Communal riot and plight of minorities in India

[Editor Note: In 2012 this article first appeared in Outlook, one of the renowned weekly Magazine of India. Outlook inquired opinion to many prominent scholars and person in India whether Ten years after Gujarat 2002, India likely to witness such horror again. Here however, we published the relevant part of the article only.] 


India is a nation that was born in the bloodshed and displacement of the Partition riots. In its DNA, it inherited the schizoid gene of being a large Hindu nation with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. It was a historical faultline that was exploited for politics time and again.

Ahimsa was the Gandhian ideal we paid lip service to but the reality far too often was mass violence. In urban ghettos, in the old cities across theland, small riots were part of the cycle of life. A religious procession would be taken out, a skirmish would take place, curfew would be clamped, aminor riot would have just taken place or been barely averted.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 marked the apogee of communal hatred. Ten years after the Sabarmati Express coach was set a fire in Godhra on February 27, and after the bloodbath that followed, we must pause and ask: can it happen again? Many would argue that it cannot because, in the long term, Narendra Modi has had to pay a price for presiding over a bloodbath after the advent of 24-hour television. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, however, he gained enormously.

The perpetrators of riots are long-term players in the political landscape. The ferocity and cruelty of the violence that ripped right through Bombay (which became Mumbai later) in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition, in two phases in December 1992 and January 1993, came to symbolise the worst face of a seemingly inclusive city.

Till then the city would be described as a cosmopolitan megacity where caste, class and religion were not the dominant markers of public life. Bombay was the city of dreams, its streets offered anonymity, its pavements could turn into homes, its constant whirring machine of enterprise and entrepreneurship played the great equaliser. Surely, such a place could not be derailed by communal violence?  

This belief turned into a shattered myth in those two spans of ’92-93 when nearly 850 people were killed, 575 of them Muslims; over 2,000 injured and nearly 1,00,000 displaced.

After that, Bombay became Mumbai and no one really calls it a cosmopolitan place any longer. Resilient, yes, but not cosmopolitan. Bombay had its Hindu- and Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods but they were not community-insulated as has happened in the post-riots era. The ghettoising effect of 1993, which continues even today, has made the divisions sharper. In fact, it’s easier now to target this or that community and in many areas the “other” is not welcome at all, says Farooq Mapkar, who was witness to five namazis being shot in Hari Masjid by policemen, was wrongly accused of rioting and acquitted after 16 long years. A bank employee now, he says, “There is now a Muslim Mumbai and a Hindu Mumbai.”

The Shiv Sena in 1993 called itself the “defender of Hindus”. The Srikrishna Commission report famously indicted Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and said that “like a veteran general, he commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims, especially in January 1993”.

The Mumbai police registered four offences against him for a communally provocative editorial exhorting such violence, but the go-ahead to prosecute was not given by the state government; then CM Sudhakarrao Naik famously said if certain leaders were arrested, Bombay would burn; it escaped his notice that the city had already burnt.

  • Fifty-eight major communal riots in 47 places since 1967
  • Ten in South India, 12 in East, 16 in West, 20 in North India
  • Ahmedabad has seen five major riots; Hyderabad, four; Calcutta, none since ’64 ( In ’64, a wave of rioting in Calcutta, Jamshedpur and Rourkela killed 2,500)
  • The 1970s saw seven riots, the ’80s, 14; the 2000s have seen 13
  • The 1990s saw the most riots in the last five decades: 23

Total toll: 12,828 (South 597, West 3,426, East 3,581, North 5,224).
Note: Only riots with a toll of five or more included; deaths due to bomb blasts not included
Data: Alka Gupta



Till ’92-93, the city police was seen as a proud force in khaki, worthy of being compared to Scotland Yard; their brutality and vehemence during the ’92-93 carnage turned them in the public eye into a force that did not hesitate to display the saffron beneath the khaki. As police officers and constables told the Indian People’s Tribunal in the immediate months, they “were Shiv Sainiks at heart and policemen of a supposedly secular state by accident”.

As many as 32 policemen, including then joint commissioner R.D. Tyagi, were severely indicted by the Srikrishna Commission (SKC) for acts of omission and commission during the riots. None was punished; in fact, Tyagi was promoted to the post of city commissioner during the Sena-BJP regime in Maharashtra soon after.

Senior Sena leaders refuse to discuss the riots but point to the “thousands of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and Pakistani sympathisers” who live in the myriad lanes of the metropolis and “sometimes need to be put in their place”. If at that time the Muslims were the target, today the “other” is the bhaiyya or migrant from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Though political organisations may have found it increasingly difficult to stoke such large-scale, mind-numbing violence in recent years, Mumbai is still a tinderbox and vested interests can still play with people. Besides, the question of justice can’t be forgotten when we talk of riots. It rankles the victims that justice has still not been done; not only is justice a prerequisite for reconciliation, it’s also a necessary signal to those who believe they stand to gain by engineering such violence, victims say.

The bomb blasts that followed in March 1993, killing 257 and injuring 800, have resulted in convictions, but no one has been punished for the ’92-93 riots except former Sena MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar who was convicted in July 2008 and let off on a Rs 5,000 bail. When the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power in Maharashtra in 1994, barely a year after Bombay burned, the administration withdrew as many as 3,000 cases registered against their workers. The subsequent Congress governments did not drop cases against Muslims that even the SKC concluded were false.

This one-sided justice has exacted its price. The Muslims in the ghettos are angry and often justifiably so. Every bomb blast and terror attack since has meant comb-and-search-and-arrest operations in their mohallas. Now after every major and minor terror attack on Mumbai, mohalla committees mobilise their peace soldiers in bastis, community elders come out requesting calm and peace, Muslims display their patriotism through solidarity marches in case they’re perceived as anti-nationals. The peace is kept but the tensions simmer.

Still, the cycle has been broken in other cities. Hyderabad, for instance, has moved on. The old city is still a hothouse, but communal violence no longer pays. Amir Ali of the influential Urdu daily, Siasat, recounts this brief history of his city’s riots. Before 1994, he says, violence took place every year over processions of Ganesh Chaturthi, Moharram or Bonalu (an Andhra festival). The violence stopped in 1994, when the TDP came to power, though one could not pinpoint an exact reason.

Then, in 1998, a poster appeared in the old city of Hyderabad depicting Ganesh with Kaaba under one foot and Medina under the other. Police investigations revealed that the poster was the handiwork of a Hindu politician and former mayor of Hyderabad. He was in fact a member of the Majlise-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen run by the Owaisi family that still has a grip on sections in the city! The linkages are circuitous, to say the least.

What this story illustrates is that an attempt to trigger a riot is a political tactic. Paul R. Brass, author and political scientist from the University of Washington, who’s studied India’s communal tension and violence, calls it the institutionalised riot system or IRS. This IRS, he says, was created largely in northern and western India and it can be activated by politicians during political mobilisation or elections, and “the production of a riot involves calculated and deliberate actions by key individuals, like recruitment of participants, provocative activities and conveying of messages, spreading of rumours”.

There are frequent rehearsals until the time is ripe and the context is felicitous and there are no serious obstructions in carrying out the performance. Does such an IRS still prevail in Mumbai, or Bhiwandi, Malegaon, Aurangabad, Nashik, Moradabad, Ahmedabad?

Recently, activists of the Hindu right were arrested in Karnataka trying to raise a Pakistan flag in a Muslim area. They presumably hoped they would trigger a riot and blame it on Muslims. One must conclude that small riots can and in all likelihood may continue to happen (there was recently a Gujjar-Muslim clash in Mewat not far from Delhi), but it would take a certain conjunction of politics, intent and regime to trigger anything on the scale of the Gujarat riots.

Riot Triggers

Social: The feeling of being left out of the discourse. Especially prevalent among minorities who are excluded, deliberately or otherwise, from mainstream events and activities, leading to ghettoisation.

Economic: The feeling of being left behind. Poor education, unemployment lead to marginalisation of the have-nots. Heightened by sense of deprivation and sight of conspicuous consumption.

Political: Parties and politicians play on the emotions of votebanks, often to expand it, by mobilising mobs and whipping up passions and fears over illegal immigration and demographic change

Administrative: The feeling of being targeted and/or ignored by the immediate touch points of government—the police and civic administration. Denial of rights and harassment spawn sense of injustice.

Religious: Perceived slights to sentiments. Can be sparked by a procession in a ‘sensitive’ area; a loud prayer, a road blocked for prayers, or an animal’s carcass thrown into a place of worship

Commercial: Rivalries sparked off by encroachment of traditional areas of business and economic activity

Verbal: Provocative speeches that stereotype and instigate the intended target on the basis of language, religion and sexual habits. Rabble-rousing about ‘appeasement’. Sporting events as a test of patriotism and nationalism.

Global: Rumours and whispers that travel across the wired world about defacement or denigration of holy scriptures and holy figures in books, movies, newspaper articles, posters, cartoons.

Source: Outlook Magazine, A Beast Asleep? 05 MARCH 2012

 Relevant posts

For a recent development on Communal violence in India, Times of India wrote;

Communal violence witnessed a 17% rise in 2015, with 751 incidents recorded across the country as against 644 in 2014. According to data put out by the Centre in reply to a Lok Sabha question on Wednesday, casualties from communal unrest also increased last year, with dead and injured up at 97 and 2,264 from 95 and 1,921 in 2014, respectively. Though 2015 saw a rise in communal violence compared to 2014, it was lower than the 823 incidents, 133 deaths and 2,269 injured reported in 2013, largely on account of the Muzaffarnagar riots.

States which saw the maximum communal incidents were UP (155), Karnataka (105), Maharashtra (105), MP (92), Bihar (71), Rajasthan (65) and Gujarat (55). While UP and Karnataka are ruled by SP and Congress, respectively, four of the states — MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat — are ruled by BJP. A year-on-year comparison, however, showed that while incidents in MP saw a sharp increase from 56 in 2014 to 92 last year, they declined in both Rajasthan and Gujarat.

UP not only retained its position as the state with the highest communal violence, but also showed higher incidents (155 compared to 133 in 2014) and number of injured (up from 374 to 419). In fact, the number of injured last year was higher than even 2013, when the Muzaffarnagar riots contributed to 360 non-fatal casualties. (See details: Times of India , Communal violence up 17% in 2015Feb 25, 2016)

ভারতে মুসলমানঃকেউ সুবিচার করেনি

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স্বাধীন ভারতে কেমন আছে সংখ্যালঘু মুসলিমরা

ভারতের গরু বিষয়ক রাজনীতি ও সংখ্যালঘুদের অবস্থা

কেমন আছে ভারতে চলে যাওয়া বাংলাদেশের হিন্দুরা?

কেমন আছে বাংলাদেশের সংখ্যালঘু হিন্দুরা?

১৯৪৬ সালের কলকাতা দাঙ্গা নিয়ে বেশ অপপ্রচার রয়েছে, এই বিষয়ে প্রকৃত ঘটনা জানতে পড়ুন;

পাকিস্তান দাবীতে ডাইরেক্ট একশন ঘোষণার প্রতিক্রিয়ায় হিন্দুদের হত্যাযজ্ঞনূরুল কবির

১৯৪৬ সালে কলকাতা ও বিহারে মুসলিম গণহত্যা– নূরুল কবির

কুখ্যাত কোলকাতা হত্যাযজ্ঞ-প্রফেসর জয়া চ্যাটার্জী

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