Indira Gandhi has been cremated. The Hindu mob frenzy directed at the Sikhs has largely subsided. And India’s new Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, has turned a brave face to his country, seeking understanding, sympathy and an overwhelming mandate in the general elections on Dec. 24.

For the world media, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was, perhaps, the biggest news event of the decade. The ensuing riots added all the drama needed to keep India at the very top of the news for days. After all, it was a phenomenon easily explained. There was a cause. There was an effect. And the continuing saga could be neatly packaged in 24hour cycles.

More than 1,000 Sikh men, women and children were butchered, according to official figures, in revenge for Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination ‘by her two Sikh bodyguards. The world gasped at the power of the Hindu mob and then sat back to watch media pundits describe it as a tragic occurrence that probably would not, on the whole, affect the fabric of the world’s largest democracy of more than 700 million.

But is India really as integrated as its ruling Congress Party would have us believe? A historical analysis shows that the Hindu Sikh riot was merely the most recent expression of a continuing history. It caught the world’s attention for one reason only: it was linked to the killing of a world leader and happened while New Delhi was swarming with foreign correspondents.

But there is a more shameful side of this democracy the hidden history of India’s relations with is minorities. Relations in which bitterness is fostered routinely, in which religious rioting and killing is looked upon as a political tool and which political bosses at the lower level use as an institutionalized protection racket to extract votes.

To someone born and brought up in India and who covered Indian affairs as a reporter, this fact was clearly brought out in two Hindu Muslim riots in Bhiwandi and Poona, two cities near Bombay, that I covered in the late 1960s. The pattern of official response in the two riots was horrifyingly recreated in the recent one where Sikh replaced Muslim. The same police inaction for the first two or three days, despite a curfew followed by a shoot at sight order.

I remember contrasting the police response in these two riots to the response in a linguistic riot I covered in Bombay at about the same time. In this one, the shooting started the minute the riot did. By the second day the situation was under control. However, this riot involved the local Marathi speaking Hindus who wanted to rid Bombay of the South Indian Hindus over jobs.

According to official figures, there were about 230 Hindu Muslim riots from 1947 to 1978. The figure is now close to 300. And these do not include the mass rioting following the partition of the country into India and Pakistan in 1947. During those riots, a million lives are believed to have been lost. During the 11 years that Mrs. Gandhi was Prime Minister until 1977, the home ministry recorded about 3,000 communal incidents. New Age, a leftist publication in New Delhi, quoting a reply in Parliament, points out that 1,112 Harijans or untouchables, who form 20 per cent of the population, were murdered between 1967 and 1969.

Mocking Mrs. Gandhi’s 1979 election slogan just before she was swept back into power, the magazine commented: “‘Indira Gandhi’s ‘Strong and Stable Government’ was not for their (the untouchables’) protection or that of the Muslims. Even official figures admit that more than 23,000 atrocities have been committed against harijans during the last two years by caste Hindus.”

The riots are usually followed by commissions of inquiry into the rioting and the alleged police inaction. Politicians pay lip service to these commissions and larger ones such as the National Integration Commission and the Minorities Commission. The politicians promise to act on the recommendations. The police, with little minority representation in its ranks, is threatened with disciplinary action. And the riots simply reoccur. In terms of causes, the pattern is mind bottling. In Poona, near Bombay, the reason was a rumor spread among the Hindus that a Muslim had urinated on a Hindu idol. In Bhiwandi (not in the riots this year but the one in the late 1960s) rumor had it that Muslims had flung chunks of the holy cow’s flesh into a Hindu temple. The most popular cause used to be a rumor that a lecherous Muslim youth had lured a chaste, young Hindu girl into an unholy act of copulation.

I remember a senior detective telling me after the Bhiwandi riots that there, as in Poona; the rumor was spread by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, a militant Hindu organization that wants secular India to become a Hindu state. The anti-Muslim, anti-Christian philosophy of the RSS, which is openly linked to the Hindu Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the backbone of the opposition, runs along the following lines: Muslims and Christians are the invaders who need to be thrown out, as opposed to the Parsis (a sect that fled Iran after the Muslim conquest many centuries ago) and the Jews, who are our guests.

 The detective pointed out that police intelligence reports (most police departments in India have a political intelligence wing) had been sent to the state government well in advance. The perpetrators were never caught and some of the popular media actually blamed Pakistani agents for sparking the riots. An analysis of many of the riots shows that foreign interference is a favorite red herring.

Official sanction of the riots is usually followed by censorship, asking the major press not to publish unofficial death tolls and inflame passions. The major media, largely owned by business houses dealing with the two levels of government on a daily basis for export and import licenses and foreign exchange, largely oblige. One day in Bhiwandi, by visiting tenement after tenement, I tabulated a death toll three times the official one handed out 60 miles away in Bombay. My paper, The Indian Express, the biggest chain in India, went with the official figure. The unofficial one simply reinforced a rule of thumb that most Indian journalists follow to arrive at the truth: double the official figure and multiply it by four.

Can one then seriously expect India’s 18 million Sikhs to feel at one with the nation after the recent massacre that they say cost their community between 8,000 and 10,000 lives? Can anyone take seriously the Congress Party’s claim that India’s 70 million Muslims are living in peace and prosperity? Why then would the National Integration Commission recommend increased Muslim representation through job quotas?

Obviously, the minorities have not been protected with tokenism such as the appointment of a Muslim president, Dr. Zakir Hussain, or a Sikh president, Zial Singh. In fact, the head of police during the Bhiwandi riot was a Muslim. The various commission reports gather dust in New Delhi or one of the state capitals, while the pious platitudes simply reinforce what an Indian writer once said: India is a nation of great talkers.


Notions of democracy soon disappear in that ancient land, which still carries about it a mystical aura, with one visit to a poor village in the interior where votes are bought outright. Or, the minorities are told to line up behind the only party that can protect them. Or, food may suddenly begin appearing with promises of more after the elections.

It took a thinker as clear as Jawarharlal Nehru, Mrs. Gandhi’s father, to grasp the Indian psyche, when he wrote: “The tortured mind seeks some mechanism of escape, the senses get dulled from repeated shocks and a feeling comes over one that so much evil and misfortune shadow the world that a little more or a little less does not make much difference there remains only one thing . . . to act with courage and dignity … but that is not the politician’s way.”

Article extracted from this publication >>  February 15, 1985