What is that common thread which binds together the 2014 Trilokpuri riots, successive church attacks in Delhi and the Dadri lynching episode? All the three incidents occurred in the run-up to state assembly elections.
As part of this project titled ‘Politics of Communalism’, we travel back to places like Trilokpuri, Dadri, Rohini, Dilshad Garden and Vasant Kunj to find out how victims of violence unleashed in the back drop of elections are striving to piece together their lives while simultaneously grappling with government agencies for justice. We document the political involvement, reaction and ramification in each of these cases.
Communal violence is not new to our country. Even the birth of the nation was marred with intense bloodshed as millions skipped borders drawn by one Cyril Radcliffe. Post partition communal violence has been no less vicious. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, 1990 ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat are well etched in public memory.
Data concerning incidents of communal violence available with the Union Home Ministry suggest that in the last three years alone over 1500 communal incidents have been reported from across India. As a result over 250 people have died while thousands of others have sustained injuries.
The interesting thing is that bulk of these conflicts have taken place in large states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharshtra and Karnataka.
On the other hand, smaller states which are not considered to be politically significant considering their lesser representation in the Union Parliament appear to be less affected by communal rioting. Eight states, namely, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh reported zero incidents of communal violence between the years 2012-2014.
“If you are a political party that banks upon the votes of one particular religious community, if you have polarization then the likelihood is that as with Muzaffarnagar instead of being divided on the lines of say class or caste, if you have an inflammatory riot, you may well choose to affirm your principal identity in terms of faith,” says Social Historian Mukul Kesavan.
He adds, “The point of communal polarization is to encourage people to affirm religion or religious community as their principle identity. And if they do that, if you are a political party whose shall we say whose brand is based upon representing a particular political community you benefit.”
So were the riots in Trilokpuri, church attacks and lynching episode a manifestation of the politics of communalism, we find out...
During the Diwali season in October last year, Trilokpuri resettlement colony was the centre point of a Hindu-Muslim communal skirmish which allegedly occurred after the members of the two communities sparred in relation to the setting up of a Mata Ki Chowki i.e. a temporary religious structure near a local mosque.
“The riots were planted by the BJP as part of a carefully thought out political strategy to win the elections in Delhi.” says AAP MLA Raju Dhingan. He adds that his hands are tied since he doesn’t have evidence against anyone regarding their role in the riots otherwise he would have exposed them in the media.
Dhingan’s veiled comments were an apparent reference to deceased BJP leader Sunil Vaid who passed away in December 2014, shortly a month after the riots. He was accused of instigating the Hindu mobs during the rioting. However, Sunil Vaid’s widow Kiran Vaid, who unsuccessfully contested from Trilokpuri seat during the 2015 Delhi Assembly Elections, vehemently denies the accusation.
“Opposition leaders including Raju Dhingan have levelled false allegations against my husband. My husband literally ran after the boys and pleaded them to stop,” says Kiran Vaid. She mentioned that her husband did a lot of work for the local Muslim community and Muslim women were seen weeping during his funeral.
“Except for Dhinghan, go and ask any Hindu about the rioting (tum kisi Hindu se jaake poochlo), no one will say a word against my husband,” she says. Kiran Vaid claimed that her husband told her that “yuvaoon mein josh bhara hua tha” and though he tried a lot, he couldn’t entirely stop riots from occurring.
Though Trilokpuri’s local political leadership is largely dismissive of the riots, the wounds of the riot victims are yet to heal. In Block 27 stands Israr Khan’s ‘A-Z’ shop which was gutted down during the riots. A few blocks away, Qureshi, a roadside trader dealing in scrap and chicken, also couldn’t prevent his modest shop being burnt to ashes.
Israr claims to have suffered a loss of more than 1.3 crore rupees. His shop has been renovated but Israr is in massive debt and says that he won’t be able to repay it even after selling the jewellery of his six daughters. “The police committed a lot of atyachaar (atrocities) on us. They didn’t register our F.I.R. The I.O. (Investigating Officer) told me that even if you go right up till the High Court, your F.I.R. will not be registered,” he says.
“I knocked on all doors be it that of ACP, DCP, SHO and LG but to no avail,” he says. Very much like Israr Khan, Qureshi also sustained severe financial loses. He too is in debt.
Disenchantment with the police is not limited to Muslim victims living in predominantly Muslims blocks. On 25th October, 2014, two teenagers Arjun and Ajeet were injured as a result of police firing. While Arjun was hit in the head, Ajeet sustained a bullet injury in his stomach.
Ajeet underwent medical treatment for one week and was later discharged. “My life has been destroyed. I was studying in class ten but couldn’t attend classes afterwards. As a result, I failed. I am sitting uselessly at home and cannot even lift a bucket,” says fifteen year old Ajeet. Delhi Police provided his family with Rs 1 lakh as compensation but more than that amount was spent in treatment.
Sheila, Arjun’s mother, mentions that her sixteen year old is still not well. Arjun was treated at a private hospital which asked for Rs 75,000 to be deposited immediately. “Delhi police gave us a cheque of Rs 3 Lakh but I had to go to the DCP office several times over a period of one month to get the money,” says Sheila. She adds, “Delhi police didn’t behave responsibly. There used to be an SHO when my son was in the hospital but they haven’t even visited us once ever since he was discharged.”
Not far away from Block 28 lives Ashish, another young boy who was shot during the rioting. “There was a party at my place so my mother asked me to go and buy bananas form the market of Block 27. I went and was hit by a bullet,” says Ashish. After a botched up surgery at a local hospital, Ashish’s leg had to be amputated to save his life. Delhi police provided him with a cheque of Rs 3.5 lakh.
Social historian Mukul Kesavan, who closely observed the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Trilokpuri, is mindful of the role that the police play in the case of communal rioting. “I think it’s fair to say that in the case of Trilokpuri (2014) there doesn’t seem to be any spectacular case to be made for the police acting on behalf of one community,” says Kesavan.
Political apathy towards riot victims cuts across political lines.Neither sitting AAP MLA Raju Dhingan nor former BJP MLA Sunil Vaid came to meet the families of Arjun and Ajeet. Dhingan is also said to have told Israr Khan “dekhenge” (we will see) when he complained to him regarding the burning of his shop. Ashish also paid a visit to local BJP MP Mahesh Giri but without much result. He voted for Aam Aadmi Party in the 2015 Delhi Elections hoping that “they will do something after wining” but they never did.
But riot victims hardly have any other option. Elaborating on the lives of people in resettlement colonies of Trilokpuri, Mukul Kesavan says, “If you wanted a paani ka connection or bijli ka connection or a plot of land or a ration card, more than most other places you were dependent on the political figure who represented you, who could get them for you so really large populations in these resettlement bastis are made up of people who aren’t citizens, who have been in a sense so atomized and who have been so desperate that they are clients. They are clients of the political apparatus that run these areas. Their lives in a very real sense are contingent upon political patronage.”
Refusing to be cowed down by criticism, Raju Dhingan says that “over 3 lakh people live in Trilokpuri” and that he “cannot meet everyone.” He emphasizes that he tried to make himself as much available during the riots as he could and invoked Section 144 in the area. Though Dhingan acknowledges that he received complaints of arbitrary arrests from both the communities, he praised the police for clamping down on rioters. “If the police do not act harshly then riots won’t stop. The police did a good job here,” he says.
In order to make Trilokpuri more secure, Raju Dhingan plans to build hundred gates in different blocks to prevent outsiders from entering settlements at odd hours. The Muslims complain that instead of gates only pillars have been built in their blocks but Raju Dhingan is confident of delivering on his promise before Diwali. However, near Block 26, the residents have built their own saffron gate in the face of the neighbouring Muslim block with the national tricolour hosted on both its ends.
“What happened in Trilokpuri this time...is not that a particular political party orchestrated these skirmishes, but political parties were quick to take advantages of these skirmishes.” - Mukul Kesavan
That said, riot victims are of the opinion that Muslims and Hindus leave peacefully in Trilokpuri but political parties are responsible for fuelling hatred. While Ashish mentions that the Muslims supported Hindus during the Valmiki Jayanti celebrations this year, Israr Khan says, “We don’t have any enmity with Valmikis. Our shops were burnt as a result of politics.”
During his trip to India in January this year, US President Barack Obama stated, “India will succeed as long as it is not splintered on religious lines.” Shortly thereafter the Christian community in Delhi held a protest against attacks on churches on February 5, two days before Delhi went to polls on February 7. The protesters planned to march from Gole Dal Khana to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence but were detained midway and taken into preventive custody near the Sacred Heart Cathedral.
A week after Bharatiya Janata Party’s humiliating defeat in the Delhi Assembly Elections wherein the BJP could manage only three seats, Prime Minister Modi spoke out at a function organized by Christians in New Delhi to celebrate the sainthood of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia. “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” Modi told the gathering at Vigyan Bhawan.
He added, “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence.” While the Delhi police initially described the attacks on churches as “routine break-ins aimed at petty theft”, Union Finance Minster Arun Jaitley said in April that “we have found all these incidents were law and order problems. Not a single case was carried out by the majority community nor was it of political nature or communal.”
In the run up to the 2015 Delhi Assembly Elections which resulted in a historic mandate for Arvind Kejriwal led Aam Aadmi Party, five churches in the national capital reported incidents of desecration and arson. The attacks on churches coincided with the decision of the Central Government to observe “Good Governance Day” on Christmas as a tribute to former India Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This move attracted widespread condemnation and resistance from the Christian community with National Council for Churches in India issuing a statement accusing the government of “showing scant respect to the holy day of the Christians, Christmas.”
However, nearly twelve months after successive church attacks in Delhi, mystery still remains. Near the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital in Dilshad Garden is St Sebastian Church which was burnt down on the night of December 2, 2014. St Sebastian Church shares its boundaries with a Hindu temple with another church on the other side. In front of the church is a cemetery with a large Shiv idol at its entrance. Reparation work is underway at the church with burnt walls of the interiors yet to be fixed. Broken ceiling fans hang from the blackened ceiling. “We have been working here since quite a few months now but I think it will take us at least one year to rebuild the church,” says a labourer involved in reparation work.
Worshippers are gathering for the daily evening mass held at 6 P.M. Since the church is far from being fully repaired, worshippers avail of the community hall built next to church. After having led a modest gathering of 25-30 people in praying to Lord Jesus, Father Paria says, “We are finding it difficult. Today, there were less people but other days it is filled. On Sundays we don’t have space. We are putting chairs everywhere and trying to manage till the church is ready.”
Refusing to believe the theory that the church was gutted down as a result of short circuit, Father Paria says, “It is not at all (a case of short circuit). The balcony and sanctuary situated inside the church are quite far. There were special keyboards kept in the balcony which also got burned. It is impossible that these many things got burned because of the short circuit.” He added that what he heard was that in the run up to the “elections” some “miscreants” poured kerosene oil inside and burnt the church to disturb communal amity. “We (priests) stay in a flat because we don’t have any rooms to stay here. As a result we do not know what exactly happened. Still investigation is going on so we do not know what is the final result. It’s a mystery for us.”
Similar confusion persists at St Alphonsa’s Church, in Vasant Kunj area of South Delhi. Some unidentified men reportedly ransacked sacred objects inside the church between 1 A.M. to 3 A.M. on February 2. “When I came to make preparation for the morning mass I saw the door open. The lock had been broken,” says Dilip, a cleaner at the St Alphonsa’s Church since five years.
Despite the early morning desecration, the church went ahead with the morning mass on that fateful day. “The worshippers advised us to inform the police and we passed on the message to the authorities. The police came and so did politicians and media persons. The forensic team came after two hours and took the fingerprints of everyone living inside the church,” says Ivan, Co-Pastor at St Alphonsa’s Church.
“We cannot say whether it was a hate crime. What intention was in the mind of the attacker? Maybe theft. It was the time of elections,” he adds. However, Pastor Ivan points out that if the intention was theft then why didn’t the attacker(s) touch the offering boxes wherein money was kept. “The monstrance (holy vessel) was missing and the sacred objects in the adjacent room had also been vandalized,” he says. Unfortunately, CCTV cameras were not installed in the church at the time of the attack due to which no visual evidence exists in relation to the incident.
To probe into the attack the government has set up a Special Investigation Tem (SIT) which visited the church in October. Pastor Ivan reasons that “things have simmered down now” and the “outcome is positive.” Appreciating the Delhi Police, he says, “Since the day of the attack, the police have been posted here. They conduct regular patrolling. We will not stop praying to Jesus.”
But such optimism is not shared by Father Cyril Patrick at Church of Resurrection in Rohini. On January 3, a crib kept at the boundary wall of Church of Resurrection caught fire after a burning substance was allegedly thrown from outside the church premises. The police claim that it was a case of short circuit, an argument accepted by a lower court, but Father Patrick differs. “They (police) have taken all the stuff from the crib and taken it for further investigation. We have sort of lost the case in the lower court and what proof they have given us is that the material which we have used in the crib were Chinese. They were not good quality material so there was a short circuit and it burned. The magistrate said it must have happened so close the case.” He added, “But what we are saying now is they could have replaced the material which was in the crib with an inferior crib, with inferior material.”
Father Patrick maintains that peace has prevailed in the locality despite the one incident. He states that the Catholic community knows that “they will try to persecute us” but “we will stand against it”. “We are fighting this case because the prestige of the Catholic community is at stake. I am not very keen about it because I know ultimately we are going to lose it and we are spending lot of money on this case only.”
Refusing to draw parallels between Delhi elections and church attacks, Father Patrick believes the mischief of putting fire on the crib, representative of the cowshed where Jesus was born, was the work of some anti-social elements. “There may be some people threatening the Catholics because they believe we are converting people which we are not doing and to get converted to Catholicism is not an easy thing to be done and we normally discourage people from conversion. Even if anyone has got be converted and he expresses his desire, her desire they have got to attend classes in the church every week.” Besides that the person converting also has to file an affidavit to the authorities stating he/she is converting out of their own free will and there is no pressure on them.
With investigations still on, the debate concerning the attacks on Delhi’s churches starting December 2014 is far from over. While most political parties came out strongly against church attacks, the BJP which happens to be the ruling party at the Centre and controls the Delhi police, seemed to downplay the incident. The Delhi Police was approached to comment on the subject but they refused to entertain our queries.
On the night of September 28, 2015, a Hindu mob in Bisahara village of Dadri district in Uttar Pradesh barged into the house of a Muslim family whom they accused of beef consumption. The agitated mob lynched to death 52-year-old Muhammad Akhlaq and brutally assaulted his son Danish. The incident took place days after the Muslim festival of Eid-Al-Adha or Feast of Sacrifice.
With less than two weeks to Bihar Assembly Elections held over five phases from October 12-November 5, the Dadri lynching incident became a political hot potato. After Uttar Pradesh police’s decision to send the meat recovered from inside Akhlaq’s home for forensic testing, sympathy started swelling in for the family of the deceased. Bisahara village became critical for Bihar elections as several political leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Asaduddin Owaisi and Sangeet Som thronged the streets of Dadri.
After an array of irresponsible comments on beef consumption by BJP leaders including Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, Lok Sabha MP Sakshi Maharaj and Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay, beef rhetoric blazoned battlefield Bihar.
But on the day of Bihar Assembly election results, Bisahara village bears a deserted look. Police maintains strict vigil in various areas of the village even a month after the lynching. The village temple from where the call was made to gather and head towards Muhammad Aklhaq’s house is without a priest. The temple priest has fled the place.
Having become wary of the presence of the media, locals say “yeh media waale hain, inhe bhagao” (these people are from the media, they should be made to flee). When questioned in relation to their aggression, they accuse the media of one-sided coverage. “There is brotherhood between the two communities and no sign of any trouble,” says former village Pradhan Bhag Singh.
Muhammad Akhlaq’s house is situated in the Hindu dominated area of the village. The walls are painted blue and the entrance dons Arabic calligraphy. Akhlaq’s neighbours are apprehensive about speaking to the media. One among them says, “Humein apni jeeb ragad ke kya milega?” (What will I get for running my tongue?) Another one says “aap yahan se jao warna koi aake aapki pitayi karega” (go away from here or else people will come and thrash you.)
33-year-old village teacher Manoj taught Akhlaq’s sons Sartaj and Danish. “Both the boys were toppers. Sartaj topped in 2009 by scoring 72.4% marks while Danish topped in 2011 with 74% mark,” says Manoj. Sartaj, Akhlaq’s elder son, currently working as a technician with the Indian Air Force, made news following the lynching of his father by maintaining his calm and giving out the message of “saare jahan se acha, Hindustan humara.”
Manoj mentions that before the lynching took place, Bisahara village was well known for communal amity with Hindus and Muslims living together in peace. He fondly recalls Akhlaq Chacha and how Danish would greet everyone by saying Namaste. He further mentioned that when Akhlaq’s sister was getting married, the family did not have enough space inside their house. At that time, their neighbour Rajinder Rana helped them by providing them with room.
Among the prime accused is Vishal, the son of local BJP leader Sanjay Rana. Social Historian Mukul Kesavan holds Dadri lynching to be an “unplanned” but “politically significant” incident. “The reason Dadri became so significant is because political parties chose to vest significance in it so I think the political party most responsible in this case was oddly enough the BJP. I say oddly enough because Dadri is in UP. The BJP bears no administrative or executive responsibility for Dadri. If I had been a BJP spokesperson I would have said that look your complaint is best directed at the address of Akhilesh Yadav who is the Chief Minister of the state,” says Kesavan
He further argues that “at every level of the BJP” be that ideological mouthpieces, local leaders and even central ministers “made comments about Dadri that seemed shockingly misplaced given the grotesque nature of that violence.” According to Kesavan, cow protection has historically been among the core agendas of Hindu majoritarian movements. He reasons that Sangh Parivar leaders were “torn between this need” to distance themselves from the Dadri lynching and at the same time catering to their Hindu constituency of voters by “expressing solidarity” with those Hindus “who were responsible for the carnage.”
Akhlaq’s friend Ikram still can’t believe what transpired in the past few weeks. He remembers praying daily in the local mosque alongside Akhlaq. Prayers are now held in the mosque everyday without an Imam as the man who had gone home during Eid chose not to return after the lynching.
While the Bihar Assembly elections may have concluded, the distrust which seems to have taken seed in Bisahara remains to be resolved. Locals easily pin the blame for communal tensions on the media but an incident of the kind which we witnessed in Dadri could not have taken place without fertile land for friction on the ground.
“Predicting elections is a mug’s game. Nonetheless, I predict that the BJP will lose in Bihar. Killing beef eaters does not win elections,” wrote Swaminathan Aiyar in The Times of India while describing what he termed as the “Dadri Effect”. He argued that “journalists have long accused the BJP of trying to win Bihar by stoking communal passions with stunts like throwing calf heads or meat near temples. This is not conclusively proven.”
He went to add that the BJP’s refusal to issue an outright condemnation of the lynching of Muhammad Aklaq was a “clincher” in the sense that the BJP actually thought such tactics would amount to as a “vote-winner”. Elaborating on the beef industry in India, Aiyar mentioned how Dalits have benefitted in terms of employment in leather and footwear industry. He pointed out that “famers have always sold aged cows, oxen and buffalos to abattoirs” enabling our country to “become the biggest beef exporter in the world.”
In conclusion, Aiyar wrote, “Even if the economic side effects cost Modi no more than 2-3% of the vote, that could be electorally lethal. Many Indian election elections are lost on thinner lines.”
Political commentators have hinted at several reasons behind the victory of the maha gathbandhan or grand alliance of RJD, JD(U) and Congress over the BJP in the Bihar elections. While some claimed that RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on reservation and MoS External Affairs VK Singh’s remarks allegedly likening the killing of Dalit children in Faridabad to dogs cost the BJP heavy, others said that the grand alliance’s caste arithmetic did the trick coupled with the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
But what was the actual impact of the Dadri lynching or beef ban debate which seemed to have engulfed Bihar elections? There might be no clear answers to that question for now but The Indian Express reported in ‘BJP war room, caste, only caste, is the winner’. Quoting sources within the BJP, the newspaper mentioned in its report, “Is there any doubt that Muslims would not have voted en masse for the Grand Alliance? BJP raised cow and such issues only after Phase 3 and Phase 4 of voting was over. We have got 12 seats out of 23 so how can you say voters rejected us for mentioning cow and beef?”
In an academic paper titled ‘Riots Rewards? Study of BJP’s Electoral Performance and Hindu Muslim Riots’, Rohit Ticku at The Graduate Institute in Geneva set out to find whether “prior events of Hindu-Muslim riots electorally benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party.” He studied riots over a period of twenty years (1980-2000) and found that the BJP’s vote share increases “2.9 to 4.4 percent in response to different riot outcomes.”
Ticku concluded by writing, “I find a positive and significant effect of random riot events on BJP’s vote share across state assembly elections, over a twenty year period. These riots also seem to hurt the electoral performance of BJP’s principal opponent i.e. Indian National Congress. These riots lend further credence to the “electoral incentives” hypothesis i.e. anti minority events polarize votes towards parties representing majoritarian ideology.”
But would Ticku’s synopsis apply to the performance of the BJP in Delhi Assembly Elections wherein the party could manage only 3 seats even in the wake of the Trilokpuri riots? The Aam Aadmi Party emerged victorious with over 50% vote share and 67 seats. The interesting thing over here is that the AAP principally ate up the vote share of the Congress with the Grand Old Party registering more than 14% loss of vote share compared to just 0.8% of the BJP.
In Trilokpuri constituency, Raju Dhingan won by a margin of almost 30,000 votes with over 50% vote share. But the BJP’s candidate Kiran Vaid wasn’t that disappointing either. She got more than 45,000 votes with the BJP registering an overall increase of 12% vote share in Trilokpuri. Both the Congress and BSP together lost over 25% vote share in Trilokpuri (14% and 12%, respectively) with their candidates polling less than 5% votes.
With complex caste-communal arithmetic dominating elections in the country and data though not providing complete answers but suggesting gains at the local and state level post polarization, India must brace itself to withstand the politics of communalism which seems to be a potent electoral tool in the hands of political parties.