Delhi violence: If capital can burn, what hope for India?

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Published: February 28, 2020 6:15:48 AM

Acid attacks & petrol bombs suggest riots were done to coincide with Trump visit, but police inaction unacceptable

That the problem got aggravated with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is clear; whether rightly or wrongly is the question. (Reuters image)That the problem got aggravated with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is clear; whether rightly or wrongly is the question. (Reuters image)

Ascertaining who was responsible for a communal riot, or the exact spark that set off a mob frenzy and arson is never easy, more so in a country where religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims are so deep-rooted. The fact that the rioting in north-east Delhi—that left 35 dead and over 200 wounded—started during US President Donald Trump’s visit suggests the attempt was to embarrass the Narendra Modi government and to show the world that it is anti-Muslim. But, that police personnel were attacked with acid and petrol bombs also makes it clear that the mobs were prepared for tensions to escalate.

Yet, as the Supreme Court has said, lives could have been saved if the Delhi Police had acted in time; indeed, the Delhi High Court has gone further, and said that it was amazed and anguished that the Delhi Police had not filed FIRs against the BJP’s Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, and Parvesh Verma for their hate speeches over the last several weeks. Justices S Muralidhar and Talwant Singh, in fact, played videos of their speeches, and asked the police commissioner to take a “conscious decision” on whether or not to register an FIR against the BJP leaders.

Amazingly, the police told the court that the word ‘gaddar’ used in Anurag Thakur’s speech didn’t specifically refer to any community; of course, it didn’t, but it was obvious given the context and occasion of the speech—that is why the Election Commission took action against Thakur.

The fact that the National Security Advisor (NSA) was asked to take charge of the situation once Trump had flown back is another black mark against the Delhi Police, which is already under a cloud after its action in Jamia Millia Islamia, and inaction in JNU. Indeed, newspaper reports of the NSA’s visit to the affected areas report him as replying, in response to complaints of the delayed police action, that the police would take action now. That the NSA had to tell riot victims that they had his word that action would be taken is a sorry reflection of where India finds itself today, with riots taking place in the national capital. If this can happen in the national capital, in the full glare of the media—most major media organisations are headquartered in Delhi-NCR—and where the top-most court of the country is located, what hope is there for justice in areas that are in the periphery?

That the problem got aggravated with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is clear; whether rightly or wrongly is the question. Many in the government as well as in the commentariat argue that the continuous protests—and indefinite blocking of roads if the government didn’t change its mind—were nothing but blackmail since every government has the right to determine whose citizenship it will fast-track; and there can be nothing wrong in doing this for persecuted minorities like Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs in neighbouring countries like Pakistan, and Bangladesh. This is obviously true, but there are caveats.

For one, the ruling party sought to tarnish the protestors as anti-nationals and pro-Pakistanis, and unleashed a high-octane campaign against them in the run-up to the Delhi elections; the fact that home minister Amit Shah later expressed regret over some of the statements suggests that he, too, felt some of his party colleagues were out of line. And, while it is true that the collegium had recommended transferring Justice S Muralidhar to the Punjab and Haryana High Court on February 12, the order transferring him came hours after he hauled up the police for not acting against the BJP leaders! Indeed, while Justice Muralidhar gave the police one day to take a call on filing an FIR, after his departure, the case has been postponed to April 13.

It also needs to be acknowledged that while the protests are about the CAA—and this is what makes them seem unreasonable—the real fear is about the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) that is expected to follow. While the government, including prime minister Modi, has repeatedly argued that there is no proposal to bring in an NRC, home minister Amit Shah has said many times—including in Parliament, and from his Twitter handle—that an NRC will follow. So, if protestors equate CAA with NRC, they can’t be blamed.

Wanting to remove illegal immigrants is perfectly legitimate; India has an Islamist problem and, indeed, an anti-immigrant wave is sweeping the world. Where this becomes worrying is the possibility that NRC will be used as a weapon against Muslims since the number of people—both Hindus and Muslims—without valid citizenship documents is truly large; indeed, an NPR/NRC is riddled with problems that will ensure millions of bona fide citizens will find it difficult to prove their citizenship (bit.ly/396JKp8). Over 12 lakh of the 19 lakh who couldn’t prove their citizenship in Assam were, as it turns out, Hindus; while their citizenship rights will be protected under the CAA, the same cannot be said of the Muslims even if they are bona fide Indian citizens.

Indeed, in a well-publicised case (bit.ly/2T2V53Y), the Gauhati High Court dismissed the citizenship claim of Nur Begum despite her submitting eight documents, including a 1966 voters’ list with her grandfather’s name, a 1997 voters’ list showing her father’s relationship with her grandfather, and three other certificates (including one from school) that showed her relationship with her father. Despite all the confusion over what documents conclusively prove citizenship, and what those without these are to do, the home ministry has done little to assuage fears other than issuing bland words of comfort. If Muslims, then, believe the NRC is certain to follow CAA, and that they will be targeted and deported, they can hardly be blamed, can they?

Few can argue that there will be no communal tension/incidents in a country where Hindu-Muslim animus runs so deep. But, it is worrying if government action is to exacerbate Muslim fears, if ruling party members—including members of the government—are to get away with inflammatory speeches, and if the police is to take no action when violence is taking place. That augurs poorly for the nation.

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