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,