The Hindu-Muslim violence that began on Friday in Trilokpuri in East Delhi, is trivial compared to the riots and pogroms that disfigure India’s recent history. A couple of bullet wounds, a dozen or so injuries, pitched street fights where young men and boys threw stones and bricks at each other and dispersed, seems to be the extent of the violence. While the area is still tense, prohibitory orders and riot police seem to have brought the violence under some sort of control.
But Trilokpuri isn’t just any neighbourhood in Delhi. Exactly thirty years ago, almost to the week, Trilokpuri was one of the two most gruesome killing fields in the pogrom of the Sikhs organized by the Congress and its goons after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The other murderous basti, also in East Delhi, was Kalyanpuri.
Kalyanpuri and Trilokpuri have something in common. They are both resettlement colonies created by Mrs Gandhi to house people displaced by the slum ‘clearances’ that the Congress government masterminded during the Emergency under the direction of Jagmohan and Sanjay Gandhi. Many of the Muslims in Trilokpuri were resettled there when the Turkman Gate bastis were violently cleared. As John Dayal and Ajoy Bose wrote in their book, Delhi Under the Emergency, these resettlement colonies weren’t model neighbourhoods with neat plots, drainage, water supply, schools, playgrounds, parks and electricity as Sanjay Gandhi claimed: they were tracts of empty land where people literally bulldozed out of their slums were dumped. The thing to remember about these hardscrabble neighbourhoods is that given their origins, their residents weren’t citizens, they were desperately poor clients dependent on the State and its political operatives for every basic facility and amenity. Nothing was theirs by right; even more than in the rest of India, their lives depended on the vagaries of local politics and their access (or lack of it), to patronage and ‘protection’.
Old urban neighbourhoods where communities have lived adjacently or intermingled over many generations sometimes develop inter-community networks that help their residents negotiate communal flashpoints without violence, as Ashutosh Varshney has shown in his book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life. But in urban settlements created by bureaucratic fiat as holding pens for Delhi’s poor, life is a Hobbesian zero-sum game where common sense consists of staying on the right side of Leviathan and its grubbing agents.
This dependency, this permanent state of clientage is why the Congress-directed pogrom of 1984 was bloodiest in the resettlement colonies. Contrary to the durable urban myth that riots are engineered by ‘outsiders’, the Sikh residents of Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri were killed by their neighbours, by people they lived with and recognized. Their killers weren’t inherently evil: their urban circumstance had made them creatures of a vicious State apparatus and they jumped to do its bidding.
Which is why we ought to pay attention to these stirrings in Trilokpuri. The history of communal violence in India demonstrates that it is closely connected with turning points in high politics. In 1937, for example, the Congress came to power in several states in India. In U.P. (then the United Provinces), the Congress government was led by Govind Ballabh Pant and it served for two years, till 1939. This period saw a measurable uptick in communal rioting in the province’s towns and cities. The Muslim League made political capital out of this violence by arguing that the Hindu bias of the Congress government had led to local disputes and rioting.
While Pant’s government was not communally partisan, it was vulnerable to the accusation of bias simply because apart from a couple of ministers, every Congress MLA in U.P. was a Hindu. It was also true that local Hindu notables and organizations felt emboldened by their first experience of a democratically elected government that seemed made up principally of their own kind. This sometimes encouraged local Hindu groups — like Ram Lila committees for example — to assert themselves over procession routes or customary practice in ways they hadn’t done before. And when Hindu and Muslim festivals coincided on the calendar, the ‘right’ to march through a Muslim neighbourhood, or the ‘right’ to play music before mosques, could lead to confrontations that end in rioting and murder.
The violence in Trilokpuri centres on a temporary religious construction called the Mata ki Chowki, built opposite a mosque in early October. The chowki was built for a jagaran but left in place after it was over. Twenty per cent or so of Trilokpuri’s population is made up of Muslims, most of whom live in and around Block 20. Muslims in the neighbourhood interviewed by the Indian Express, complained that after the chowki was established, local Hindu activists pressed Muslims not to sacrifice goats on Eid, which happened to occur close to Diwali this year. Local Hindus in turn accused Muslims of ‘desecrating’ the chowki.
The parallels with the riots that occurred between 1937 and 1939, are striking. The Mata ki Chowki is built right in the heart of the Muslim ghetto in Trilokpuri, next to a mosque. This happens during the first festival season that follows a general election decisively won by the Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi, a man seen by friend and foe alike as a Hindu strongman. This isn’t to argue that the BJP is behind the violence. It is to point out that Hindu activists could be testing the waters, testing precedent, testing the limits of the politically possible in the wake of an election that has brought to power ‘their’ sarkar. Like the Congress in U.P. in 1937, the BJP’s parliamentary majority in 2014 reinforces its image as a ‘Hindu’ party; its MPs are overwhelmingly Hindu and not one of them is Muslim.
Unlike the Congress in 1937, which was both rhetorically and substantively pluralist in its politics, the BJP, both historically and under the direction of its current president, Amit Shah, has consistently identified itself as a Hindu nationalist party, happy to consolidate the Hindu vote by ‘othering’ Muslims. The local BJP MP for East Delhi in whose constituency Trilokpuri falls, Maheish Girri, hasn’t wasted any time in specifying who he thinks is at fault. He told the Indian Express, “I called up the SHO asking him to bring the situation under control. However, it worsened when Muslim youth threw something into the area, again triggering stone pelting.”
So, what we are seeing here is local ‘Hindu’ assertion in the form of the Mata ki Chowki, following up on the election of Modi sarkar and in anticipation of possible assembly elections in Delhi, given that the suspension of the present assembly can’t extend beyond January. Three-quarters of Trilokpuri’s population is Dalit. A substantial part of this electorate voted for the winning Aam Aadmi Party candidate the last time round. Given the way the Muzaffarnagar riots led to the consolidation of the Jat vote in the BJP’s favour in the general elections, the communal polarization that invariably follows upon rioting wouldn’t harm the BJP’s chances in the Trilokpuri assembly constituency. There’s reason, therefore, for local Hindu activists to believe that their belligerence has the implicit sanction of the new powers-that-be, even if the BJP has nothing to do with the staging of the confrontation.
Newspapers have begun to report that families, mainly Muslim, have begun leaving the neighbourhoods in anticipation of further trouble. There are the customary complaints of the police singling out Muslim men as responsible for the troubles. One middle-aged Muslim woman, old enough to remember 1984, is haunted by her memories of the scale of the Indira-kaand.
With even-handed policing and political prudence, these fears will blow over and Trilokpuri will return to whatever passed for normalcy before the recent violence. But the BJP, both as a government and as a party, needs to be careful about fishing in troubled waters in Trilokpuri. Delhi’s resettlement colonies aren’t the best places to experiment with ‘controlled’ polarization. These are neighbourhoods debauched by politics, where the lives of residents depend upon how well they read political prevailing winds. The people who built the Mata ki Chowki, who pressed Muslims not to offer qurbani, who led noisy Kanwariya processions through crowded Muslim neighbourhoods, are looking to the various avatars of the State as it manifests itself in Trilokpuri — the police, the local administration, the BJP, Modi sarkar — for a sign. Everyone who lived through 1984 in Delhi and looked into the abyss, will pray that they don’t get one.