Hope for Delhi's ravaged communities lies in practical solidarity irrespective of faith, writes Susan Ram
There can be few parallels for the events of the past few days in India’s national capital. As if enacting a grisly surrealist pantomime, the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies (or so the cliché runs) conducted their first tète-à-tète on Indian soil in a context of the worst violence Delhi has experienced for decades.
Against a backdrop of deadly assaults on peaceful demonstrators, targeted attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods, the desecration of mosques, the burning to death of victims trapped in their homes, and the laying waste of significant swathes of Delhi – the Washington of India – Donald Trump and Narendra Modi had little difficulty in retaining their sang froid. In the joint press conference held at the end of Trump’s visit, neither seemed inclined to comment on the smoke wafting across the skyline. Hailing their new “strategic partnership”, Trump made a point of lauding his “good friend” Modi for his “commitment to freedom” and “religious tolerance”.
At the time of writing, 38 Delhi residents have lost their lives as a result of the mayhem. The homes, businesses, vehicles, neighbourhoods and hopes of thousands more lie in ruins.
The starting point for Delhi’s infernal descent was Sunday February 23 – the eve of Trump’s arrival on a two-day state visit, his first to India. Fired up by the incendiary rhetoric of Kapil Mishra, a local leader of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), far right ‘Hindu nationalist’ mobs wielding sticks and iron bars descended on those staging a peaceful mass protest against Modi’s new citizenship act (CAA) in Jaffrabad, a suburban township in the northeast of the city. Here, some 500 people, mostly women, had gathered to fight against the CAA and its partner legislation, the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Carrying the national tricolour and raising slogans of ‘aazadi’ (‘freedom’), the women had blocked a road and vowed not to move from the site until the Central Government had revoked the CAA.
With the foreknowledge and connivance of top BJP leaders and the Delhi police, Mishra unleashed a tide of devastation and terror that spread rapidly to nearby areas. By Monday February 24 (just as Trump, now on Indian soil, was doing the rounds of the Taj Mahal, a Muslim monument that even in Modi times remains a must-see for visiting bigwigs) a succession of neighbourhoods, all with substantial Muslim populations, had been turned into battlefields. Homes, shops and vehicles were set on fire, and the first killings took place or came to light.
By Tuesday, the conflagration was inexorably rolling on, impervious to lacklustre police measures. In Ashok Nagar a mosque was vandalised and set on fire, thugs scrambling up one of its minarets to plant a flag to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, on the summit. “Hinduon ka Hindustan!” roared the mob below: “India for Hindus!” By the afternoon, Hindu extremists were torching Muslim-owned shops and vehicles in Durgapuri. In Gamri extension an 85-year-old woman was burnt to death when a mob set fire to her house. Thugs wielding sticks and iron rods were now stalking the streets and alleys of a lengthening list of northeast Delhi neighbourhoods: Bhajanpura, Chand Bagh, Karawal Nagar.
And so it continued until belated police and army intervention, reinforced by stiff words from the Delhi High Court, which played video clips of Kapil Mishra’s speech, achieved some degree of normalcy. (The Delhi High Court judge who, while presiding over the bench, delivered some withering comments on the police response was transferred overnight to the High Court of Punjab and Hayana).
The state-sponsored violence inflicted on thousands of Delhi residents over the past few days reveals some of the characteristics of a sequence of pogroms that have disfigured India since Independence in 1947. As yet nothing has approached the orgy of killing that accompanied the partition of the country at the moment of its freedom from British colonial rule. But there have been too many ghastly instances of the targeted mass killing of people belonging to religious minorities: whether the Sikhs singled out for slaughter following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 or the Muslims of Gujarat, two thousand or more of whom perished during the 2002 pogrom facilitated by the state’s then Chief Minister: Narendra Modi.
This time round, it was the BJP’s poor showing in elections to Delhi’s state-level legislature earlier this month which evidently acted as the trigger. While the BJP holds all of Delhi’s seven seats in the national parliament (the Lok Sabha), at the municipal level (the National Capital Territory) power has for several years been in the hands of an opposition party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP – the Party of the Common Man). For reasons of prestige as well as political calculus, the BJP has made it a primary goal to wrest control away from this upstart outfit. To this end, a major offensive, led by Home Minister Amit Shah, Modi’s sinister and belligerent sidekick-in-chief, was conducted over the weeks leading up to the election on February 8. In this, the BJP deployed all its well-homed weaponry of war – the slick propaganda, the battalions of foot soldiers (on the streets and on social media), the bulging war chest delivered by India’s big bourgeoisie,. All to no avail. Yet again, the AAP emerged with a barnstorming majority: 62 out of a total of 70 seats. While the BJP achieved a small swing in its favour and gained five new seats, this was small consolation. Reprisals were clearly in order.
While punishing the recalcitrant voters of Delhi, the BJP has also sought to implicate the AAP in the violence. Recasting the victims of mob violence as the perpetrators has been developed to the status of a fine art under the Modi-Shah dispensation. When BJP-backed thugs armed with batons and iron bars entered the campus of Delhi’s internationally renowned Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to beat up leftist students on January 5 of this year, it was the upstanding student union president (who had received serious head wounds during the attack) who found herself facing criminal charges.
The JNU attack came hard on the heels of the mid-December 2019 assault, this time by police, on students of Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. Images of Muslim women students wearing headscarves forming protective walls around fallen comrades alerted people across the world to the resistance building in India to the Modi government’s racist, Islamophobic and divisive new citizenship laws. In every corner of India, a magnificent movement of peaceful mass protest was quickly taking shape. Mass rallies, sit-ins and occupations of public spaces have provided scope for people from a variety of backgrounds and religious faiths to come together and reaffirm support for the founding principles of the Indian Republic, including the commitment to secularism. Along with inventive homemade placards, participants brandish copies of the Indian Constitution. The prominent presence of women and girls has encouraged the mobilisation of new sections, including feisty Muslim women in their tens of thousands.
In this context, the readiness of the BJP to resort to naked terror has a clear logic. Firstly, the far-right, fascist-leaning party hopes to dismantle the formidable opposition ranged against it by deploying its vast army of ‘militarised’ supporters. At the core of this lies the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the secretive, avowedly fascist organisation, dating back to 1925, whose goal is to reconstitute India as an exclusively Hindu nation. The RSS membership, estimated at 5-6 million, engages in regular training in preparation for this coming conflagration; as such, it constitutes a classic instance of fascist organisation, geared to taking on the working class and the left as well as terrorising minority communities. Outside the RSS, if intimately connected with it, a range of other shady ‘Hindu nationalist’ armed organisations, among them the Bajrang Dal, similarly aspire to be battle-ready.
A second objective of the recent violence in Delhi may well be to provoke India’s Muslims into extreme, counterproductive forms of retaliation. No one would be happier than Modi and team to see a return of the hideous bombing campaigns conducted by radicalised Muslims in Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities during the early years of this century.
To prevent this, the mass movement of protest must be sustained and enlarged. If one positive feature can be extracted from the horror of the past few days, it is the readiness of so many Delhi residents, irrespective of faith and in many instances class, to provide wholehearted, practical support and protection for beleaguered Muslim neighbours.
In the end, it is this instinctive solidarity, rooted in years of shared experiences and living together, that has the potential to dissipate the foul atmosphere now enveloping Delhi’s ravaged communities. Along with the smoke from still smouldering buildings, there’s an altogether more menacing stench: insinuating, nauseous and horribly familiar.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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