It is in India more than in any other democracy that politicians ignore the redlines that turn divisive rhetoric into a riot and even get rewarded by voters for this

For someone — and I say it with some shame and embarrassment — who cut his teeth in journalism on a hefty diet of communal riots in western Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s-1980s, reading about the events in Muzaffarnagar and seeing images of violence and destruction is like watching history replayed in slow motion. There are the same conflicting versions of who “started it first”; the same self-righteous assertion of innocence by both sides; the same familiar-sounding allegations of high-handedness/one-sidedness levelled against the police; and, most nauseatingly, the same political blame game.

Back then it was simpler to pick a villain. There were only two main political parties — the Congress and the Jana Sangh (later renamed the Bharatiya Janata Party). Or two and a half if you counted the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh whose shadow always hovered in the background. Now, there are enough parties to fill a planet. So, in the past few days we have seen the Congress, the BJP, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal — to name a few — busy finger-pointing when they should have been trying to restore peace and sanity.

Past and present

Generally, Hindu-Muslim relations are a great deal more robust today than they were in the 1970s when tension was always simmering under the surface — and a riot waiting to happen. While researching a book on the subject, I found a refreshing change in the attitudes of both communities. Young Hindus and Muslims say they have no wish to carry on with old grudges and simply want to get on with their lives. But what has not changed and may, in fact, have become worse as electoral politics has become more fiercely competitive, is the cynical use of religion and caste for votes. The pattern of events in Muzaffarnagar has an all-too-familiar ring: an incident, whose provenance itself is uncertain, blows up into a full-scale communal conflagration with a little help from an assortment of political interests united by an obscene greed for votes.

In the U.K.

Divisive politics is not unique to India. Political parties even in the most advanced countries thrive on divisions, mostly along race lines, but the mark of a civilised political discourse is to know when and where to draw the line. In the more civilised societies, the line is drawn at the point where there is a danger of tipping into violence — and a loss of human lives. In Britain, for instance, even the most rabidly racist group would not be caught crossing the line between legitimate propaganda and incitement to violence. They would not be allowed to — plain and simple. Moreover, there is evidence that British voters don’t reward hate politics.

In India’s crude sab chalta hai laissez faire political culture, there are no redlines and political parties get away literally with murder. Worse, voters often reward them for bad behaviour if they believe such behaviour has been exercised on their behalf. There is a certain chief minister who after State riots, went on to win three successive elections despite questions about his role in one of India’s worst examples of sectarian violence. And he could be your next prime minister!

In such a climate, it is a miracle and ultimately a tribute to the good sense of the overwhelming majority of Indians that they are not easily provoked. But how long can they resist? The drip-drip of inflammatory rhetoric and provocative acts finally finds a spark somewhere. The Muzaffarnagar flare-up was the culmination of as many as 27 communal incidents in the past one year. Each incident would have contributed to ratcheting up the tension which slowly built up to a point where it needed just one slight push for it to explode.

Along with Aligarh, Meerut and Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar is part of a region where, historically, Hindu-Muslim relations have been fragile. North Indian journalists of a certain generation spent disproportionately long periods of their early careers making sense of the frequency with which communal riots broke out in this part of western U.P. It became almost a routine to be woken up by an early morning call from the office and told to pack and leave for one of these towns because another riot had erupted.

Once there, we would be greeted by grieving victims from both sides, each blaming the other as is happening in Muzaffarnagar now. Again — as now — it was never clear how a riot started. It could have been sparked by a minor quarrel between members of two communities (those days we were not supposed to mention their religious affiliation and refer to them only as members of the minority or majority community); a road accident involving members of “rival” communities; a love affair between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl or vice versa; unconfirmed reports of a cow slaughter; or a pig’s head allegedly found in a mosque…Nobody knew for sure. Everyone had heard it from somebody else.

Differences in coverage

Rumours flew thick and fast amid allegations of administrative failures and police excesses that each side claimed was directed against them — exactly what is happening in Muzaffarnagar now.

My experience of such situations is that the local Urdu and Hindi newspapers, usually owned by interested parties invariably tend to take partisan positions and fuel passions. This casts a special responsibility on the national media which, to be fair, has acquitted itself well in the past. Indeed, rather bizarrely, at least one prominent Delhi newspaper used to go to the extent of sending a Muslim and a Hindu reporter together to cover the same incident in the interest of “balance.” Public comments, likely to inflame the situation, were heavily moderated.

But this is the era of 24/7 television news — “live” images and instant sound bites. Some Indian TV channels have shown burnt houses, identifying them as belonging to a particular community. Of course, truth must be told but in a way that is not seized by mischief-makers to create more trouble.

Self-censorship is not a bad idea when lives are at stake.

But I digress. This is not so much about the media as about India’s notorious “riots politics” which, as Muzaffarnagar shows, remains as much a threat to national unity as it was 40 years ago. And, as an Urdu saying goes, “is hammam mein sab nange hain (A plague on all your houses”).

(Hasan Suroor is working on a book on Indian Muslims. E-mail: hasan.suroor@gmail.com)

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