An unbearable cacophony of debates on television, pandemonium in both Houses of Parliament, limitless sophistry in courtrooms, and a surfeit of meaningless statements in newspapers overwhelms us in the aftermath of the recent Delhi riots. This bluster could have been excusable, had the purpose been to provide relief and succour to the riot-hit people of Delhi. Sadly, this is hardly the case. A small example will suffice.
When Parliament assembled on 2 March, instead of observing a minute’s silence for the 46 dead and discussing ways and means to lessen the misery of the riothit, Parliament was turned into a war zone with the Opposition parties accusing the ruling party of having blood on its hands and the ruling party blaming the Opposition for the conflagration.
Thankfully, despite criticism and even a writ petition questioning its decision to grant relief to all riot victims, the Delhi Government has largely kept itself out of the raging controversy and its officials are providing monetary assistance to the families of the deceased and are now in the process of assessing the damage to homes and businesses with a view to provide quick relief to the victims of the riots.
A hate speech by a BJP leade purportedly provoked the bloody riots. However, a relevant question arises: “The provocative speech can be likened to a spark to gunpowder. But, then, how did so much hate accumulate that it required only some thoughtless words to set off a three-day orgy of violence?” No doubt, Indians are a dissatisfied and unhappy lot, weighed down by day-to-day worries, figuring at the bottom of the World Happiness Index.
Add to it age-old taboos and exclusionary social practices and you have to search to find a happy and contented Indian. But if there ever was a Hate Your Neighbour Index, we would undoubtedly beat the very top. The British policy of ‘divide and rule’ was successful only because we were ready to be divided on the basis of caste and religion. Tellingly, after the Revolt of 1857, the British organised the Indian Army in caste-based regiments, the logic being that soldiers of two different regiments composed of different castes would never unite to fight the British but would fight amongst themselves if so ordered by their (British) commanders.
The British are long gone but Indians still do not have much love lost for fellow Indians of other castes or religions. Starting from the Partition of 1947, which divided India on the basis of religion, we had States organised on the basis of language, reservation in jobs and education on the basis of caste; such steps have ensured that till today, Indians remain segregated in watertight compartments.
Even 70 years after Independence, most Indians do not identify themselves simply as Indians; our religious or caste identity is more important to us than our national identity. If they don’t share a common background, neighbours hardly mix with each other. Only cricket players, Bollywood actors and Indian Army personnel have pan-India acceptance. If one follows the news regularly, one would not fail to notice that in all parts of India, caste and community-based differences simmer just below the surface. Violence between different groups is often catalysed by pett yincidents like a Dalit groom riding a horse or lovers from different castes coming together.
Groups of people, when they are sufficiently provoked, do not hesitate to settle scores by themselves, because the public have little faith left in Government institutions. In addition to being perceived as corrupt and inefficient, the police and bureaucracy are seen as handmaidens of the party in power. The public still has some faith in the judiciary, which is,however, dissipating fast because of the judiciary’s new-found tendency to avoid giving definitive pronouncements or to recuse themselves from important cases or to delaymatters to the point that relief becomes meaningless.
The Delhi riots took place after a particularly divisive election campaign. At the time the riots broke out, the political and bureaucratic leadership was busy with the Trump visit and the police seems to have been unprepared or unwilling to tackle the rioters. A reason that neighbours turned against each other during the riots could be that neighbours were strangers in the riot-ravaged areas in Delhi; there were no open spaces where people across communities could congregate for recreation and social interaction. Lack of familiarity bred fear and distrust amongst neighbours, which made them perfect riot material.
Suppose, the localities in which the riots had broken out had facilities like parks, playgrounds and meeting halls where men, women and children could meet, talk and play. People to people interaction would have made both communities realise that they were essentially similar; everyone had the same goals and aspirations and everyone faced the same problems. The bottom-line is that people who are on friendly terms try to settle their differences amicably. Even if talks fail, they would never resort to violence.
We take pride in saying that India is the land of Mahatma Gandhi and the world’s largest democracy but we seem to have forgotten most of our essential democratic and Gandhian values. To ensure that the coming generation is aware of these eternal values, our school curriculum should have “Moral Science and Democratic Values” as a separate subject. Then, there should be no exclusive schools where children of only a particular description study; all schools should roughly reflect the demographic composition of the locality. This would break down the artificial barriers that have come up in our society.
The AAP victory in the Delhi elections has an important lesson for all political parties. AAP relied on its governance record while the BJP brought up a host of emotive issues. The Home Minister led the BJP campaign, in which the Prime Minister also participated actively ~ all for forming a State Government which has powers roughly equal to that of the Mumbai Municipal Corporation. The resounding AAP victory proves that voters care more for good education and good healthcare than any issue politicians can dream of.
Once politicians realise that the electorate only wants good and clean governance from them, the face of Indian polity and society would definitely change for the better. In the final analysis, while vandals and looters make merry, it is the poor who suffer in riots; their makeshift homes are gutted, their breadwinners get hurt in the strife, small businesses providing a living to poor families are wiped out. It is difficult for the poor to rebuild their lives because their irregularly constructed houses and their irregularly running businesses are seldom covered by insurance.
So, it is natural that riot-affected people hold life-long grudges against the rioters. After each riot a time bomb of enmity ticks away in the hearts of the riot-affected people; ready to burst when conditions are ripe. Senator Robert F Kennedy, who, like his more illustrious brother, was felled by an assassin’s bullet, analysed the futility of riots beautifully: “What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled or uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people.”
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)