What distinguishes negligence or lapses in administration from gross negligence or disregard of legal duty is a failure of the government or its law enforcing machinery to take swift action in the face of warnings and forebodings. After the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in August and September, the Uttar Pradesh police had every reason to take extra care against any fresh eruption of violence, especially in the areas where relief camps for the original victims were in operation. Scores of people had died in riots that lasted for weeks. Indeed, the atmosphere in and around Muzaffarnagar had remained surcharged with tension when the latest round of violence was set off last week with the killing of three youths who were staying in relief camps. The Uttar Pradesh Director General of Police, Devraj Nagar, has admitted to “lapses” on the part of the police but there cannot be any reasonable explanation for these lapses, other than gross negligence or wanton misconduct. That some persons could imagine they could get away with murder in such a tense atmosphere speaks poorly of the police force, and the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh. Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court went so far as to say that it would send an independent fact-finding team to assess the situation if the response of the U.P. government was not satisfactory.

Thanks to the manipulative politics of politicians and parties, primarily the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, Uttar Pradesh remains a tinderbox. As elections approach, the State has become a battleground for clashes between castes and communities. A rumour or even an ordinary incident of law and order trouble can quickly assume communal overtones, heightening communal and caste tensions. Incidents that in other places might be dismissed as petty often gather momentum, and spread like wildfire in the State. Although the State government sees the latest violence as a “law and order” issue and not “communal” in nature, the truth is that it takes little to turn an ordinary law and order incident into a flashpoint for incendiary communal attacks. Political parties dependent on communal vote-banks, whether of Hindus or Muslims, have a lot to gain from these flare-ups. If Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav does not act firmly and decisively, he will be leaving the door open for a hitherto unprecedented monitoring of the law and order situation by the Supreme Court, or a more active engagement and even interference by the Congress-led Central government. The sooner the BJP and the SP recognise the limitations of a politics based on communal identities, the better it would be for them, and for Uttar Pradesh and India as a whole.

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