It’s the same old story: Nero fiddled…

It’s the same old story: Nero fiddled…

Jo hua so hua: Can those who stood by and watched Delhi burn be called ‘leaders’?

Delhi Spotlight _ 1 March

At Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in north-east Delhi’s Dilshad Garden, a few kilometres away from the localities hit by the riots, two hospital staff were wheeling out a dead victim to the mortuary while a young man with bullet injuries on his right hand was walking into the emergency ward on February 26 afternoon. It was then that Congress leaders Alka Lamba and Shivani Chopra dropped in and walked up to Medical Superintendent Sunil Kumar, who was interacting with a group of journalists. Before the duo could say anything, a middle-aged woman suddenly shouted at them near the emergency ward, “where were you since Sunday (February 23, when the clashes started)? Why are you not on the streets, ensuring peace? What are your leaders doing?” The two leaders tried to pacify her but the angry woman walked away unconvinced. It was the fourth day of violence.

The outburst at Lamba and Chopra, who were defeated in the recent Assembly elections, was not directed at them alone. It was an exasperated citizen’s anguish as police walked alongside rioters doing nothing to stop them, sometimes even pelting stones along with the troublemakers. In one case, they even pushed a riot victim down and made him chant a slogan even as he writhed in pain from the blows rained on him. There were bigger ‘leaders’ to be shouted at, but they were not to be seen. No political leader of weight was seen taking a leadership role to quell the tension, except for a tweet or a TV byte.

As the communal clashes did not abate for days, the anger and helplessness over the silence and inaction of the political leadership to instil confidence in both Hindus and Muslims, who were anxiously clutching to their lives and properties, had already pushed them into a no-man’s land of uncertainty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took three days to just tweet an appeal, Union Home Minister Amit Shah took review meetings but his otherwise over-arching presence was missing, while Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, fresh from a thumping victory in the Assembly polls, chose to be a mute spectator. Other Opposition parties watched in silence, waking up too late, if at all.

The stage was set for the communal flare-up in the run-up to the Assembly polls on February 8. Led by Shah, the BJP had fielded an array of leaders to paint the anti-CAA protests as anti-national. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Union Minister Anurag Thakur and BJP leaders Kapil Mishra and Parvesh Verma ratcheted up the rhetoric, questioning the minority community on nationalism. It was a no-holds-barred attack. And the riots happened in areas from where Delhi sent most of the eight BJP MLAs it has in the new Assembly.

It all started on Sunday afternoon (February 23) as Mishra walked to Maujpur, less than a kilometre from the Jafrabad protest site, asking his supporters to join him for a pro-CAA protest. There, he served an ultimatum to the police to clear the anti-CAA protesters, who had blocked traffic near Jafrabad metro station, within three days. US President Donald Trump was to land in India the next day. Mishra’s public threat was as clear as it could be: Clear out before Trump leaves Delhi, else my mob will, he told the crowd, with a DCP of Delhi Police standing next to him. Minutes after Mishra left, the first stone had been thrown, and thus started the mayhem, the worst communal riot in the capital since the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.

Who started the fire? One’s answer would depend on which side one is on. Theories abound. Both sides say Trump’s visit was the trigger. There have been anti-CAA protests in Seelampur, Jafrabad, Kardampuri and Chand Bagh and other localities for the past few weeks but the organisers apparently felt it was not having any impact and so decided to choke traffic during Trump’s visit. Pro-CAA protesters say their opponents chose the date with Trump in mind to show the Modi government in poor light and put pressure on the US President to admonish India, as his predecessor Barack Obama did during his last visit. On the contrary, another theory that points fingers at those behind the pro-CAA protests also holds the Trump visit as the reason for the violence. Before his visit, the US administration had made it clear that Trump would raise the issue of religious freedom and CAA with Modi. Proponents of this theory say the government wanted to show Trump that the anti-CAA protesters are a violent lot.

Maybe both are right. Maybe, no one will ever know. But it is evident that there was mobilisation to create trouble in north-east Delhi, as locals point out to the presence of a large number of outsiders among the mobs that went on the rampage. Several say people from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana poured in with arms to add muscle to the rioters. Police did nothing despite the ominous signs after Mishra’s speech. Some say Mishra, who defected from AAP and was defeated in the recent Assembly elections, is eyeing the Delhi BJP president’s post and wanted the central leadership to take note of him. It was only on February 28 that there was a categorical condemnation from the BJP of Mishra’s comments.

Mobs ran riot in Jafrabad to Maujpur to Chand Bagh to Kardampuri to Bhajanpura to Karawal Nagar to Shivpuri and other localities. For three days, police were not seen in large numbers on the streets. Locals said wherever violence happened, there were no policemen. If they were there, they did not intervene. Some policemen said they did not intervene because the mobs would intensify violence if they did! The telling tale of deployment came when officials said Delhi Police Commissioner Amulya Patnaik told top brass in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) that lack of forces in the initial hours prevented them from containing the violence. It was duly denied by Patnaik himself.

It was only on Tuesday night, as Trump prepared to leave Delhi, some semblance of seriousness was seen. Suddenly, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, whom his admirers say always likes to play ‘super cop’, was drafted by Modi to contain the situation. It was 14 hours after Trump’s departure that Modi tweeted an appeal. He tweeted around 20 times on the Trump visit between the eruption of violence in which people were being killed or maimed and his appeal for calm. Doval visited the riot-hit areas twice in 24 hours, briefed the Cabinet Committee on Security besides holding meetings with police officials, raising questions about the role of Shah. Curfew was imposed and shoot at sight orders issued. Victims wonder why this was not done on Monday itself when killings had already been reported, including of Head Constable Ratan Lal, and why violence was allowed to continue. Again, one may never get answers.

If Modi and Shah did not inspire confidence, Kejriwal too was no study in contrast. In the journey from one Sunday when he took oath for the third time as Chief Minister to the next Sunday when the riots broke out, Kejriwal too lost his sheen with those who had supported him to keep the BJP away in Delhi. Now, they stood in surprise, anger and anxiety. As a part of Delhi burnt – the MHA would say “only 4.2% of Delhi’s landmass” witnessed riots – Kejriwal chose a five-minute drive to Rajghat, the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, on February 25 from his office in Delhi Secretariat to pray for peace, rather than a 15-minute drive to Jafrabad or Maujpur, the violence hit areas. Maybe he had forgotten, the Mahatma had walked into Naokhali in 1946 when riots erupted there. Or maybe, Rajghat provided a better backdrop for a photo-op! He did visit the areas a day later.

The third player in Delhi, Congress, too, had played the watching game. A Congress Working Committee met on Wednesday and its president Sonia Gandhi held a rare press conference on February 26 to demand Shah’s resignation. That day, some senior Opposition leaders were to meet to decide on a joint strategy to put pressure on the government by approaching the President as well as steps to be taken to ensure peace but those from the Congress did not turn up. Leaders kept waiting, but Congress on its own went to the President in a big media show. Congress showed its age-old “we are the leaders and we will lead” syndrome, some said.

A week into the communal clashes, violence has ebbed but it is not yet time to say that people have started picking up threads to re-weave their lives. If peace has returned, the government or the political leadership could not take much credit. Doval may say, “jo hua so hua (whatever happened has happened)” in an attempt to say let’s move on. But it may not be so easy for the victims. Several have lost livelihoods. All feel-good reports of Hindus saving Muslims or vice versa pale in comparison to the losses in the riots. Maybe, the rioters have just withdrawn for the time being. They have managed to instil fear and break the confidence enjoyed by Muslims and Hindus in each other. Delhi will never be the same again, as many wrote on Twitter.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox