Now that the law and order situation in the troubled corner of Delhi has been brought under control, the process of recriminations and myth-making has begun. The latter is a more complicated phenomenon and will probably take years to unfold — depending on which of the breathless, gush-gush reporters who genuflected before the matrons of Shaheen Bagh is first off the mark with a quickie. In the old days, various grand-sounding bodies claiming to uphold civil liberties and democratic freedom usually published a report that would be flaunted as the authentic version of a political or natural disaster. But with video clips on social media telling the story, the appeal of ponderous reports blaming it all on a “fascist” conspiracy won’t enjoy too much popular traction.
Not that telling the people is ever a priority of those professional riot-watchers and ambulance chasers. The target audience isn’t Indian voters, it’s foreign governments and grant-awarding bodies in the West. The agenda is very different: to put India on the defensive in international fora and leverage this for both strategic and economic ends. This is not to suggest that the foreign media that often is highly selective and tendentious in its coverage is acting as pawns of foreign governments. It isn’t as straightforward as that. The Western Establishments are multi-layered and often operate with different and occasionally contradictory impulses. There is also an international fraternity of do-gooders who operate on their own steam, often bankrolled by the likes of George Soros whose agendas defy neat categorisation. The intersection of all these different impulses and motivations are tailor-made for everyone with either a grievance or a horror story to narrate.
The recriminations game is relatively less complex. Its perspectives are more immediate and explicitly partisan. The target this time is Home Minister Amit Shah. He is being blamed for two things. First, the failure to anticipate the disturbances and, secondly, the failure to bring matters under control immediately.
The criticism of Shah doesn’t stop here. There are also suggestions that the dharna in Shaheen Bagh should never have been allowed to continue for so long and fuel communal tensions in Delhi. The issue is worth exploring.
Assuming for a moment that the Delhi Police, already under attack for having over-used force against the students of Jamia Milia Islamia, had taken steps to clear the protesters in Shaheen Bagh at the very outset, what would have been the reactions. First, the entire Opposition and the liberal fraternity would have gone to town at the images of policemen and policewomen forcibly ejecting the elderly women who occupied the front rows of the protests. It would have been made out that the Government is utterly intolerant that it cannot countenance normal democratic protests, especially those conducted by Muslims. Perhaps this was the idea of the protests to begin with, which is why women were put in front.
In any event the Government did not oblige. What the BJP did instead was to try and isolate the protesters and build public opinion against Shaheen Bagh and the other copy-cat protests. These were also linked to the Delhi Assembly elections. They even paid electoral dividends but not sufficient to upstage the governance dividend that accrued to Arvind Kejriwal. In any event, the matter then came up before the Supreme Court which attempted to tackle the issue of civic inconvenience with kid gloves. It would seem that the apex court too was mindful that forcible ejection, without at least a show of patience and flexibility, would look bad.
Where the Home Ministry and the Delhi Police can be faulted is in not anticipating that the Muslim protests would definitely escalate and acquire an additional dimension to coincide with the visit of President Donald Trump. The presence of a large contingent of American media was always going to be an incentive for the protesters to showcase their opposition to Modi. In the event, the reaction of the authorities to the new blockade in Jafrabad, in the vicinity of the Muslim ghetto of Seelampur, was inadequate.
However, to be fair, the police response was never going to be adequate. The protesters in that corner of Delhi had come very well prepared for a war. They were certainly in a mood to confront the police but also to escalate the conflict into a communal riot. They wanted to combine aggression and victimhood — and achieved their twin objectives. They got the foreign media to paint the riots in exactly the way they wanted — as an example of the state and Hindu nationalists targeting Muslims — and managed to gloss over the fact that they were intent on a riot to begin with.
The death toll from the Delhi riots, having crossed 40 at last count, is unacceptably high. I guess if Trump wasn’t visiting, the police action would have been more targeted and decisive. But that is the reality and the lessons from the Delhi riots must be internalised by the Government.
However, there is a larger question that still has no firm answers. What will be the political consequences of the Delhi riot be on both Hindu and Muslim mobilisation around the CAA? There is some evidence to suggest increased Hindu determination. There is also some evidence to suggest ordinary Muslims realise that the community overplayed its hand and triggered a backlash. Unfortunately, a study of communal riots in the recent past suggests that aggression followed by contrition has been the norm. Unless the Muslim community does its bit to demonstrate that it won’t be pawns in the hands of either radical Islamists or cynical secularists, this unfortunate pattern of communal disruption is bound to go on endlessly.