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Reports for posterity: on examining riots

The reports of committees examining riots are often ignored by the state but they are useful

July 28, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:34 am IST

A burnt tyre market at Gokalpuri riots hit area in New Delhi on March 05, 2020.

A burnt tyre market at Gokalpuri riots hit area in New Delhi on March 05, 2020.

In India’s evolving majoritarian political culture, the Delhi riots present an opportunity to examine not only how conditions under which riots occur have changed but also post-riot situations are addressed. Theoretically speaking, two things have happened: first, victims have often been presented as perpetrators; second, post-riot reconciliations between supposedly warring communities are not attempted thus creating an enduring source for the perpetuation of the politics of polarisation.

Context of riots

The findings of the the Delhi Commission for Minorities examining the Delhi riots of 2020 deserve serious attention, though the Arvind Kerjiwal government is yet to show any interest. Three particular contexts need to be borne in mind to make objective sense of these riots. The first are the political developments linked to the nationwide protests aginst the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the epicentre of which was Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. The second is the New Delhi Assembly election that was held on February 8, 2020 and how the unprecedented polarised campaign presented fuel for the violence. And finally, the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump to India. A close reading of the report reflects that the violence was shaped by the politics of these three particular contexts.

One fact becomes clear from the report: the Delhi riots were anti-Muslim almost the way the 1984 riots were anti-Sikh. In some instances, victims were asked to show their ID cards and targeted based on their faith, the report says. Testimonies of victims to the fact-finding committee reveal that slogans shouted by the mob were hate-filled and anti-Muslim. One woman, for instance, said there was a reference to the Partition movie Gadar . Many said the mob shouted that Muslim women should “run to save themselves”. Muslim women said their houses were looted, they were subject to vulgar language and even sexual harassment and assault. Additionally, the report presents a list of mosques, dargahs, madrasas and graveyards that were destroyed. The report mentions that there was selective targeting of Muslim shops while Hindu ones were left intact in the same neighbourhood.

On March 18, 2020, the fact-finding team wrote to the Delhi Police inquiring into the following questions: One, the list of detainees since February 23, 2020; two, police station-wise copies of FIR; and three, complaints not converted into FIRs. The Delhi Police gave no response either to these inquiries or to other clarifications sought by the the Commission. Testimonies by victims, survivors and journalists present ample evidence of the active complicity of the Delhi Police. An institution of a democratic country, the Delhi Police’s decision not to cooperate with the Minorities Commission in its inquiry is a matter of grave concern.

A matter of ritual

One major recommendation is to urge the Modi government to set up an independent committee headed by a retired High Court judge to inquire into the violence. Almost as a matter of ritual, such committees have been set up to examine various riots in modern India. But the track record of even the so-called secular non-BJP governments to implement the recommendations of such reports has been shoddy, contributing to the growing limitations of the Indian state to grapple with riots. And then there are other issues. For instance, the Justice Sahai Commission set up to investigate the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 gave a clean chit to the Home Department responsible for law and order under the then Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav. The Justice A.S. Naidu commission investigating the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2008, submitted its report in December 2015, but that report is yet to be tabled in the State Assembly.

However, the fact that previous governments have not taken the reports of such Committees seriously should not discourage the setting up of Committees to examine riots. If nothing else, such reports remain useful as historical records.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi

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