Rajni Kothari

The savagery of mass killings at Delhi following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination continues to haunt the conscience of all those who happen to have a conscience, in Delhi and outside, Despite all the fact finding reports, first hand eyewitness accounts and some extremely candid and searching analyses, the question one constantly keeps coming across is: but how did it happen, on such a scale, with so much ferocity, over so many days, in ‘so many places and yet all following a pattern that was so strikingly similar? The question keeps recurring even now. The temptation either to dismiss it as a spontaneous outbursts of communal passion and frenzy, or to dramatize it as a some grand conspiracy hatched by a few people after the assassination, does not help explain the reality which, on careful perusal of the evidence that has surfaced so far, appears to be more complex, though not necessarily more sobering.

The evidence points to something much more long drawn-out built over time by a variety of factors and actors. Triggered off after the assassination, no doubt, but also pointing to dress rehearsals for reprisal and vendetta before that. All of it culminating, when it did finally happen, in a classic regime of terror facilitated by a complete breakdown of the civil order throughout the length and breadth of the country’s capital. It is necessary to take the various factors into account and identify the generic process, through which a relatively stable and safe place for the Sikhs like Delhi degenerated into one of extreme brutality and barbarism,

First, it is necessary to remind ourselves of some macro developments in the country as a whole that are pertinent in explaining why the factors immediately responsible for the massacre in Delhi and elsewhere could be so effective. For a long time now we have seen a striking erosion of institutional safeguards against raw instincts and primitive conflicts breaking out in the open and what is worse, being taken advantage of by individuals and interests out to undermine the delicate balance of this highly complex and plural society. A long period of decay of institutions that were designed to mediate between contending interests, the sway of paranoid personalities unwilling to share power and privilege, and the operation of a mindless electoral calculus whose only aim has been survival in power by any means, had produced a massive vacuum in the country’s political structure. A large part of this vacuum has been filled in by both communal and criminal forces which have found it easy to subvert the constitutional and secular political process.

‘The main victims of this process of displacing democratic politics by a politics of violence and terror have been on the one hand poor and the underprivileged like Dalit’s advises and, on the other, the minorities, in particular the Muslims and of late Sikhs.

The second important fact to remember is that there has been built over a long time now, in Delhi and elsewhere, both an infrastructure and a technology of terror, especially since the days of the Emergency. Jag Mohan’s Delhi (with full support and backing of Sanjay Gandhi) was built on bulldozing slums and squatter tenements, forcing their residents outside the margins of the city, in the process destroying their community basis and making them available for recruitment to all kinds of jobs. For the rabble-rousing rallies at 1, Safdarjung Road and elsewhere, for storm trooping into courts and commissions of inquiry, and whenever the need arose, for threatening, intimidating and attacking any target group. It is from these outer fringes-now heavily populated-Trilokpuri, Sultanpuri, Mongolpuri, Nand Nagri and Shakarpur-which both the “goonda” leaders and the more numerous lumpens came to mount the violence and carnage. It is these goonda leaders and their mercenaries that carried out most of the killings and arson. What happened in Delhi in early November was. not a communal “riot” like any other. It was instead a criminal hatchet job carried out by known. Perpetrators of lumpenized terror for which the terrain and the infrastructure were already laid out

Such a ready-made structure and process of coercing the public towards desired ends had earlier been used for legitimizing populist postures and pretenses. On this basis, a “winning coalition” between the rural poor, the religious minorities and the lower castes all over India and the Brahmins of North India had been forged. It worked quite well throughout the seventies (with the exception of the 1977 election) and while it led to a very large concentration of. power in one family and to a massive build-up of both corruption and criminalization, it at least preserved the broad secular character of the Indian state, With the sudden change of electoral strategy of the Congress (I) in early 1983, following growing unpopularity and based on a sustained stirring of Hindu communalism for consolidating the massive Hindu vote particularly in the northern “heartland” but also elsewhere, the character of the Indian state also changed suddenly.

This consolidation was realized along two parallel but independent streams. First, through confrontation with Muslim opinion, by scrapping Congress’s long standing relationship with the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir during the 1983) state election, unceremoniously toppling the Farooq Abdullah government in 1984, providing both overt and covert support to the Shiv Sena in the Bombay-Bhiwandi riots, raising the scare of threats from Pakistan and entering into an “understanding” with the R.S.S. And second, through manipulating the whole Punjab problem, by transforming it into a Sikh-Hindu problem deliberately allowing it to deteriorate to such a pass that Operation Blue Star had to be manipulated and by producing an anti-Sikh ferment among the Hindus, especially in the North. To the already potent armory of corruption and criminalization was now added communalism. With this, the nature of the Indian state: was completely transformed.

It is these “macro” developments that had set the stage for whatever happened in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and elsewhere. They provided sanction and legitimacy for those who indulged in communal violence and torture, those higher ups who prepared the groundwork for and “planned” it as well as those who merrily 1ooked on, or deliberately stood by or asked others to stand by. Without this generalized sanction of violence and murder against an identified and designated target, such a gruesome carnage, carried out according to set patterns, would just not have been possible. It also explains why those at the helm of affairs did so little to arrest the madness. For they were part of the “pattern”

The complicity of the politicians was partly a result of yet another aspect of the political culture left behind by Sanjay and Indira Gandhi. Most of the politicians in Delhi were “Sanjay goons.” The moment Rajiy Gandhi was sworn in, they decided to go on a rampage and create such a massive “mandate” for themselves by proving themselves indispensible if the coming elections were to be won. The gambit worked, except for “dispensable” like Dharam Dass Shastri and Sajjan Kumar. It certainly worked in the case of H.K.L. Bhagat that villain— of-the-piece. And it worked in the case of Jagdish Tytler and of Lalit Maken.

Finally, we must come to terms with the most unpleasant of all aspects of the Delhi carnage. When we put together all the factors outlined above-a general scenario of decay and desecration of the State, a pre-existing organization and’ technology of terror, the carefully worked out logistics and technique, the facilitating and reinforcing conditions, and the attitude of indifference, sanction and even incitement from higher levels-it still does not wholly account for the intensity, speed and brutality of the outrage. For this, one must bring in the fact of the climate of animosity and ill-feeling in the majority community built over time, getting translated into an active communal attitude. The fact of a widespread belief in this community that the Sikhs were more like enemies than friends, that they were the cause of national disintegration that they were responsible for large scale murders of Hindus in Punjab (actually more Sikhs were killed there than Hindus), that they were an aggressive and violent people, loyal to Bhindranwale and other militants on the whole out to undermine Indian unity. All this got reinforced by wild rumors and press censorship.

To all this must be added an economic factor: The Sikhs were among the better off and affluent strata. Even where they started off as very poor they had prospered more than their Hindu counterparts in the process attracting a sense of discomfort and inferiority among the latter. Culturally too, they are perceived to be exploitative and dominant cussed and ill-bred, vulgar and brutish.

These and other factors were exploited by Indira Gandhi after her grand shift of strategy from populist appeal to the minorities and the poor to a straight communal appeal to the Hindus, especially in North India and most malignant of all, in Delhi. This has of course grown since the killings took place in Delhi. But it was present then too.

All this is by no means to say that the Hindu community in Delhi generally took part in the riots, In fact, the Sikhs have themselves vouched for the fact that they received protection from their Hindu neighbors in so many places, a fact that held back the fires of extremism from spreading in Punjab and elsewhere. While to some extent this may be due to tact and practical sense among the Sikhs (who have nothing to gain by spreading stories about their Hindu neighbors with whom they have to continue to live), there is little doubt that the Hindus did come to their rescue at many places, in some cases even at the risk of inviting the wrath of rioters, or that the bulk of the killings was carried out by hoodlums and hired people under the guidance of “goonda” leaders. And yet it is also the case that without a large degree of overt and covert support from the community the miscreants could not have carried out their mission so quickly and so successfully. There is enough evidence of ordinary middle class youth engaging in looting and arson, or just looking on or simply shutting themselves in their homes when large scale killings and burning took place, or later justifying and even exhibiting pleasure and glee at the fact that the Sikhs had been finally given their due and punished, all of which adds up to a large measure of support for the so-called “riots” from the Hindus.

Since then, a number of goonda elements in the residential colonies have been identified by a variety of investigations. Many of these are Congress (I) workers and office holders, the role of senior politicians has also been well established.

Article extracted from this publication >> November 11, 1988