March 9, 2020 7:00:44 pm
Written by Avinash Kumar and Anup Agarwal
They were lying on the road, crying, scared, bruised, broken, and bleeding in broad daylight, on the streets of Delhi, robbed of their dignity. The rods of the heartless policemen looming large, forcing them to sing the national anthem while being beaten mercilessly.
This was not an isolated incident. Muslims and Hindus were up against each other in various localities across Northeast Delhi, including Mustafabad, Chand Bagh, Shiv Vihar, Karawal Nagar, Kardampuri, and Bhajanpura. For four days, riots raged on as neighbors were shot and stabbed, petrol bombs and tear gas shells were thrown, stones and bricks were pelted, houses and cars were burnt, and shops were vandalised and looted. A whole population will never be the same again, with wounds that will take decades to heal. Reminiscent of the pogroms of 1984 which engulfed Delhi, this was yet another blow, from which rehabilitation is a possibility, and reconciliation, an unlikely dream.
All this, coming within weeks of the thumping electoral victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections, calls into question the true meaning of the ‘development’ that Arvind Kejriwal claimed to be a ‘messiah’ of. Can development be limited to welfare schemes without any reference to larger social and political issues? Can any political party pretend that governance is only about service delivery and not about resisting deliberate sowing of hatred and divisions among the people in the name of religion or nationalism?
According to Amartya Sen, the five freedoms instrumental in development are social opportunities, protective security, transparency guarantees, economic facilities, and political freedoms. The recent violence in northeast Delhi illustrates in numerous ways how each of these freedoms of citizens were blatantly violated.
On February 25, a man showed up at Al Hind hospital with a grievous injury on his head. The doctors at Al Hind hospital provided the initial care but they did not have the specialisation and the equipment to manage him comprehensively. He was not alone, 12 patients with serious gunshot and stab wounds were at the hospital that night. The rioters and the police wouldn’t even let an ambulance enter or leave the area. The doctors sought help to transfer them to advanced facilities from everyone they knew, called up 102, reached out to the politicians, the civil society and the police. Relief came only after the court intervened in the middle of the night. This instance demonstrates how governments prevent certain groups from accessing social opportunities, such as healthcare.
A woman from Chand Bagh called a member of a rescue group formed by civil society organisations. She said, “the mob is right outside our lane, they are hurling stones, firing bullets, and burning houses. Eighty of us have gathered in one house; we fear for our lives – they will kill us all! What should we do?” This wasn’t an isolated incident. Overnight, the rescue team received more than 100 phone calls and Whatsapp messages. In their desperation, the rescue group members contacted every politician and police officer they knew in the city. Yet, the riots continued, abetted by an apathetic state for four days. While innocent people were being stoned, burnt and killed, the state deliberately waited over 48 hours to deploy the army. All this violated the freedom of protective security.
A father and son came from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, as his younger son had stopped answering phone calls. First time in Delhi, stationed at a homeless shelter in Kashmere Gate, overwhelmed by the vastness of the city, scared to travel by themselves, they would go on looking for the boy. Over the next four days, they would visit crowded lanes of Mustafabad, television studios, every hospital, every mortuary, seeing dead body after dead body, expecting it could be their son each time. Finally, they would find him. Dead, disfigured, bloodied, torn, emanating a pungent smell, in a gloomy government hospital mortuary. He lay in a gutter near Shiv Vihar for four days, before the authorities brought him to the hospital. And yet, their troubles were still not over. The hospital denied releasing the body, and they wouldn’t instantly conduct the post-mortem. A lawyer had to intervene to facilitate the postmortem. A corrupt and heartless bureaucratic system that doesn’t even care enough to release a dead body in such extreme circumstances: how could it guarantee the transparency to justly distribute financial compensation to the most vulnerable? The death of a 20-year-old, in the prime of his productivity is the biggest loss of economic facility to a whole family.
Finally, the spark for the riots was a lack of political freedom. Citizens of this country were asserting their right to protest, speaking up to protect their citizenship, their most fundamental right, the right that ensures access to all other rights. Such acts of dissent are the most important tools of democracy and prevent us from becoming a fascist majoritarian state. The silence of the Aam Aadmi Party on the violence against the anti-CAA protestors before the elections could be pardoned for short term electoral benefits, but the continued silence verify their Hindutva credentials and exposes its secular hypocrisy.
Development, without these basic freedoms of a particular segment of the populace, will not lead to societal transformation, just as literacy does not translate into education, healthcare does not translate into good health, and the presence of CCTV cameras do not mean law and order. A technocratic polity without a conscience that is focused on political gains can only contribute to the moral degradation of the society which participates in communal riots.
The politicians have a shot at redemption, by implementing a short, medium and long term transformative rehabilitation-reconciliation plan. The job of the leaders is not to just work on deliverables like bijli (electricity), paani (water), classrooms, and clinics, but also to ensure the basic freedoms and facilitate transformation of the social conscience. Congress has the legacy and BJP has Hindutva, but unlike them, AAP had the moral high ground, which it is fast conceding.
As Howard Zinn said, “You cannot be neutral on a moving train”.
Avinash Kumar is volunteer in relief work for the riots. Anup Agarwal is a medical Doctor and volunteer.
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