It’s not necessary to talk in alarmist tones about the breakdown in law and order.
It is not yet summer, but the political situation in Delhi has been moving towards boiling point as the Narendra Modi government had decided to sit out the two-month-long protest of Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh over the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in one part of Delhi. The violence that erupted on Sunday and Monday (February 23-24) in Muslim-dominated areas of northeast Delhi is the result of clashes between anti-CAA (read Muslim) and pro-CAA (read Hindu) protesters. It is in effect a communal riot, the Hindu-Muslim one.
There are enough reasons to argue that Delhi BJP member Kapil Mishra, who was formerly with the AAP, had issued an ultimatum that the Delhi police must free up the roads blocked by the anti-CAA protesters and that they — supposedly those affected by the protests — would hold their peace until US President Donald Trump’s visit ends on Tuesday (February 25), and if the police fails to disperse the protesters, they (Mishra’s cohorts) will take to the streets and not heed the police. It was an open statement made at a pro-CAA rally led by Mr Mishra in the presence of the police on Saturday (February 22). After the violence broke out and arsonists from both sides went on the rampage, a police head constable and four other civilians were killed, more than 100 people injured and a police officer is in the ICU after sustaining injuries in stone-pelting, Mr Mishra appealed for peace and for maintaining communal harmony.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal confined himself to issuing an appeal for peace. He had an alibi for not doing anything about the violence as law and order in Delhi is the responsibility of the Union home ministry, headed by Amit Shah, who was busy with the “Namaste Trump” event in Ahmedabad. The police in Delhi was apparently restrained due to the American President’s presence in the national capital, and they would not resort to using force to deal with protesters. Delhi and India and must appear democratic and decent while the US presidential visit lasts. There is the other conspiracy theory too, that the anti-CAA Muslim protesters in these parts of Delhi had decided to step up their protests in order to draw international attention. Clearly, Muslims in the affected northeastern parts of the city were not going to follow the example of the Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh. It was the proverbial tinderbox situation.
It may be possible to identify the agent provocateurs, but that would not explain the situation where tempers are rising all around. The BJP and the RSS have over the past few years created enough of a gulf between Hindus and Muslims, helped largely by the electoral victories of 2014 and 2019. The women at Shaheen Bagh were both patient and obstinate, but the other anti-CAA protesters cannot be expected to do the same thing. What seemed a virtue with the Shaheen Bagh protests — that it was spontaneous and there were no leaders — seems to have become a problem with other anti-CAA protesters. The Union home ministry and other ardent pro-CAA supporters — mostly Hindutva zealots — suspect that the anti-CAA protests are being managed by someone like the People’s Front of India (PFI) of Uttar Pradesh. No one is waiting to verify whether this is actually true or not.
It’s not necessary to talk in alarmist tones about the breakdown in law and order. The police can bring things back to normal by holding flag marches and posting men in large numbers in fragile and sensitive areas. The police had proved it could do this when a temple desecration took place near the Jama Masjid area over a year ago. The Hindutva zealots on the social media were only too eager to fan the communal flames, but the police kept the situation under control. But the police alone couldn’t have done it. They were helped by the community leaders of Hindus and Muslims in the locality, who intervened and did not allow things to get out of hand.
It’s time then for community leaders to step out and ensure that the pro- and anti-CAA protests don’t turn into Hindu-Muslim clashes, though there are enough people on both sides who would want it to turn into a communal conflagration. This is necessary as political leaders of the BJP, AAP and Congress have failed to do their job. The BJP leaders are keen that it turn into a communal clash because that is the only way they can justify the CAA to their core Hindutva constituency. The AAP is not a vocal supporter of inter-communal harmony and bonhomie because it knows that its support base is among the majority Hindus. The Congress would want to manage Hindu communalists as well as the Muslim vote. Amit Shah, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi will make their tactical moves at the right time. The people of Delhi should not be looking to them for any help.
Mr Modi and Mr Shah have reiterated that there will be no climbdown on the CAA. They will remain inflexible because of their parliamentary majority. The CAA protests must continue, but the protesters will have to negotiate their way through the minefield of Hindu and Muslim communalism. The violence that erupted in northeast Delhi in the past few days will be the likely pattern of clashes over the CAA. Second, the Shaheen Bagh women need to form a committee of their own to steer the protests, and to prevent troublemakers from hijacking the peaceful movement. More important, it is necessary that majority Hindus must step out and take a position against the CAA that displays the unflattering colours of Hindutva. Hindus must recognise that discrimination against Muslims is discrimination against all Indians. The issue must be fought through democratic and peaceful means, and through constitutional channels like the courts and legislatures.
Protests are wonderful expressions of the democratic spirit, but they have their limitations. The CAA challenges, and effectively subverts, the high ideal of equality, and it is the duty of all democratic Indians to argue against it. But there is also the need to respect the position of those who are in favour of the CAA. That is what democracy is all about — arguing over our differences and respecting each other’s positions. That is the only way to keep the hoodlums out of the political process.