully documented how civic ties between Hindus and Muslims can prevent such incidents. Further investigation in violence-affected areas in northeast Delhi has found that communal tensions had been simmering for some time.
This scale of violence also often requires a political push. Political scientists Paul Brass and Steven Wilkinson have written persuasively on how political actors stoke communal passions for electoral and other political ends. The areas of Chand Bagh and Jaffrabad had been sites for the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Just days before the worst of the violence broke out, former minister of legislative assembly (MLA) Kapil Mishra, now a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), threatened to take matters into his own hands if the Delhi Police did not clear the protests. He has since shown no remorse for his actions — in fact, continuing to communalise matters further by only raising funds for Hindu victims of the riots.
Finally, there is ample evidence of state negligence or complicity in the violence. Whether it be the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, or the recent violence perpetrated by a Right-wing group at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), there is a common feature of the police standing down as mobs carry out violence — as this allows state actors to avoid direct culpability for the violence. It strains credulity to think that the same ministry that musters enough security forces to lock down Kashmir for six months cannot find enough security forces to stop communal violence in the capital of India.
New models of communal violence?
While what happened in northeast Delhi is consistent with previous explanations of communal violence, it also threw up some disconcerting new trends.
In the past, whether it be Muzaffarnagar in 2013 (harassment of a teen) or Godhra (burning of train coaches), we can explicitly pinpoint an adverse incident between Hindus and Muslims as the proximate trigger of the communal violence that erupted. An existing protest about the CAA is not the same sort of incident. Today, existing tensions between Hindus and Muslims can directly escalate to full-scale communal violence.
The timing of this communal violence is also something not predicted by standard models of political consolidation. The BJP had just come off of a drubbing in the Delhi assembly election; there was no obvious local electoral benefit to sowing violence in Delhi.
I believe this is where social media has changed our ‘traditional models’ of communal violence. Today, due to the speed and spread of information, communal violence in Delhi can help a party win an election in Assam and West Bengal. If violence in one part of the country can yield electoral benefits in another part of the country, then there no longer needs to be a local electoral incentive for communal violence, and there no longer needs to be a local trigger for the violence either.
Communal polarisation at the national level is now driven by stringing together disparate local communal incidents (often fake) to create a narrative — diminishing the role of local factors. Now that the Delhi elections are over, most believed we would return to normalcy after a poisonous electoral campaign. But, as Delhi grapples with its worst communal violence in decades, and that too after the election, we are forced to confront the new realities of old communal tensions in India.
The author is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.
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