Gujarat to Delhi, a common thread: Riots remained localised

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Shops in eastern New Delhi were gutted by flames in three days of sectarian violence.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

N Sathiya Moorthy 28 February 2020

An interesting and even more worrying factor of the Delhi riots now is the fact that despite much ‘provocation’, violence has not spread outside, even to other areas in the national capital and nearby regions and states. The last time it was so localised was during the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002, says N Sathiya Moorthy

While it looks as if the latest spate of ‘Delhi riots’ was aimed at USpresident Donald Trump’s much-hyped India visit, it is for the police investigators and a judicial inquiry, or even a parliamentary panel, to find out the truth to come to the right conclusions in the matter, but perceptions remain.

One, and of course the popular thing is to blame it on the anti-CAA rioters, Muslims and ‘anti-nationals’, and of course Pakistan (though no one has named ISI in this or other protests of the kind, thus far).

The conclusion is that the violence was aimed at embarrassing the Narendra Modi leadership and the BJP-NDA government, and more so the Indian State and the people, in the eyes of the ‘increasingly friendly’ US president, and the larger American and global community, thanks mainly to the presence of the international media covering the Trump visit.

The alternate narrative runs thus. The Indian media has been too busy with the Trump visit ever since the two governments announced the schedule, and more so during the US president and his entourage’s stay in India, to bother about a protest that had ‘lost news relevance’ after the critically-important Delhi assembly polls.  

According to this school, the ‘Namaste Trump’ road show in Ahmedabad, followed by Trump’s stopover at Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram and Taj Mahal, were as much aimed at providing the much-needed diversions. The second day’s Delhi business meetings would not have provided much for the common TV viewers, who are also ‘Modi voters’, like their upper crust elitist counterparts.

The insinuation is that after the JNU and Jamia attacks earlier, the physical assault on the protestors may have been timed to ensure that the TV media in particular did not have time, energy and news space for the same. It is again for the police and other probes to seek the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

For now, the Supreme Court, in its oral observations, has blamed the police for mishandling the situation. Without specifying what they had in mind, the judges in an obiter dicta observed that if only the police had acted against those who made provocative speeches, leading up the present violence, things would have been much better.

It is quite possible the reference was to all the negative speeches/comments being made on TV by some participants at the Shaheen Bagh protest site and elsewhere (now across the country, spreading as far south as Chennai’s Washermanpet area). It could be equally so to the provocative speech of some BJP campaigners for the Delhi elections.

Included in the list are at least a party MP, whom the Election Commission promptly banned from inflecting further damage on the nation’s secularist credentials. The political Opposition and ‘anti-Modi sections’ of the media named a few senior ministers at the Centre and cited their own poll speeches.

As is the wont, the Congress party’s acting president has publicly demanded the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah, PM Modi’s right-hand man in matters of politics and now administration, too. Other leaders and the anti-Modi, anti-BJP sections of the social media have gone a step further, asking the prime minister to sack his home minister.

As an aside, from down south, eternally-aspiring actor-politician in super-star Rajinikanth, considered a current friend of PM Modi and a prospective poll ally or campaigner for the BJP, has specified the source of failure within the police. He has blamed the Delhi riots on ‘intelligence failure’, which again is an interesting angle that needs to be probed.

Just now, Rajini has been trying to wriggle out of personal appearance before the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan commission of inquiry, which is probing the 2018 police firing in Thoothukudi. After visiting the industrial port town that had witnessed police-firing which claimed the life of 13 protestors on the ‘Sterlite issue’, Rajini said ‘anti-social elements’ were behind the attendant riots.

The commission has since sought Rajini’s appearance for the source of his information. Rajini has said that his personal appearance may disturb the citizenry as his fans could mob the place and cause avoidable inconvenience. However, his critics, including possible/prospective political rivals like Seeman, leader of the Naam Tamizhar Katchi (NTK), have asked how much more could the local citizenry be affected than when he visited Thoothukudi within days of unprecedented riots and police firing.

Be it as it may, there is now the question if Rajini would be asked for his source of information on his charge of ‘intelligence failure’ behind the Delhi riots. Yet, some of his conventional critics are happy that he has finally laid the blame for the riots on the Modi-led Centre.

In what should be an unpreceded move since the days the office was created two decades back, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited the riots site twice already, and has also been actively involving himself in official-level meetings discussing the ground situation. His visits cannot be compared with one of his predecessors, M K Narayanan’s visit to the Mumbai sites after 26/11, as the terrorist angle and the ISI’s involvement were already a proven fact — and it was the NSA’s job to monitor and study the matter in full.

Doval’s site visits may have also been a major contributing factor in the relative calming down of situation in the days after the conclusion of the Trump visit.

The same cannot be said of the government’s repeated directives for media houses to play down provocative statements and acts. While sections of the media are more irresponsible than even their social media counterparts, just a telephone call from Delhi would do the trick, in most cases. That is not being done.

Another interesting and even more worrying factor of the Delhi riots now is the fact that despite such ‘provocation’, violence has not spread outside, even to other areas in the national capital and nearby regions and states. The last time it was so localised was during the infamous Gujarat riots of 2002. While close to a thousand were butchered in select regions of the state, it did not spread beyond that region – not to all over the state, and not definitely to the rest of the country.

Every account now of the current phase of Delhi riots will be peppered with instant references to Jamia and JNU, ‘ghar-vapsi’ and ‘mob-lynching’. That a single community was at the receiving end of the violence outside of the two Delhi educational institutions would be taken back to read in a pattern, dating back to Gandhiji’s assassination at times, but definitely to the post-Ayodhya demolition violence and the Gujarat riots.

That is the kind of live imagery that could also push all rightful and truthful references to the ‘Delhi riots’, read anaemic, pathetic and apologetic.

If in the process President Trump gets blamed for looking the other way when another part of Delhi was protesting and at times burning, during the long run-up up to the presidential polls back home, then he has only himself to blame. The question is if it would smudge some of the electoral advantages that he might have accrued for his candidacy, through the multi-billion dollar military sales, creating or retaining jobs for his constituents.

For now Democratic ticket-hopeful Bernie Sanders has targeted Trump for silence on the issue while on Indian soil. He has been after the Trump-Modi duo ever since Houston’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event last year, when critics in both nations accused the Indian PM of ‘launching’ Trump’s re-election campaign.

Yet, an Indian BJP second-line leader’s threat for the party to get involved in American elections — and withdrawn as fast — may take what the two leaders said is an ‘internal affair’ of India, to a new, non-governmental level. India may then come to be seen as playing Pakistan despite denunciation, and take internal politics to external arenas, which Modi began doing with his first innings as PM.

This has consequences that might go beyond elections and ‘internal affairs with an external angle’. As with Pakistan it has already changed India’s politico-administrative priorities and policies. In the case of Pakistan, the consequences of ‘Indianising’ the nation’s internal developmental and political issues, have already proved to be near-fatal.

Yet, but for the US presidential poll campaign taking such a course, Trump may have had his way all through the visit,  without the US yielding an inch on issues that India needed American indulgence — be it on the visa front or trade talks or whatever else. His ‘Assignment India’ otherwise was akin to Obama gloating over saving 25,000 American jobs during his India visit ahead of his seeking a second term in 2012. At the time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed India’s decision to purchase more Boeing aircraft for the already-sick Air India. 

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University