Remembering 1980 Moradabad Muslim massacre: A harsh indictment of 'secular' and Left politics

The Indian public displays selective memory as far as state-led (or state-facilitated) attacks on minorities and oppressed communities are concerned.

 Remembering 1980 Moradabad Muslim massacre: A harsh indictment of secular and Left politics

File image of VP Singh. PTI

We tend to focus on the 2002 Gujarat massacre or the 1984 anti-Sikh riots where police stood by as mute spectators or even allegedly facilitated the mob frenzy. We discuss these moments as if these were unique, and the most terrible points in our history.

But the 1984 killings were just another chapter in a decade where Sikhs were routinely harassed and subjected to fake encounters by police. We have also forgotten the numerous state-sponsored massacres of tribals.

And we've conveniently forgotten that Muslims have been murdered by the state throughout these seven decades of independent India.

From the Muslim perspective, such selective memory has led to a widespread but false belief that BJP is the only political party in India which has Muslim blood on its hands. This is a blatant distortion of history.

Recently, Partha Chatterjee compared Major Leetul Gogoi, who strapped a Kashmiri man to a jeep and used him as a human shield, with the actions of General Dyer who was responsible for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

We believe that he is way off the mark. Independent India has witnessed many Jallianwala Baghs. The Moradabad police firing is perhaps the most fitting example. On 13 August, 1980 as Muslims were celebrating Eid throughout India, the police and Provincial Armed Constabulary opened fire on the Moradabad Eidgah where around 40,000 Muslims had gathered to offer prayers. Around 300 Muslims were killed.

Compare that to Jallianwala Bagh, where thousands had gathered on the day of Baisakhi to celebrate and protest. The army under the command of Dyer opened fire, killing around 400 people. The similarities do not end there. In both cases, the victims were fired upon and confined to closed spaces with only one exit point which was blocked. Then MP Syed Shahabuddin called the Moradabad firing the Jallianwala Bagh of independent India. And rightly so.

BJP leader and external affairs minister MJ Akbar, who was a young journalist at that time, reported from Moradabad. He wrote in his book Riot after Riot:  “Men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary opened fire on about 40,000 Muslims while they were at Eid prayers. No one knows exactly how many people died. What is known is that the incident at Moradabad was not a Hindu-Muslim riot but a calculated cold-blooded massacre of Muslims by a rabidly communal police force which tried to cover up its genocide by making it out to be a Hindu-Muslim riot.”

If someone of the stature and calibre of Akbar offered this insight, how did we forget this gruesome example of police brutality in modern India? Part of the answer lies in Akbar's analysis: The police tried to cover up its genocide by making it out to be a Hindu-Muslim riot.

The media also played a huge role in ensuring that this appeared to be a communal conflict rather than what it was: Murder in cold blood. 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.

Let us look at the main examples of such coverage.

The Times of India made the claim that the faithful were armed and attacked the police. The newspaper even claimed that Muslims died after the police were forced to retaliate. They shifted the blame on the Muslims' "communal tendencies" and reminded readers that funds from foreign countries were flowing freely in to Moradabad.

One English newspaper even published fake news: Saying four BSF jawans had been killed, and five were missing and blamed the Muslims. The BSF, reacting quickly not only refuted the news, but also took the press around to show them that none of their personnel had been injured.   This was the line that the police and the Congress government took even as they tried to retain Muslim votes and defend their secular image. On the other hand, the media followed, as has been its tradition, the Congress government's anti-Muslim narrative.  Economic and Political Weekly, famed for its leftist credentials, published many articles which lay the blame for the incident, whether partially or completely, on Muslims. Except for a letter from Syed Shahabuddin, nothing the EPW published disagreed with the police narrative.

In an article by Romesh Thapar, brother of Romila Thapar, the Muslims were blamed for getting themselves killed by police bullets. Thapar also argued that the Muslims were being funded to destabilise India by foreign powers like Saudi Arabia. He ended his analysis with a statement which sought to put the blame on the Muslims, and which was an apologetic defence of majority communalism: “Attitudes to the trends in the Muslim community are very important because of the size of the community (larger than the population of Pakistan!), and because these trends create reactions which influence the majority community’s attitude to all minorities.”

EPW correspondent Krishna Gandhi claimed that the "group of criminals supported by ML leaders" were responsible for the massacres. According to him, the firing occurred after Muslims beat up policemen, and the excesses committed by the police were, according to him, a reaction to Muslim attacks.

How cute: That 300 Muslims had to be killed by police in retaliation to “brick-batting”. In short, the leftist media laid the blame on Muslims, defended the secular Congress and the police. Even the otherwise careful K Balagopal forgot to mention the elephant in the room: Systemic communalism of the Indian state.

On the other hand, Akbar and Shahabuddin gave a completely different account of the incident. They pointed out flaws in the establishment narrative. Shahabuddin stated that the claims that Muslims were armed were a complete fabrication. He wrote:

1. No firearms were seen coming into the Eidgah
2. No spent cartridges were found
3. No policeman received any bullet or pellet injury
4. No building opposite the Eidgah has any bullet marks
5. No firearms were left behind, despite the stampede
6. If the provocateurs were armed, why should they have brick-batted?”

Akbar wrote in Riot after Riot:

“Moradabad was a case of police brutality, pure and simple. The forces of law and order unleashed their fury on thousands of Muslims who had come to offer prayers on their day of joy and celebration. Hundreds, including many children, died in the massacre and stampede. Hundreds more were critically injured. For them, death came slowly.

Both Moradabad's Hindus and Muslims will tell anyone who will listen that what happened on 13 August, 1980 in their city was not a communal riot. It was a clash between the police and Muslims. But the police, in order to throw a cover on their brutal misdeeds, told lies about what precisely happened, and built up false trails that would shift focus of attention from the incidents of the namaz. Moradabad was not communal on 13 August, but the police might have made it communal later.”

Akbar also pointed out that the policemen were attacked after the firing, and angry Muslims attacked a police chowki and killed five people in retaliation. The chowki was 5 kilometres away from the Eidgah. The mob that marched towards it left every Hindu house and shop unmolested. Any reasonable observer will agree with Akbar and Shahabuddin's analysis.

Besides the fact that we have forgotten this massacre and the blatantly communal coverage it received by the Left, we must also consider another important point.

Minorities in general, and Muslims in particular must realise that, despite their claims, Congress and their leftist allies are not secular and never have been.

On another Eid, let us remember all those who were massacred by the police when the Congress were in charge.

Focusing squarely on the BJP lets us forget the crimes of the so-called secular parties, which only works to the Congress' and Left's benefit.

The authors are research scholars of Modern Indian History at JNU

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2017 08:07:46 IST