Moradabad Massacre: How misleading narratives, biased research were used to discredit the Left

To portray the Left as having played a communal role in the aftermath of the violence at Moradabad would be a fallacy.

Saib Bilaval June 28, 2017 13:02:41 IST
Moradabad Massacre: How misleading narratives, biased research were used to discredit the Left

This essay is a critique of a perhaps well-intentioned but misleading Firstpost article titled, 'Remembering 1980 Moradabad Massacre: A Harsh Indictment of ‘Secular’ and Left Politics' – in particular, the portions on the Left – and raises concerns about reading historical sources objectively.

With regard to the portions I do not disagree with – it was a one-way pogrom/massacre by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (Uttar Pradesh) against Muslims, not a communal clash between civilian groups of two religious communities. I agree that the communal mindset of society is very much prevalent in those who occupy positions in the state machinery. That there was no provocation. That there was a subsequent cover-up, and that the guilty went unpunished. All of that is beyond dispute, and does not inhabit the realm of my disagreement.

My objections arise from the shoddy use of methodology by the authors, to portray the Left as having played a communal role in the aftermath of the violence at Moradabad, as having endorsed the police version, and as having taken up no interest in justice for the victims. As we shall see below, the argument is not really befitting of scholars of history.

Did Congress and Left control Indian media in the 1980s?

The authors blindly assert that:"The English and Hindi media were controlled primarily by the Congress and the Left, who were responsible for giving the police narrative legitimacy that the Muslims' communal tendencies led to conflict."

Moradabad Massacre How misleading narratives biased research were used to discredit the Left

Representational image. Reuters

Indira Gandhi had to censor the media during the Emergency – because they were not already in her pocket, otherwise it would not have been required. The Emergency came and went – a lot of the media was and remained critical of Gandhi throughout – and the only time the media had truly spoken well of her was at the triumph of the Bangladesh War.

How could the so-called Congress stranglehold on the media have been the same in the post-Emergency period? That the corporate owners had a mind of their own as monopolistic elites, does not appear to register to the authors.

Apparently, right-wing tendencies and RSS loyalties did not exist in any media houses before the Babri Masjid collapsed – and if they did, they were all Congress-controlled, according to the authors. Never mind that the Organiser (RSS mouthpiece) had more readership than the Economic and Political Weekly, or that the level of English or nature of articles in the latter were unreadable for even a majority of English-speakers in India.

Never mind that innumerable papers, journals and magazines such Kalyan, Mahratta, Kesari, The Hindu, Outlook, Organiser, Panchjanya, Motherland (not to mention the publications of various Hindu religious or educational trusts) were all wreaking havoc on religious coexistence and the fabric of secularism since the 1930s.

Never mind that the propaganda instruments surrounding and abetting cow protection clashes since Independence till the 1980s were neither mainstream dailies nor Congress organs. Never mind that the major Indian media groups were owned by Marwari interests that had close alliances with the Hindu far-right. Communal propaganda in the pre-1991 period can in no way be said to have been derived from non-Sangh sources alone – the authors fail to see that.

How is the Hindi media controlled by the Left, and more importantly, when was it ever controlled by the Left? One is rather confused at such an absurd suggestion.

While claiming that the media is also largely Left-dominated, the authors find themselves unable to name a single Left publication, settling on a sole stray, far off-the-mark guess – Economic and Political Weekly.

Fraudulent methodology

When did editorial or commentary/opinion pieces published in Economic and Political Weekly become equivalent to the Left's official responses to Hashimpura or Moradabad, whether the CPI or CPM? After citing three articles in Economic and Political Weekly, they declare, "In short, the Leftist media laid the blame on Muslims, defended the secular Congress and the police."

To begin with, the fact that Romesh Thapar is a liberal – and not a Leftist, as declared by the authors – is only the mildest of the errors made. Simply being the "brother of Romila Thapar" (as the authors suggest), does not allow others to assume a given ideology. This takes the evidence provided by the authors down from three articles to two.

Two articles in one journal don't amount to the entire "Leftist media", as far as arithmetic is concerned.

The truth is, using Economic and Political Weekly as the only source for such a sweeping statement is the biggest drawback of their assertion. Considering it even remotely representative of the political Left is the second problem. Especially, when the journal is not run by any cardholding members of the Communist parties, nor does it seek to serve those agendas, and is not any sort of mouthpiece per se. And no, you'd be hard pressed to call Sachin Chaudhuri, the journal's founder-editor, a communist.

Economic and Political Weekly publishes anything from neutral business finance to statistics and book reviews, with a very limited space to current affairs commentary but the authors are dead set on branding it the representative organ of the political Left, hinging on whether a small handful of professors could take their time out to write something or not.

There was a (now famous) debate on the Assam movement unfolding in the pages of the publication at the same time (participants included Sanjib Baruah, Amalendu Guha, Hiren Gohain, and Tilottama Misra, among others) which was later compiled into a book, and often took up most of the commentary section – the authors of the piece would have known that, had they gone through the entire issue and not just relied keyword-led search results.

It would not be right for an objective researcher to have the same expectations from a journal as they would from say the Times of India (a daily newspaper which mandates reporting on everything and requires a 100 percent devotion to current affairs). It would be beyond unfair to treat Economic and Political Weekly like a newspaper or an organ, or even as a lightning rod of the Left.

Had the journal been influential or representative of the political organised Left, the CPI and CPM would have never split; both would have capitulated to the demands of the Naxalbari movement, and the Left Front government would have taken a U-turn on Nandigram and Singur after being bombarded by critiques published in Economic and Political Weekly, as it happened (each of which were lines taken up by the journal over the years). However, one would have to be familiar with the contents of issues published long past to know – the authors do not seem to have done their homework.

One could perhaps call Social Scientist a Left journal. It has had clearly affiliated or cardholding party members such as the late Bismawoy Pati, Prabhat Patnaik, Irfan Habib on the editorial team, along with unaffiliated social scientists – each is a prominent scholar in their field, and none are politicians or spokesmen.

However, even Social Scientist is, by nature, a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes academic research, not some mouthpiece churning out propaganda at some party's beck and call. And thus, what one is forced to do is call into question entirely the method adopted by the authors – picking the narrowest piece of evidence for the vague but invalid form of a Left caricature in the authors' mind and then using it to attack a broad Left. The wrong equation of the CPI and CPM with Economic and Political Weekly led to sweeping arguments that are patently false.

Ignoring the main source material

On this, one would have been far better served looking at the party organs of CPI and CPM – New Age and Peoples’ Democracy, respectively. These would have been the best indicators of a party’s stands as presented to the public as well as being transmitted to party cadre as ideological instructions – both tasks done through the same medium. For that reason, the data from those sources is likely to be the most authentic.

The problem is that the authors did not even consider using the main source material for their argument. Both organs are national-level, easily available, and published from Delhi. Reading Economic and Political Weekly for the parliamentary Left instead of their party organ is like reading Blitz or Swarajya instead of reading the Organiser for the RSS. The authors might as well have consulted Rock Street Journal.

If the authors were so concerned about communalism, did they bother looking at the Organiser – the RSS mouthpiece? For the 'real' communal viewpoint, if only to confirm it, or for comparative reasons?

Additionally, what about press conferences, protests, questions in Parliament, the output of literary wings, pamphlets, interviews? One could patiently list a hundred sources more relevant and representative of the Left and more influential on the Left discourse than a far-detached semi-academic journal named Economic and Political Weekly, that is unreadable to anyone below MA or MPhil level and occasionally publishes Leftists, that write up barely 10-15 percent of the total material in one issue.

One would think the era of laughable charges were over only to be rudely awoken as their essay proceeds. Repeating one's conclusion of betrayal by the Left multiple times does not prove the charge any further.

And thus, was spun the tale about the Moradabad "massacre and the blatantly communal coverage it received by the Left" – an intellectually fraudulent charge. However, it is possible to refute the arguments of the authors simply by looking into their own limited sources a little deeper – and what they may have missed out.

As far as the factual chain of events goes, while a Times of India report and a couple of opinion pieces may have responded to and reported on the incident in a rather biased manner, it is significant to know that the prime minister herself reacted quite to the contrary – a negligent omission on the part of the authors.

Gandhi was not part of the orchestra that was allegedly playing the same tune. ‘The media followed, as has been its tradition, the Congress government's anti-Muslim narrative’ was an unresearched assumption of the authors, as the first response of the media and that of the prime minister differed. This is quoted from the same (and sole) Times of India article the authors cite:

"Indira Gandhi sanctioned Rs four lakhs from the prime minister's national relief fund to provide assistance to the families of the victims of the clashes in Moradabad."  ('Moradabad riots claim 105 lives/Team of MPs To Visit Moradabad', The Times of India, 15 August, 1980, p.1, 9)

The methodology of reading one Times of India article and assuming that it is the ruling party’s first response to the situation, instead of looking at interviews, debates and relevant documents was a rather flawed approach, to begin with. Further, had the authors followed the report through to the next page, they would surely not have made that mistake of assumption.

Borderline fraudulent charges against the Left

Moving on from exposing their flimsy historical method, one approaches the highly questionable charges they have made:

- That the Left was unconcerned about the well-being of the Muslims of Moradabad and was unfazed by the massacre.

- That the Left didn’t speak the truth of what transpired at Moradabad.

- That the Left actively pushed the PAC/police narrative, including that of a foreign hand in Muslim aggression.

Since the only evidence the authors could supply was a couple of Economic and Political Weekly commentaries (hardly the sum total of left intervention on the issue) – to refute the charges, one simply has to prove that the Left contradicted the police narrative on Moradabad.

The very same "bigoted" Times of India article reports that:

"A two-member Parliamentary delegation of the CPI is visiting Moradabad to make an on-the-spot appraisal of the situation. According to a CPI press release, S Kumaran and Bhola Prasad, members of the Rajya Sabha, will constitute the delegation... Members of Parliament from different political parties have expressed concern at the violence in Moradabad."

(Moradabad riots claim 105 lives/Team of MPs To Visit Moradabad, The Times of India, 15 August, 1980, p.1, 9)

Subhadra Joshi, a freedom fighter and one of the biggest crusaders against communalism, who headed the Qaumi Ekta Trust, the Sampradayakta Virodhi Committee (bringing out scores of pamphlets on communalism, the RSS, and on communal riots, in addition to the journal Secular Democracy), was a firebrand progressive, who swung into action even though she had retired from politics:

"Meeting under the chairmanship of Subhadra Joshi, former MP, to revive the parliamentarians' committee against communalism, they decided that a deputation would meet the Union home minister, and urge him to save the situation from deteriorating... A team of MPs' will be visiting Moradabad to make a first-hand appraisal of the situation and help restore communal harmony," the report read.

When the "foreign-funded unrest" theory of the Moradabad violence was voiced in Parliament by a Congress MP, a CPM MP was quick to dismiss it:

"BV Desai (Congress I - Karnataka) asked the government to beware of foreign elements trying to engineer communal riots in the country…When Desai referred to some countries by name in this context Jyotirmoy Basu (CPM) objected, on a point of order, to ‘denigrating’ friendly countries."

('Nationalism Disintegrating', Times of India, 4 December, 1980)

The UP Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) itself is condemned by the CPI MP Indrajit Gupta, who demands harsh punishments for the culprits.

"…the PAC (UP) was infested with communal elements. Indrajit Gupta described it as a Frankenstein created by the government,"

"The CPI leader, Indrajit Gupta, and several others demanded that mischievous and communal minded officers should be ruthlessly purged from the military and paramilitary services," the report added.

At the provincial level in Uttar Pradesh, several parties, including the communist parties, came together to offer an ultimatum to UP government on the issue:

"All Opposition parties, except the Bharatiya Janata Party, today gave one-month notice to the UP government to provide justice to the minorities in the state or face mass action like dharnas and courting of arrests,"

"Among those who addressed a convention were… Bhika Lal, MLA and Guj Prasad, MLC (both CPI)..."

('UP opposition plea for justice to minorities', Times of India, 6 October, 1980)

The group made relatively radical demands such as (among others) drastically increasing the proportion of Muslims in the police and PAC to 25 percent (Muslims were 19 percent of the population in UP in 1981), as well as prosecution of all officials posted at Idgah in Moradabad, clearly marking out solely the state forces as culpable, scapegoating zero Muslims – something the authors appear completely unaware of:

The convention demanded a restructuring of the police and PAC with 25 percent representation in it to the Muslim community and eight percent to other minorities or creation of riot suppression force at the state level with the aforesaid representation. It also wanted immediate payment of compensation of Rs 50,000 to relatives of the dead and compensation for the loss of property and injuries to the riot victims of Moradabad and other places.

"It demanded prosecution of all officials posted at Idgah in Moradabad on 13 August. It also demanded transfer and disciplinary action against the delinquent officials connected with the law and order duties in all the riot-affected towns," the (6 October, 1980) Times of India report said.

When counterproductive national security laws (rather than human rights safeguards) were pushed in the aftermath of Moradabad and the Assam movement in 1980, Jyoti Basu objected to them:

"(Indira) Gandhi expressed deep concern at the recent communal outbursts at Moradabad. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, criticised the national security ordinance which, he feared, would be used by the ruling party against its political opponents."

('Fear Psychosis Spreads: Zail', Times of India, November 13, 1980)

In Parliament, the communal role of the police forces and the stalling of their prosecution was brought up yet again by the Left and the prime minister stepped up to argue that investigative procedure on the PAC was being duly followed:

"The prime minister intervened on one occasion to repudiate certain remarks by the CPM member (Jyotirmoy Basu) in the context of the Moradabad riots."

('India ready for any eventuality: Tarapur': Lok Sabha Questions, Times of India, 27 November, 1980)

From the above, it has been demonstratively proven that the authors do not seem to have gone through newspaper issues for more than one or two dates – else the untenable argument of theirs would simply not have been made.

There is more than enough mention of the Communist parties intervening on the issue on the side of the Muslims, especifically in Moradabad and rejecting the communal narrative. Unmentioned go the Left-affiliated literary groups, the unions, the teachers’ collectives, offshoots of IPTA and NGOs that made communal violence a central issue in their activities.

The agenda of their paper is revealed at the end of the authors' essay, to argue that, "... despite their claims, Congress and their Leftist allies are not secular and never have been", even if in this case, it would require stretching the truth by a lot. If the aim was to genuinely expose communal narratives, they would have looked at right-wing sources, nor left-wing ones.

Such a narrow view on such flimsy grounds stems from neglect of sources and a lack of proper methodology.The authors find themselves unable to disguise their unfamiliarity with the history and actions of the Left in India for that time period. The "blatantly communal coverage it [the massacre] received by the Left" is a concoction truly worthy of a published piece of fiction.


"A harsh indictment of secular and Left politics" is precisely what the two authors have failed to accomplish. By quoting Syed Shahabuddin’s letter and liberally from MJ Akbar’s book, they have repeated what is already well-established about the Congress’s shortcomings and misdeeds.

On the other hand, the portion on the Left, in particular, suffers from an Alice in Wonderland perspective where the conclusion and the evidence both stem from the authors’ own preconceived biases.

The author is a research scholar in modern and contemporary history at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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