Sunday, February 23, 2014

1984, 1993, 2002: Mass violence in India

Recently, there has been a bit of a flutter in the Indian media regarding an interview given by Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi family legacy and potential prime ministerial candidate from the Congress party  in the upcoming 2014 elections. At issue was a question put to him by the interviewer, asking him to compare two of the most horrendous episodes of collective violence in independent India.
The first of these happened in 1984, in the immediate aftermath of the  October 31, 1984 assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, Rahul's grandmother, by her Sikh bodyguards. Over the next few days, Delhi saw large scale violence against Sikhs, with marauding mobs hunting them down and killing them brutally, sometimes by pouring kerosene or petrol on them and setting them aflame. Somewhere between 2500 and 3000 people were killed. Homes, shops, and Gurudwaras were burnt down. Many incidents of looting and rape were reported. The police stood by and watched. In some instances, they actually participated in the violence. Local leaders of the Congress party led these mobs and assisted them with lists of Sikh names and residences. There were reports that the mobs were actually brought by bus to the various localities in Delhi. The leaders named most often as leading the mobs were Jagdish Tytler, H.K.L. Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, and Dharam Dass Shastri. Rahul's father Rajiv Gandhi, who was sworn in as prime minister on the day of the assassination itself, did not appear to be doing anything to control the violence. Home minister Narasimha Rao, a Congress party veteran later to become well known as a master of inaction, acted true to form, and did not do anything to curb the violence. There are persistent rumors that a decision to give rioters a free hand was taken at a meeting of Delhi Congress leaders which included Arun Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi's second cousin and right hand man at the time.
This pattern was followed in the Gujarat violence in 2002. The triggering incident was the death of 58 people, mostly Hindus, in a train fire at Godhra on February 27, 2002. The cause of the fire is not fully known, with independent enquiries calling it accidental and Hindu right wing reports labeling it an act of terrorism carried out by Muslims. For the next three days, Gujarat witnessed brutal violence against Muslims, with the eventual toll being about 2000 people killed. Many of the most terrible incidents took place in the city of Ahmedabad, in particular, at Naroda Patiya and at the Gulbarg Society, where tens of people were hacked, raped, and burnt to death. The dead included a former member of parliament called Ehsan Jafri, whose attempts to seek help from the police and officials of the Gujarat government were all in vain. Many horrific incidents, including the searing of children with swords and spears, pulling out of foetuses from pregnant women's wombs, etc. were reported. The mobs were led by Maya Kodnani, a BJP legislator, and Babu Bajrangi, a vicious, sadistic killer who belonged to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. For several years afterwards, these two individuals remained free, with Kodnani even being elevated to the role of Women and Child Development minister in 2007. Only with the setting up of a special investigation team by the Supreme Court of India did the process of punishing those responsible gain momentum. Kodnani and Bajrangi were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in April 2012.
There have been repeated charges against Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, of having been responsible for the violence. Other than the inflammatory rhetoric typical of Hindu nationalist politicians, the main piece of evidence against Modi so far is the testimony of a senior police officer, who claims that in a meeting on the day of the Godhra train burning incident,  Modi told senior police officials to let Hindus "vent their anger". These claims have been contested, and the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Supreme Court of India has not believed them.
One major difference between Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 is that the administrative and judicial machinery has managed to convict political leaders in the case of the Gujarat violence, albeit 10 years after the incident. For the Delhi violence, the pace of convictions has been glacially slow. As H.S. Phoolka pointed out in 2009, just over 20 people had been convicted in 25 years. This indicates that the perpetrators of the violence in Gujarat were not shielded as strongly by their political masters as their counterparts in Delhi were.
In today's political debate in India, these two incidents are inevitably linked together, mostly, but not solely by right-leaning outlets and opinion makers. There are indeed some difficult questions worth pondering: why is the Congress party, despite its professed secularism, any different from the avowedly Hindu nationalist BJP, as far as violence against minorities is concerned? Why is there such a benign view of Rajiv Gandhi, as opposed to Narendra Modi, who despite all the hype and whitewashing in the media, is seen  more or less as a fascist?
Mukul Kesavan, writing in the Telegraph, differentiates between the two parties by saying that the Congress is opportunistically communal, while the BJP is opportunistically secular. This distinction has the merit of highlighting the patterns of behavior shown by the two parties, but leads to the dispiritng, if rather obvious, conclusion that there is precious little to hope for from either party. Amartya Sen  has echoed this line of thinking, saying that the Congress has had no philosophy of killing Sikhs. The families of the Sikhs who died during the 1984 violence can justifiably find this to be irrelevant hairsplitting.
As for the benign view of Rajiv Gandhi, there simply seem to be no accusations that he orchestrated the 1984 riots, the most common charge being his statement to the effect that  "when a big tree falls, the earth beneath it is bound to shake". Indeed, Khushwant Singh, writing about this in 2005, says
 I don't think Rajiv Gandhi was himself a party to the anti-Sikh pogrom. If he was guilty of anything, it was allowing it to go on for two days and nights till his mother's funeral was over. 
As Mani Shankar Aiyar points out, Rajiv Gandhi's statement about a big tree falling was made in a speech given about 15 days after the riots, and is generally used without providing the context of other things said in the speech. In addition, the actual quote seems to be "For some days, people thought that India was shaking.  But there are always tremors when a great tree falls".  A charitable view is that this was just pointing out to the world that India had survived a very troubled period. Nevertheless, it was a terrible choice of words, and can be interpreted as justifying the violence.
The focus on 1984 and 2002 skips another major episode of violence, one that took place in Mumbai in late 1992 and early 1993, as a consequence of the Babri Masjid demolition. About 900 people, approximately two-thirds of them Muslims, were killed. The riots were followed by bomb blasts in March 1993, in which another 257 people, mostly Hindus, died. The Srikrishna commission, appointed to inquire into these incidents, clearly pointed out the role of the Shiv Sena, and its fascist leader Bal Thackeray in organising the violence. The commision's recommendations were never implemented. Rajdeep Sardesai, writing in 2013, describes what happened next:
Within two years of the Mumbai violence, the BJP-Shiv Sena government came to power in Maharashtra for the first time by claiming to be 'protectors' of the majority community. Far from being questioned for inciting rioting, Thackeray became the 'remote control' of the new government.
The regime virtually threw the Srikrishna report into the Arabian Sea by describing it as one-sided and biased. The police officers who were named in the riots report were either let off and, in some instances, even promoted. The Congress-NCP government, which came to power in 1999, also chose not to act on the inquiry report.
None of the riot cases were pursued with any vigour and in only five has there been a conviction. The only Shiv Sena leader of any significance who was convicted was its former MP, Madhukar Sarpotdar, for making inflammatory speeches. He was sentenced to one year in jail but was immediately granted bail on a surety of just Rs. 15,000.
The 1984 massacre was the basic template for other major incidents of mass violence in India in subsequent decades. These are all characterized by a similar pattern (i) some major incident takes place, which is seen as extreme provocation by Hindus in general (ii) brutal mob violence against a minority group, orchestrated by politicians, begins (iii) victims are systematically hunted down, with voter lists and addresses (iv) the police stand by, and often actively assist the marauding mobs (v) after two or three days, or after the deaths of a couple of thousand or so people, the violence is brought under control (vi) few people are prosecuted, witnesses are intimidated, and fewer people still are convicted and (vii) politicians go scot-free.

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