The message from Delhi

More than mere ‘communal violence’, the recent events mark a disturbing turning point in contemporary Indian politics

Despite surface similarities, what happened in Delhi last week was not a “riot”, at least not what we used to mean by that term. Nor is it accurately described by other old-fashioned terms such as “communal violence” or “pogrom”. The truth is that we do not have a single word or phrase yet that can name this phenomenon, because it is really the newest stage of an ongoing project rather than a stand-alone event. Before discussing this project, it may be helpful to note some of the reasons why older descriptions do not fit.

Also Read: Delhi violence | HC asks police to file report on rehabilitation measures for victims

Graphic depictions

If the 2002 riots of Gujarat were our first in the age of the mobile phone, the rampaging mobs of Delhi have scripted India’s first encounter with public violence in the era of the smart phone. Despite the inevitable risk of fakery, this is undoubtedly the first time that copious audio-visual documentation of wholesale violence has emerged almost immediately. Video clips of horrific acts of wanton cruelty are criss-crossing social media, speaking eloquently of the unspeakable. Deeply shocking as these images are, their effect is even more stunning. Graphic depictions of inhumanity have not elicited remorse or changed minds; rather, they have deepened biases and hardened stances. At least this is how it seems a week later.

One explanation for this is the media, particularly television and digital platforms. Our society has never been as media saturated, nor have our media been as blatantly one-sided as they are now. The bulk of the electronic media are strongly and blindly supportive of the ruling party and the government, and they fawn on the Prime Minister, who can do no wrong in their eyes. Even when confronted with damning evidence, the so called ‘godi’ (or lapdog) media finds ways to defend the indefensible, the more aggressive elements even going on the offensive with “alternative facts”.


But the major part of the explanation lies elsewhere, and is far more important. The Delhi violence and its aftermath point to the truth that, today, a large mass of people have been injected with hate and inoculated against all antidotes. Such people are convinced that they already have all the facts they need. They are programmed to regard arguments against their worldview as proof of a conspiracy against it. Their staunch beliefs are not random perversions, or a legacy from the past. They are the fruit of long and painstaking ideological work at the grass roots. How to counter this work and undo its effects is the central question of our time.

Interesting read: Delhi violence | Arvind Kejriwal urges riot-affected families to return home

The Shaheen Bagh model

Another striking difference from the major riots of the past is the absence of a clear and commensurable provocation; 1984 had the assassination of a Prime Minister by her Sikh bodyguards as the trigger, while 2002 had the Godhra train deaths attributed to Muslims. The year 2020 has nothing comparable, except the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) iconised by Shaheen Bagh. More an inspiring model than a place, Shaheen Bagh is quite exceptional as a provocation for unrestrained brutality and killings. It is a peaceful protest led by women of all ages including the elderly; it constantly invokes nationalist symbols, speaks a non-sectarian language, and adopts the Preamble to the Constitution as its manifesto. Spreading quickly (albeit unevenly) across much of the country, the Shaheen Bagh model of protest is the first significant political challenge faced by the Modi-Shah duo since their rise to power in 2014.

Also read: Shaheen Bagh interlocutors file report in Supreme Court

No matter how annoying these protests were to daily commuters, and regardless of the local conflicts between rival groups of activists, there was nothing here to justify the organised looting, arson and murder that ensued. The argument that this was Delhi’s “punishment” for rejecting the ruling party in the recent Delhi Assembly election is an inadequate explanation because the loss did not matter a great deal in the larger scheme of things. The acts of omission and commission of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) both before and specially after the violence point to another major truth about contemporary politics. It is one of the most significant achievements of the Modi-Shah project that no major party is willing to take even the slightest risk of appearing to be pro-Muslim today.

Game-changing point

This argument can be taken further. The Delhi violence may mark a decisive turning point in the post-2019 phase of the Modi-Shah project when the nationalist-cum-anti-Muslim agenda has generated enough momentum to break free of electoral compulsions. If true, this is a momentous event. It implies that the Hindu-majoritarian agenda has won the political battle so decisively that it can even afford to lose elections. In other words, elections will be won or lost on “lesser” local or current issues, but both winners and losers will support Hindu-majoritarianism. Seen from the reverse angle, this means that challenges to Hindu-majoritarianism can only be staged outside of electoral politics.


But the Modi-Shah project is more than and different from a Hindu-majoritarian agenda. This distinction is vital because it is the only ray of hope for those who oppose both.

Put simply, the Modi-Shah project is a deeply authoritarian two-man bid for capturing and retaining power that is riding two horses simultaneously, namely crony corporatism and Hindu-majoritarianism. Only after its second consecutive landslide win in 2019 has the Modi-Shah duo acquired enough leverage to become the dominant partner vis-à-vis its allies, but it still needs both. Sites of probable friction between the dynamic duo and each of their two allies, or between the allies themselves, are the most productive sites for mounting a challenge to the Modi-Shah project itself.

The daunting but urgent task is to begin mapping these sites in concrete political terms. Frankly, this is uncharted territory, and the success of the Modi-Shah project has transformed the landscape. Challengers must contend with the almost complete subversion of all the institutions that are constitutionally designed to protect and nurture precisely this kind of democratic contestation, including the judiciary, the police, the bureaucracy, the media, universities, and even data-gathering organisations.

Looking inwards

In the last analysis, Delhi 2020 is different from earlier instances of “communal violence” for two main reasons. First because it marks the launching of a sophisticated campaign to “Dalitise” Muslims, a story that cannot be told here. Second, because it identifies a turning point in contemporary Indian politics. The clearest signs that we may arrived at this point came not during but after the violence. A message was hidden in the decided lack of regret and in the shocking continuity of the same voices shouting the same slogans (including “goli maaro”), now calling it a “peace march”. In the language of map apps, this message said that the mindset called “Hindu Rashtra” may no longer be our destination — it may have become our current location.

There is a crucial question that we Indians should be asking ourselves before it is too late, particularly the vast majority who identify, or are identified by others, as Hindus. Is this really what we want?

Satish Deshpande teaches Sociology at Delhi University. The views expressed are personal

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 1:19:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-message-from-delhi/article30965452.ece

Next Story