INDIA HAS been the victim of divisive-sectarian violence for more than a century, more particularly after the British implemented their policy of ‘divide and rule’ and encouraged communal formations to flourish. These communal formations, mainly Muslim and Hindu, in turn spread hatred against other religious communities and violence in the name of religion came to be a tragic part of our nation. Millions of innocents lives have been in this violence, which is instrument in the hands of communal forces.
As the violence started becoming more structural, some features emerged. Though they have been changing from riot to riot, the features still have some commonality. Inquiry commission reports emerging from investigations into various acts of carnage post-Independence and documentations by scholars like Asghar Ali Engineer, Paul Brass, Ashutosh Varshney and others pointed out a pattern in riots which distorts India’s pluralism.
These findings, also show the nature of our political class, administration and police in particular in very poor light. In post-Independence India, since the Jabalpur riot of 1961 down to the scattered acts of violence in recent years in Rajasthan (Gopalgarh) and places in UP, the pattern broadly conforms to a well orchestrated mechanism and the failure of the state to control it.
The foundation of this violence is in the myths and stereotypes prevalent about the minorities in particular. Social common sense prevalent in the society, including that of those who are in charge of controlling the riots is practically the same. This social common sense sees Muslims as criminals, terrorists, anti-nationals and violent people. In communal violence two religious communities used to be pitted against each other but lately the minorities are the targeted communities. This ‘social common sense’ perceives the Christians as those who are converting by force, fraud or allurement.
The religion wise break up of percentage violence victims is very painful, the percentage of Muslims amongst riot victims is close to 90 percent (their population as per the census of 2001 is 13.4 percent) The police attitude too is by and large stereotypical and regards them as the trouble makers and believes that they can be brought to their heels through bullets and batons.
The recent riot in Mumbai, does not fit into any of the prevalent notions of riot so far. It is in total contrast to all this and at times also shows the ray of hope about the possibility of positive forces being awakened to quell the violence. On 12 August, a huge melee of Muslims was brought in to Mumbai’s Azad Maidan by Raza Academy and some other Muslim organisations. Some mobilisation was done through the announcement in mosques. Police and organisers say they expected a crowd of few thousand, instead 50,000 people turned up. Those who came were already feeling the heat of the present anti-Muslim violence-displacement of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. The ground of mobilisation was prepared by section of Urdu media, which projected as if Muslims are being attacked across the world. This exaggerated sense of insecurity was played upon by the speakers who made inflammatory speeches and showed morphed pictures/posters to the assembled crowd. They blamed the media for not showing the news of Assam and Myanmar. The real trouble began not due to this crowd, but because of the 500-1,000 armed Muslims who started attacking police personnel, molesting women police officers and attacking the OB vans of the news channels. This is so far as the violence conformed to the usual pattern. The things which happened later were a total departure from the past riots. Let’s note that the attack of Muslims was not directed against the Hindu community as such. The mob actually targetted the media and the police.
IN THE first contrast to the regular pattern, the police commissioner, Arup Patnaik, who had seen the 1992-93 riots, had different ideas and in a major departure from the attitude of police, Patnaik asked his men to exercise restraint. Not only this, he went on the dias with great courage and conviction and appealed to the crowd to maintain peace to prevent a repeat of the 1992-93 carnage. The assembled crowd quietly left from the other end of the ground, while the section of Muslims who had come prepared for violence, was brought under control with minimum of bloodshed — 2 dead, over 50 injured. No words can adequately praise the Patnaik’s leadership and the restraint shown by the police personnel, despite provocations of the worst order. In this violence police was the major victim. Yet it avoided reckless firing, above the waist, to instil fear in the mob and control it. The reckless arrests of Muslims in the wake of such a violence have also been avoided going in only for youths who were seen engaged in violence in the videos taken at the occasion. This thoughtful use of modern technology is welcome.
The other heartening feature of the episode was the role of Mohalla committees, which has not been duly highlighted. The Mohalla committee, which were conceptualised by one brave police officer, Suresh Khopde during the Bhivandi riots in 1983, have come to stay and are helping build bridges among religious communities. During this episode they came forward and did their peace making work with appreciable outcome. This was probably the first time when police and social vigilance helped control a riot within half an hour.
It is in this context that the need for communal violence Bill becomes all the more urgent, to ensure that police does it job properly, the state leadership acts without prejudices with the sole aim of controlling the violence.