In 1984, in a working class slum colony in East Delhi Trilokpuri, more than 300 Sikh men were slaughtered during the frenzy of hate killing that swept India’s capital city. This colony across the Yamuna was first settled with working class refugees from Pakistan after Partition. In 1976, its ranks swelled with households uprooted by Sanjay Gandhi’s slum demolition carnage during the Emergency. Since the 1984 Sikh massacre, this suburb has swelled with working class people from diverse faiths and regions and, like the rest of Delhi, witnessed three decades of communal peace.
However, 30 years later, almost to the day, its crowded settlements are once again in the throes of communal violence, its streets littered with brickbats, its minorities have begun to flee, and children peep from shuttered windows as clusters of policemen stand guard at street-corners to restore brittle peace.
The violence, which racked Trilokpuri, follows a standard template that recurs whenever organisations choose to organise riots for political gains. The first step is to create a context for the conflict. And the most reliable staple of communal riots since the Partition has been to stir a dispute around a place of worship. In Trilokpuri, just across from a local mosque, a mata ki chowki or temporary temple is assembled for the first time, and loud prayers relayed round the clock through a loudspeaker directed towards the mosque. Tempers are further frayed when word spreads that — contrary to tradition — this makeshift temple would not be dismantled after the festival, but converted into a permanent structure.
With communal tempers sufficiently inflamed, the actual flashpoint is created near the temporary temple with a drunken brawl on Diwali night between young men of two communities inebriated with the hooch freely sold in the colony. Word quickly spreads that a Muslim young man had desecrated the chowki , and crowds gather as brickbats begin to fly. Some firing is also reported and, though around 70 people were injured, there was no loss of life.
Meanwhile, more rumours quickly fly, mainly suggesting that the Muslim residents are arming themselves for a large attack. Some shops are burnt. Piles of bricks appear in by-lanes, and large-scale stone pelting on Muslim homes ensues, combined with slogans and taunts. Some Muslims also retaliate. The narrow lanes of the colony are soon littered with brickbats.
This small communal fire could have been firmly and swiftly doused by the local police, with speedy dispersal of rioting crowds and immediate enforcement of curfew. But, as in all manufactured riots, police response was initially muted, allowing violence to continue for two to three days until prohibitory orders and curfew were finally enforced.
We spoke to many local residents who sense a conspiracy behind the violence. Ramesh, a tea stall owner, accused the RSS of instigating the violence. “It is the first time that I have witnessed that during Diwali, idols were placed outside a mosque,” he declared to my colleague Asad Ashraf. “It was intended to create trouble to polarise voters before the forthcoming elections.” Shafaque Khan pointedly asked, “I wonder how come brickbats were made available to the rioters in such a short period of time? Is that not a hint of something?”
Arrests followed but, again true to pattern, three times as many Muslim youth were arrested as Hindu men. The colony soon emptied of its Muslim young men, who fled in fear of further arrests. The image of impartiality of the police was further compromised because members of the ruling party were seen sitting in the police station through the days of the violence, but hapless relatives of the detained Muslim men, mostly women — desperately worried about the fate of their brothers, sons and husbands — were turned away. Those detained were not presented before a magistrate in the prescribed 24 hours and only after peace groups petitioned were they finally produced before a magistrate on Sunday night, three days after the violence had begun. Human rights activists present in the court found that the young men bore unmistakable marks of torture, and subsequently petitioned the National Human Rights Commission.
I return from violence-scarred Trilokpuri with a deep sense of sickness in my soul. The police are now in control of the situation. No doubt, life will start again for the working class residents and elections will be fought and won in a newly polarised electorate, but the bitterness of communal distrust will take a long time to be erased. I worry about how long communal hatred will be deployed as an instrument of political triumph through manufactured violence. How are we so easily able to divide our people at will and spur them into hate violence, people who otherwise left to themselves would live together with peace and amity?