While explaining the causes behind the recent incidents of communal violence in India, Ashutosh Varshney (‘Sparks, not fires’, IE, October 30, iexp.in/BZf123337) urges us to keep three factors in mind — income levels, Hindu-Muslim ties and Modi’s political strategy — and concludes that the communal strife will remain limited to “small disturbances and not big conflagrations”. Varshney has completely ignored several crucial aspects that have kept the communal cauldron burning. Though there are several sweeping generalisations and assumptions in his analysis, I will limit myself to raising only a few of the fundamental flaws in his argument.
One of the major problems with Varshney’s analysis is that he places too much significance on local Hindu-Muslim relations. More often than not, bad Hindu-Muslim relations are a result of communal rioting rather than the other way around.
I want to begin with Bhagalpur. Bhagalpur witnessed one of the worst communal carnages in independent India, where over 1,000 persons, mostly Muslim, were massacred in a matter of days in October 1989. Before this, Hindu and Muslim neighbours lived next to and mingled with one another, and close cultural, social and business ties existed between the two communities. They participated in each others’ religious festivities, their children went to the same schools and they understood each other’s religious identities. So what happened to all this bonhomie? Did it just disappear overnight?
The three-member commission of inquiry that investigated the reasons for and role of state functionaries in the Bhagalpur massacre blamed the local police and civil administration for not just severe lapses, but active complicity in fanning and encouraging the anti-Muslim carnage. Because the state institutions completely failed to control and stop the violence, the situation got out of hand. The shameful stories of police indifference or worse, complicity in the carnage, were repeated across Bhagalpur. When Terah Mile, a village in Bhagalpur town, was attacked, the police did nothing to stop the rioters. Instead, eyewitness testimonies reveal, they encouraged the mob to kill and pillage Muslims. Assistant Sub Inspector Ram Chander Singh led the massacre in Logain village, where more than 100 Muslims were slain and buried in a mass grave. To conceal the horror, cabbage was planted over the grave.
But the pattern of communal violence in Bhagalpur was no exception. The communal flare-ups in Meerut and Muzaffarnagar last year belie Varshney’s over reliance on Hindu-Muslim ties. Meerut has a history of communal rioting compared to Muzaffarnagar where, until recently, Hindu-Muslim relations were not hostile but cordial. So why did Muzaffarnagar in 2013 witness the most severe episode of communal violence in all of Uttar Pradesh? The answer is simple. The local administration did not prevent the Hindutva groups from creating an atmosphere ripe for a communal flare-up or from subsequently holding a mahapanchayat that led to mass violence across Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. But by the time the communal violence was going to spill over to Meerut and other parts of western UP, it was evident that there were going to be no political gains for the incumbent Samajwadi Party government, and the state administration sprung into action, successfully preventing the violence from escalating. Local Hindu-Muslim relations thus had little to do with the severity of the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. Its cause wasn’t the existing fissures in relations but the cold and calculated strategies of political parties and the complicity of the administration.
Successive commissions of inquiry into incidents of communal violence, including the B.N. Srikrishna Commission, which investigated the 1992-93 Bombay riots, have concluded that the police and state administration have, at the very least, failed to prevent violence against minorities, even if they were not complicit in perpetrating it. Whenever the district administration has failed to act on time, communal violence has caused huge loss of life and property. On the other hand, timely steps taken by able local administrators have prevented communally tense situations from spiralling out of control.
Varshney makes an incoherent argument about ineffectual bureaucracies and their administrative capacity to control riots. Again, the use of the term “administrative capacity” in the context of communal violence in India is not sufficient. Whenever communal violence has been allowed by the state and district administrations, it has been a question of “administrative or political will”, rather than capacity.
During the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, the then superintendent of police, Bhavnagar, Rahul Sharma, was able to ensure the safety of Muslims in the area under his control. He had the same means at his disposal as his colleagues in the police and administration.
So, clearly, it was not a question of administrative capacity but of administrative will to control the situation.
There is hardly any example of police officers, bureaucrats or politicians responsible for failing to prevent communal violence or participating in it being severely punished. Which brings me to another important element that was missing from Varshney’s analysis. This has further emboldened persons who instigate and commit such crimes. The victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi still await justice. Most of the guilty, including top politicians, remain at large. If the perpetrators of the Nellie massacre of 1983 had not received de facto amnesty thanks to the Assam Accord of 1985, it would have been a deterrent against future violence. Although the accord did not pardon heinous crimes, the district courts and administrative machinery interpreted it as a blanket amnesty for all crimes committed during the Assam Agitation, including the gruesome Nellie massacre.
Varshney also makes a strange distinction between small and large riots, and suggests that small skirmishes and not major riots can be expected. According to him, the way in which Narendra Modi uses his power to combat ground-level strategies will ultimately determine how far communal violence goes. Is the process of communal polarisation on tap that it can be turned on and off as per the convenience of a ruling party or leader? When an atmosphere conducive for riots is already created, it only needs a spark to cause a fire. Besides, there are hardly any examples in the last six months of Modi sending out a message to show his displeasure when senior party functionaries and even Lok Sabha members publicly indulge in vicious communal politicking. In fact, riots have already knocked at the door of Delhi.
Finally, the framework of communal riots that Varshney employs is inadequate to examine and understand the last 30 years of communal violence in India. Beginning, perhaps, with the Nellie massacre of 1983, the term “communal riot” is a misrepresentation. As we saw with the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, the communal violence had become an out-and-out one-sided massacre of the Sikhs. It was a one-sided pogrom. The one-sided massacres of Muslims in 1983 in Nellie, Assam, 1989 in Bhagalpur, Bihar, and 2002 in Gujarat were also not communal riots but pogroms. If we do not acknowledge this distinction and continue to theorise under the wider umbrella of “communal riots”, we will undermine the brutality of the communal violence that has been perpetrated in the last 30 years against religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Communal carnages cannot happen without state complicity.
The writer, a Delhi-based lawyer, previously worked at the International Center for Transitional Justice, New York, and Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi