The politicians’ licence to kill and the art of fomenting riots

In the din over the death figures what has gone undernoticed is the systemic manipulation to protect the high profile guilty in all the cases. Curiously, in none of the cases the big players -- the actual brains behind the riots -- have gone punished.

Akshaya Mishra November 02, 2011 20:18:47 IST
The politicians’ licence to kill and the art of fomenting riots

Pogrom - no other word in the dictionary attracts universal revulsion as this one does. But it constitutes a permanent sore spot in almost every civilisational narrative. The Holocaust—the genocide of nearly six million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II—continues to evoke horror and disbelief by the sheer magnitude of the barbarity. Closer home, the riots of 1984, 1993 and 2002—pogroms with a different name—still rankle.

Technically, a riot and a pogrom are different. But on the ground all differences blur, particularly in the cases of the Delhi anti-Sikh riots, the Mumbai riots of 1993 and the Gujarat anti-Muslim riots of 2002. It is finally massacre of a target group, often with the active or passive support of the government or politically powerful local forces with strong sectarian sentiments.

Comparing one riot to the other is non-sensical - there’s no purpose in trying to prove that one act of savagery is better than the other. For the record, close to 2,800 Sikhs were killed in the aftermath of the killing of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the national capital and those killed in Gujarat numbered just above 1,000. In Mumbai, the number of the dead stood around 900. In the latter two, casualties were on both sides though the numbers went against the minorities overwhelmingly.

The politicians licence to kill and the art of fomenting riots

Sikhs beat effigies of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, who were accused of leading anti-Sikh riots in 1984, during a protest in New Delhi on 9 April 2009. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In the din over the death figures what has gone undernoticed is the systemic manipulation to protect the high profile guilty in all the cases. Curiously, in none of the cases the big players—the actual brains behind the riots—have gone punished. The numbers tell the story. Only 13 people have been punished in the anti-Sikh riots case and around 20 in the Gujarat riots. No politician and police official is behind the bars.

The principal suspects in the 1984 case—Congress leaders the late HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath—have escaped the long arm of the law, as have principal players in the Gujarat riots, which include BJP’s big names as well as top police officials and some Shiv Sena leaders in the Mumbai riots. Clearly, large scale cover-up operations have been afoot to shield the powerful and hoodwink the judiciary in all the cases and it has been successful.

Commissions of Inquiry, that are set up routinely as reflexive action after every riot, serve only to provide breathing space to the governments and scope for them to manipulate evidence and public opinion in their favour. The entire system acts efficiently to neutralise witnesses and hard facts. Those who end of being punished are minor pawns in the whole game, the emotional lot who either trust their leaders too much or get carried away by the heat of the moment.

The result: the same leaders who have been accused of masterminding communal riots keep pouring out vitriol to incite communities and inflame passions. If there’s a pogrom is waiting to happen somewhere, there’s no reason to be surprised. All the major conditions and players behind them remain the same. They require only a opportune political occasion to provocation to get unleashed.

The country never learns its lessons. It’s never serious.

“I have no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community. I apologise not only to the Sikh community, but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his party’s apology to the Sikh community in 2005. It was a brave move from the prime minister. There has been no such effort to bridge the differences with the affected community from the Gujarat government or the leaders of the parties involved in the Mumbai riots.

But in the end political apologies don’t amount to much; they are a cosmetic effort at reconciliation. It showed as the Sikh community marked the 27th year of the Delhi riots on Tuesday. The wounds are still fresh in the victims and they want justice.

Coming back to the main question, why do leaders go scot-free while others suffer? In Mumbai, political parties keep threatening violence over sectarian and other considerations and indulge in it too. The followers and workers are expected to launch an assault in no time after the leader makes the call. However, Mumbai is not an exception. It happens everywhere in the country and no party is immune to inciting people for narrow political ends. Such isolated attacks can easily take the shape of well-developed communal riots.

Here are a few questions before we end.

Why are the leaders allowed to get away with hate rhetoric or threat of violence?

Why must the legal system be so differential to them?

Why are we so lenient towards political trouble-mongers?

Why are we so forgiving of killers, in whatever form?

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