Violence after violence: The politics of narratives over the Delhi pogrom

28 March 2020

Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. Co-editor of ‘The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election’ (2019), he is the author of two monographs on Indian politics and religions and editor of the forthcoming ‘Are Anthropology and Ethnography Equivalent?’ (Berghahn, 2020). He tweets @IrfanHindustan.

The deadly violence in India’s capital last month hasn’t ended with the anti-Muslim pogrom that it was. It continues in the politics of being termed a riot, an old tactic of flattening the gigantic power inequality between the country’s Hindus and Muslims.

A handicraft shop gutted during the anti-Muslim pogrom in India’s capital New Delhi, late February. At least 52 people were killed in the violence, most of them Muslim. (Published with permission)

It was not only human lives that were allowed to be annihilated during the days of political violence unleashed in the northeastern localities of India’s capital New Delhi late last month. Words, too, are being massacred in (mis)characterizing that violence. The problem is: without correct naming, we can understand neither the violence nor its past or future. It isn’t mere verbal gymnastics; naming is critical to the diagnosis of the problem as also to its prevention. Indeed on naming rests, in many ways, life as well as death. To safeguard the chastity of language, and my own ethical integrity, I will, therefore, not call the violence in Delhi a riot, as it’s being widely called. But let me name it what it truly is: a pogrom. I explore the subject in this essay.

There is a hidden politics that the name riot performs. It institutes a false equalization that flattens the gigantic power inequality between Hindus and Muslims, and in a single stroke makes them both equally capable and responsible for riot, itself wrongly viewed as between two communities. This false equalization stands on a pervasive but incorrect idea that a “balanced” approach entails condemning both minority and majority communalism, which supposedly mirror each other. Given this notion of resemblance, in the book The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare, I call this received wisdom the “ditto theory.” Ditto refers to resemblance. Its perfect example is a thread of tweets posted on 26 February by television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai: “Political Hindutva vs radical Islam has created a volcanic situation [in Delhi].” Sardesai’s tweet was only a “nuanced” version of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Amit Malviya, who, with no evidence, dubbed it a “violent Islamic onslaught.”

Views like Sardesai’s inform academic Ashis Nandy’s, too. A journalist from The Tribune asked him a question that already contained its answer: “How do you see Delhi riots from a Hindu versus Muslim perspective since it wasn’t one-sided?” Pat came Nandy’s reply: “Yes, it was from both sides.”

To establish the terminological accuracy of pogrom is to simultaneously interrogate the descriptor “riot” and examine the ditto theory. To this end, we must begin where it all started: British colonial politics.

Genealogy of riots in India

Like “communalism,” “riot” in India has a peculiar meaning. Outside India, a riot refers to unplanned violence by civilians against the state or its symbols or allies. To sociologist Loukia Kotronaki and political scientist Seraphim Seferiades, a common feature of all riots is the “unexpected, convulsive nature of their outburst.” David Waddington, a British sociologist of riots, maintains that rioters are civilians and their violence is directed primarily against the police and only rarely against the public.

Consider three recent examples of riots in Western countries: the 2005 riots in France, the 2008 riots in Greece, and the 2011 riots in England. In all three cases, riots were sparked by the killing of youth by the police. For instance, in Greece, it was the killing in Athens of a 15-year-old student, Alexis Grigoropoulos, by the police that led to three weeks of rioting. In England, it was the murder by the London police of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old African-Caribbean man, which ignited riots that spread to several cities. In none of these cases did the police aid or join the rioters.

While Muslims had communalism, Hindus had only nationalism. By virtue of merely being Hindu, every Hindu was naturally a nationalist whereas Muslims were taken, again naturally, as communal, unless they proved that they were nationalist.In contrast, riot in India has historically been viewed between two communities. As historian Gyanendra Pandey observes, British colonialism considered itself a neutral ruler whose job was to maintain law and order by preventing clashes between myriad not-yet-modern communities, especially the Hindus and Muslims. In the eyes of the British, Hindus and Muslims clashed against each other because of their respective religions and primordial sentiments. In other words, there was an instinctive hostility between Hindus and Muslims which defied any political rationality. In this theory, clearly there was justification for colonial rule. Left to themselves, these communities would endlessly fight against each other and British rule alone could guarantee peace. That is, the British state was neither the cause of nor a party to the so called Hindu-Muslim violence but only its spectator or regulator.

With the anti-colonial movement, especially early twentieth century onward, the nationalist movement too reproduced colonial assumptions. This manifested itself, for one, in the notion of Hindu-versus-Muslim communalism, the two mirroring each other. However, there was another assumption that encompassed everything else: while Muslims had communalism, Hindus had only nationalism. Pandey demonstrates this, again so tersely, in the ubiquitous category of “nationalist Muslims” and the stark absence of its logical correlate: “nationalist Hindus.” By virtue of merely being Hindu, every Hindu was naturally a nationalist whereas Muslims were taken, again naturally, as communal, unless they proved that they were nationalist.

After India’s independence, the post-colonial state stuck to the colonial theory of Hindus and Muslims fighting against each other. This theory allowed the state to claim its neutrality and absolve itself of any role in generating or sustaining the “Hindu-Muslim” conflict. In short, the ditto theory, traceable to colonialism and adopted by the independent state, informs all accounts of communal violence since 1947.

Before and after the 2020 pogrom

The ditto theory—that it is not the state but the two communities that are (equally) responsible for Hindu-Muslim violence—prevailed well into the 1980s, a period which scholars recognize as marking a new phase of “riots.” The 1989 Bhagalpur “riot” best exemplifies this theory. Despite evidence of complicity of the police and civil administration in the killings, it was called, and continues to be called, a riot. That rioting does not include only killing, looting properties, and pillaging sources of livelihood but also destroying its evidence is a separate, though connected, matter.

The most cautious figure of the people killed in the Bhagalpur violence, as documented in its 1990 report Bhagalpur Riotsby the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) is 1,000. Muslims formed 93 percent of these victims. A direct outcome of the Ramshila and Shilanyas processions taken by the Sangh Parivar—a collective term used for India’s Hindu right wing—to build a Ram temple in place of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya, the pogrom was not limited to the city; it engulfed more than a dozen villages. Killing and looting lasted not for days or weeks but for months. Begun on 24 October 1989, the pogrom continued well into the new year. For the first time, as a teenage student of BN College, Patna University, and living in Patna’s Sultanganj area, I experienced curfew and what it meant to live in terror in the wake of the Ayodhya campaign that later in 1992 illegally destroyed the Babri Masjid. I will return to this biographical aspect at the end.

The then chief minister of Bihar expressed the ditto theory as follows. In a statement to reinstate normalcy, he spoke of the destruction of religious places of both Hindus and Muslims even as there was not a shred of evidence of any damage caused to a Hindu shrine or temple. Likewise, the documentary on the Bhagalpur violence by journalist Nalini Singh, shown on national television, struck equivalence between Jamalpur and Logain, sites of violence against Hindus and Muslims respectively. Four persons were killed in Jamalpur while 110 people were massacred in Logain. Criticizing the biases in her documentary, Abdur Rahim, a professor of media studies at Osmania University, later noted how Singh showed Hindus as exceptionally “tolerant.”

Even the PUDR report replayed the ditto theory when, contrary to details in its own findings, it described the Bhagalpur violence as “riots” which “broke out between Hindus and Muslims.” The descriptor riot was an ideological imposition because the people that the PUDR spoke to did not call it so. Thus, one 70-year-old called it “qatl-e-ʿām” (massacre), stating pointedly: “nowadays the police kill and loot.”

More than 30 years after the Bhagalpur pogrom, Sardesai, the “liberal” television journalist—I wonder if he still calls himself secular—termed the Delhi violence a riot. In the tweets mentioned earlier, he wrote: “This is a Hindu Muslim riot in which BOTH communities have been involved in terrible acts of violence.” Sardesai’s capitalization of “both” stems less from his purported knowledge of “ground reality” and more from the language of the majoritarian politics even the PUDR is beholden to. He added: “Tough to say who ‘started’ it.”

Think about the mammoth power inequality between Hindus and Muslims, and the recent open incitements of anti-Muslim violence by leaders of the BJP. If the certitude in Sardesai’s tweet that there is “a Hindu Muslim riot” in which both are equally involved is not innocent, so is his doubt about who initiated what he calls a riot. In the same thread, Sardesai posted another tweet: “Political Hindutva vs radical Islam has created a volcanic situation.” Note the bizarre logic of equivalence. What evidence does Sardesai have about his insidious invention of radical Islam? Even within this invention aimed to achieve equalization, there is a stark asymmetry. The corresponding phrase for political Hindutva is political Islamism, not radical Islam. Thus, it should be radical Hinduism versus radical Islam. By not using political or Islamism in case of Muslims, Sardesai makes Islam as a faith and tradition radical whereas he analytically protects Hinduism from Hindutva. The next sentence of the same tweet (Sardesai later deleted it but a screenshot was tweeted by Mohammad Reyaz, a professor at Kolkata’s Aliah University) takes the equivalence to a laughable extreme: “The slightest trigger, be it Shaheen Bagh like road protest or incendiary speech, is enough to lead to an eruption [of riot].” If by incendiary speech he meant that of Anurag Thakur, a junior minister in the country’s federal government, or Kapil Mishra, a former BJP lawmaker in the state of Delhi, notice the unjust move in which the women-led peaceful protest of a disempowered collectivity in Shaheen Bagh is put on the same plane as anti-Muslim hate speech by male chauvinist members of a ruling party wielding power with no accountability.

Think about the mammoth power inequality between Hindus and Muslims, and the open incitements of anti-Muslim violence by BJP leaders. If the certitude in Sardesai’s tweet that there is ‘a Hindu Muslim riot’ in which both are equally involved is not innocent, so is his doubt about ‘who initiated’ what he calls a riot. On 28 February, Ashutosh, a journalist and former politician who runs the news portal, did a show to reveal the “truth of riot” (danga) in India. He cited many examples of violence—Ahmedabad, Aligarh, Bhagalpur, Hashimpura, Maliyana, Gujarat (2002), and Muzaffarnagar (2013). Unlike the 1984 Delhi violence, which he rightly called the “massacre of Sikhs,” he made no mention of Muslims as he used the term danga for violence in all the above-mentioned places. He told his viewers that his inquiry had made it clear that “the conflict between both communities has deepened” and “both have prepared themselves” for a “war” (jañg). Though once he issued a disclaimer that he blamed neither Hindus nor Muslims, the example of “preparation” that he gave concerned only Muslims.
Ashutosh referred to Tahir Hussain, a local Muslim leader belonging to the party ruling the Delhi state, at whose house petrol bombs were allegedly found. He also mentioned Shahrukh, who brandished a pistol at a constable. He did not state the source of his information, let alone judge its accuracy. For instance, Newslaundry ran an informed piece interrogating the evidence in framing Hussain. Exonerating the police of any role in its enactment, Ashutosh not only scripted the “riot” as between Hindus and Muslims but, through his select examples, he showed Muslims as aggressors and Hindus as victims. Such is “the truth” behind Ashutosh’s show and his news portal, which in English means Can one say that it is truth worshipping power rather than questioning it, even gently?

Pogrom in its details

This is not to say that all Muslims are saints, though one wishes they were. Of course, they too took to killing. Like the Bhagalpur pogrom in which 93 percent of those killed were Muslim and 7 percent Hindu, in the Delhi pogrom too there were Hindus among the killed: in a city where Muslims are 12 percent of the population, they constitute 71 percent of the victims. Beyond the dehumanizing ethnic counting of how many killed were from each community, I submit that the violence in Delhi, considering all its asymmetrical power configurations—organization, goals, role of the administration and mainstream media—qualifies as a pogrom on three counts.

First, as noted at the outset, unlike a riot the key feature of which is its convulsive nature, what happened in Delhi was purposive and in no way spontaneous. This distinction between convulsive and purposive is an important one to distinguish riot from pogrom. However, the two should also be analyzed as spectrum and continuum because something begun as a riot can potentially be turned into a pogrom. What is more, the description “spontaneous” may not be intrinsic to the phenomenon itself but often a label to present what is planned to appear spontaneous. This label, especially in relation to the “mob” violence, shields perpetrators from identification and, eventually, punishment. To give a historical example, as noted by historian Leonidas Hill, Joseph Goebbels did his best to make the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom “appear spontaneous.” If I seem to belabor this point too much, it is also because I want to lay Yogendra Yadav’s claim to rest. Calling the Delhi violence “riot,” he described it as “auto-triggered.” This seems pure mysticism, Yadav-style.

Paul Brass, an outstanding scholar of political violence in India, has busted the myth of spontaneity and instead called communal violence “institutionalized riot systems.” What turns a riot into a pogrom, he writes, is “when it can be proved that the police and the state authorities more broadly are directly implicated in a ‘riot’ in which one community provides the principal or sole victims…” Since the killing does not happen in a vacuum, Brass stresses to account for the “atmosphere” that precedes a pogrom. The atmosphere is not simply a precondition but a cause of it. This precisely is the second reason to name the violence in Delhi as a pogrom.

A pogromist atmosphere existed well before the actual pogrom. The proximate atmosphere was the countrywide democratic, peaceful protest against India’s new citizenship law many justifiably criticize for being discriminating against Muslims. Having first ignored and then stigmatized the unexpected resistance, the BJP, in league with its allies in various sectors of the polity, began to portray it as “anti-national.” In the right-wing dictionary, anti-national does not mean socio-economic policies that cripple the most ordinary people but the unfounded, inimical notion of being “pro-Pakistan,” directed mainly against Indian Muslims. Not just junior functionaries but the top brass of the party-government including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah themselves hinted at the protests being “anti-India and pro-Pakistan.

Thakur, the federal minister, displayed this politics of enmity when in a recent election rally he incited the crowd to kill Muslims by raising the slogan, “Dēsh kē g̣haddārōñ kō/Gōlī mārō sālōñ kō (which translates close to “to the nation’s traitors/shoot the sister-fuckers).” It was in the wake of Thakur’s incitement that a 17-year-old Hindutva activist, linked to many rabidly Islamophobic elements, went to the Jamia Millia Islamia university to terrorize the protesters there. He brandished his pistol and opened fire at the crowd, prancing insouciantly towards the police, who watched on. Soon, Kapil Gujjar, a supporter of Modi, barged into the protest camp in Shaheen Bagh and fired shots. Gujjar proclaimed that “only Hindus will prevail” in India.

Barely 15 miles away from Delhi, in Ghaziabad, Yati Narsinghanand made umpteen violent statements to eliminate Muslims as well as Islam. Head priest of the Devi Temple, Narsinghanand is a leader of the Hindu Swabhiman and president of the Akhil Bharatiya Sant Parishad. Maintaining that “Islam must be removed to save humanity,” Narsinghanand spoke of a “final war against Muslims.” He also applauded Mishra, the former BJP lawmaker, who alone “stood for Hindus against Jihadis in Delhi.”
Narsinghanand praised Mishra for his speech in which he, standing beside the deputy commissioner of police, decried the anti-citizenship law protestors and threatened if the police did not end the protest, he and his men will do so. That Mishra made this speech in presence of the commissioner, who rather than act against him obediently listened to him, was revealing. A day after Mishra’s speech, the pogrom began. When the distraught people called the emergency 100 number, it went unanswered for up to three days and nights. The absence of the police in the theatre of violence was likewise noticeable. This is one of the key findings of a report based on visits to violence-affected areas including Bhajanpura, Chand Bagh, Gokulpuri, Chaman Park, Shiv Vihar, Main Mustafabad, Bhagirathi Vihar, and Brijpuri.

When and where present, the police, instead of acting against the killers, attacked the unarmed, helpless people. For instance, the police kicked nine-month pregnant Parveena in her stomach, beat her with a baton and insultingly hurled the following: “Yē lō āzādī” (here, take your freedom). This was the police’s “revenge” against the protestors many of whom had raised slogans for freedom—such as from discriminatory policies and an unjust system as well as for fairness, equality, dignity, and justice. The complicity and culpability of the police were further evident from the brazen ways in which the mob, while coercing Muslims to chant the Hindu slogan of Jai Shri Ram, shouted, “long live the police,” “it is our administration, they are with us, it is our law.” To wipe evidence out, the police also broke CCTV cameras. Right in front of the police station in Bhajanpura, a Muslim mazār (shrine) was set on fire.

Third, a key aspect of a pogrom is that its target is not an individual or an undefined collectivity but a specific group. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines pogrom as “an organized massacre … of any body or class,” for the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, it is “an organized massacre and looting of helpless people, usually with the connivance of officials, specifically, such a massacre of Jews.” Linguistically Russian and derived from the anti-Jewish violence in Tsarist Russia, pogrom is now applicable to a variety of contexts. To the existing definitions of pogrom targeted at a class and people, Brass adds “community.”

Screen-grab of a video that went viral during the Delhi pogrom showing five severely injured men lying on a street while being beaten by men in police uniform and forced to sing the national anthem. All the injured turned out to be Muslim; one of them, Faizan, died on 27 February, two days after the incident.

Many credible reports show the targeted nature of attacks on Muslims. According to the report mentioned above, the violence resembled the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom: “The death toll is far less, but the targeting is truly frightening—where one shop is burnt, but the two adjacent shops on either side are not.” Along with selected targeting of homes, shops, and businesses, many places of worship were also attacked, some more devastatingly than others. The religious character of the pogrom and its sheer scale are additionally evident from the destruction and desecration of over 10 mosques, a shrine, and a cemetery. Leaving everything behind, when a single mother with her children managed to flee a site of carnage, the violent mob chased her threatening: “we will catch you and make you give birth to Shri Ram’s progeny.” During the nights of terror, slogans of Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram) and “Dēsh sē nikālō sālōñ kō, g̣haddārōñ kō” (throw out the sister-fuckers, the traitors from the country) reverberated throughout. Without multiplying examples, it is evident how the mob in cahoots with the police killed specific people, destroyed their properties and sources of livelihood—key elements of pogrom.

Furthermore, the targeting was distinctly religious in a double sense. Chanting religious slogans, the attackers presented themselves as religious. Likewise, they targeted the victims by identifying them by their religion, including by hurling slur words like katuyē, the circumcised. When Susheel Manav of Janchowk, a Hindi news portal, went to Maujpur to report from there, the Hindu crowd asked him why he visited the Hindu area, not the area of Mullē, an insulting word for Muslims. Soon the crowd began to beat him. The beating continued even after he showed his identity cards with his Hindu name. As the armed crowd thickened, one person took out his pistol, loaded it and aimed at Manav. A terrified Manav kept shouting, “Like you all, I am also a Hindu.” The assault, however, continued until he was stripped to determine if he was a Hindu—uncircumcised. Having ascertained his Hindu identity, he was allowed to leave at the instruction of the police, which had by then reached the scene. In Manav’s own account, on seeing the police, the attackers did not flee. They calmly stayed put there, joyfully conversing with one another.

Dwarfed humans

Recall the appeal for normalcy by Bihar’s chief minister after the 1989 Bhagalpur pogrom. Without any evidence, he had spoken of the destruction caused to religious places of both Hindus and Muslims. To enact the same logic of equalization at the heart of the ditto theory this essay deconstructs, in the 2020 Delhi pogrom the BJP-aligned media spread the news of a temple “forcibly occupied” and “attacked” by “frenzied Islamist fundamentalists.” Thanks to the investigative journalism by Newslaundry, the fakeness of this propaganda was revealed.

The principal aim of this essay was to examine the pervasive but unsustainable notions of Hindu-Muslim violence as “spontaneous.” In contrast, I have argued why the violence in Delhi should be called a pogrom, not a riot. Our failure to use accurate labels amounts to our participation in the continuation of analytical-symbolic violence after the acts and facts of bodily violence—the sheer annihilation of innocent lives. My choice of Bhagalpur and Delhi as case studies is intentional. Against the widespread dualistic view of the secular Congress party under which the Bhagalpur pogrom happened and the communal BJP, which presided over the 2020 Delhi pogrom, I show how pogroms as a phenomenon operate beyond party politics. This essay also challenges another dualism. In an article, Sushant Sareen of the Observer Research Foundation seemed to suggest, as did Yadav earlier, that the riot in Delhi simply “broke out.” Replaying the ditto theory, he also dismissed the truth outright, saying it depended on which of the two sides one stood. In contrast, my submission is that the truth, if bravely searched for, stands above the dualism of two sides, beyond which Sareen is scared to see.
Finally, considering the historical trajectories of most nation-states, I am convinced that truth will remain a casualty, and bloodshed almost an everyday reality, as long as we do not think beyond the prison house that nationalism—with its constitutive xenophobia and internal enmity—has become. In the deadly game of nationalism played between us-nationalists and them-anti-nationals, between us-Hindus and them-Muslims, let us pause to ask if there are any humans among us.

After the Bhagalpur pogrom, I visited the Urdu bookshops in Patna’s Sabzi Bagh to see a book of poems by Manāzir Āshiq Hargānvi, a professor at Bhagalpur University. Titled Āñkhōñ dekhī (Eyewitnessed), it was a tale of violence visited upon Bhagalpur.

Ādmī bahut hī bauna hō chuka hai
Apnī lambāī ka jẖuta ehsās bẖī bāqī nahiñ bacha

Humans have become so dwarfed
Even the illusion of tallness is no more

Deadly nationalism transforms humans into nationalized machines in figures such as Indians, Germans, Italians, and Chinese. And visible in its mirror are only terrifying shadows of a bruised humanity desperately in search of itself. Is it too much to say, then, that the dwarfed humans that Hargānvi poetically alluded to are the murderous products of ethnifying nationalism? It is too little, perhaps.

The above essay
is a part of