What is it about Muzaffarnagar? In his recently reissued book on the Emergency, Kuldip Nayar reminds us that in October 1975 it was the site of a ‘mini-Jallianwala Bagh’. This was the work of Sanjay Gandhi, now erased from the family history. He had decided to sterilise as many Muslim male adults as he could find. The Muslims of Muzaffarnagar did not like what was happening to them, protested and were shot. But at least that was not a communal riot.
Fast forward 38 years and we have a politically engineered riot. It is as if someone had written a screenplay for a suspense film. At first small incidents, followed by a bit of retaliation here and there. Then the pace picks up with a doctored film clip and passions are aroused. Before you know it, there are mahapanchayats and a full scale massacre. The police arrive too late—either under orders or just out of ignorant connivance—but the death and destruction are real.
A Dutch scholar, Ward Benenschot, has just written about the 2002 Gujarat riots. Riot Politics is a book which explains the relationships at the grass-roots which foment such riots. In normal times, citizens cannot get what they are entitled to from the state. They need agents, intermediaries. Their municipal councillor or MLA through their chamchas provide access to such services. Given the political colouring of the area, the Muslim MLA looks after Muslim clients and Hindus after Hindus.
When trouble starts, this useful machinery is turned into a fighting force. Then the clients who owe a favour to their leaders are used to throw stones and wield knives. This enhances the clout of their protectors who then get their votes. The riots do not normally last a long time. Soon, there is bonhomie among people who were burning each other’s houses. MLAs resume their helpful work and life reverts to normal.
Riots do not flare up if there is timely police action as soon as there is an initial disturbance. Police are often stymied by their political masters. There is vote bank logic in letting your clients suffer before you, their preferred political party, come to their rescue. If they are unharmed and police have done their job , how can the MLA get his kudos for protecting his clients? The cycle has resumed with a mahapanchayat in Meerut, in the BJP’s bid for Jat votes.
Uttar Pradesh will be the battleground for 2014. All parties want a large slice of its 80 seats. The four-cornered contest between the Congress, Samajwadi Party, BSP and BJP will be furious. Communal riots are being used to secure vote banks. Each side will blame the others but the BJP stands to lose most as it will be recast as the communal party, not as a governance one as Modi wants. This is just what the secular parties want.
One thousand communal riots have occurred in the past eight years. Yet the total number of dead was 965, less than one per riot. Muzaffarnagar with 48 casualties is an extreme case. The Muzaffarnagar riots have not yet yielded any serious convictions. It is not so much the MLAs and MPs who matter as they will get away scot-free in any case. One needs to arrest the real culprits at the grass-roots level.
There is here a paradox. Historically riots such as Bhagalpur, Meerut and Bhiwandi which happened during the Congress years in power did not lead to any serious convictions though to many reports and inquiries. The Gujarat riots have, however, led to convictions; in Godhra itself, both for the people who allegedly torched the Sabarmati Express carriage in which 59 died, as well as the Hindu mobs which killed Muslims in the Ode area. There are the Naroda Patiya convictions in which BJP member Maya Kodnani has been sentenced to 28 years. No doubt the tally is not over yet.
Is it not strange that no Congress leader has yet been sentenced for 1984 nor anyone for the Mumbai 1993 riots, or that the riots during Rajiv Gandhi’s days such as Bhagalpur have not led to many convictions? Is it because the Congress is secular that no riots during its rule can be communal?