What was supposed to be the celebration of friendship between two of the largest democracies in the world—India and America—turned out to be a sideshow to a bloodbath of communal hatred, exposing the undemocratic underbelly of BJP's India.
The world watched in horror as anti-democratic elements supporting the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)—which aims to fast-track Indian citizenship to migrants belonging to six minority religions, excluding the Muslims, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan—swooped in on peaceful protesters in northeast Delhi and unleashed unspeakable savagery on them. The atrocities committed by the rioters were enough to overshadow the maiden official visit of US President Donald Trump to India. The BJP government is said to have spent 130 crore rupees or about USD 18 million to present a positive image of the country before the US president.
While Modi was busy beautifying India, it seems his cronies were getting restless to quell the anti-CAA demonstrations. Local goons, inspired by the provocative comments of BJP leader Kapil Mishra—who had threatened the peaceful protesters, mostly women, to free the roads or otherwise face music while standing right next to a police officer—resorted to violent means to disperse them. Soon the streets turned chaotic: people exercising their democratic rights were mercilessly beaten up, houses and mosques torched, and belongings of the residents looted by the rioters, all the while chanting "Jai Sree Ram", a chant that was meant to pay respect to the celebrated Hindu deity, Ramachandra, widely revered for his virtue and greatness... and all this in full view of the police.
In fact, there had been reports in various news outlets and TV channels of the police often provoking the rioters to beat up the protesters, or simply turning a blind eye to the atrocities. Goons wielding swords and weapons were seen roaming around the streets and alleys of northeast Delhi for the next three days. The result: at least 42 deaths, including a police constable, and thousands of lives shaken forever. What is also alarming is that a Delhi High Court judge, Justice S. Muralidhar, who had on Wednesday severely criticised the role of police during the riots in Delhi, and directed them to register FIR against Kapil Sharma, had been transferred to Punjab on the same day, around 11pm local time. The timing and suddenness of the action certainly brings into question the reason behind it.
While Indian Home Minister Amit Shah on Tuesday asked all political parties to avoid making provocative statements, the same day one of his party leaders, B L Santosh, had this to tweet: "The game starts now. Rioters need to be taught a lesson or two of Indian laws." This inconsistency between what Shah and his party man had to say on the riots exposes the fault lines within the BJP: either Shah's words do not hold water amongst his party members—which is highly unlikely because Shah is the closest ally of PM Narendra Modi and known as the second most powerful man in the country—or his words are hollow, a show for the public, which is most likely the case. Meanwhile, Modi asked the people of Delhi to exercise restraint after a good 69 hours of the riots. One wonders what took him so long to react to the situation.
All this was long in the making. The repeated attacks on the students of Jamia Milia University by police and goons alike, and the ransacking of the university campus, including the library, all in the name of quelling protests, were manifestations of the extreme hatred that the pro-CAA ultra nationalist elements harboured towards the liberals and the minorities, especially the Muslims.
The derogatory and inflammatory comments made by many BJP leaders over the last few months, often bordering on direct threats, had been warning signs of the chaos that had unfolded in Delhi over the last few days. Case in point: Karnataka's BJP MLA Somashekar Reddy had recently said, while threatening anti-CAA protesters and minorities during a speech, that "we are 80 percent and you are just 17 percent. Imagine what will happen to you if we turn against you. This is my warning to you (anti-CAA protesters), only 5 percent are here (at the event). If you create more trouble, if 100 percent of us come, what will happen to you?" Although he was later booked, such comments were not short in coming from various other BJP leaders.
Amit Shah in 2019 had himself termed Muslim migrants in India "infiltrators" and "termites" who, he said, the BJP government would pick up "one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal".
And the 17-year-old boy open firing at peaceful protesters in broad daylight in Delhi in January, that too after a Facebook live where he said he was about to make his "final journey", was a telling sign that storms were brewing over the horizon, ready to wreak havoc anytime.
It seems all these ominous signs that so clearly pointed towards an all-out conflict had been ignored by the government. Lack of foresight or perhaps an apathetic indifference had clouded the judgement of the people in power that they did not try to stop this in time. Or perhaps, they wanted to teach the relentless protesters a lesson after all?
But the democratic crisis of India has clearly been exposed before the world by the macabre spectacle that unfolded in full force last week. And although the government can now put the blame on "rogue elements" and move on with business as usual, it is time they asked themselves some essential questions: what is triggering communal unrest in a city where people of different religions, casts and ethnicities have traditionally lived in peace? Who are provoking these incidents and why? And what can restore harmony in one of the celebrated cosmopolitan cities of the world?
To ask these questions, the government will need a strong political will.
India right now is facing crises at two levels: political and economic, and perhaps one is related to the other. The ongoing unrest is only going to add to the country's economic woes—it will affect investor confidence leading to lower investments in India; the persecution of minorities will have a negative impact on the morale of the affected workforce leading to lower productivity; the riots will affect the demand-supply equilibrium increasing inflation; and these are just a few of the basic outcomes that entail any political unrest, triggering a wider chain of events that slows down economic growth and development. With India's economic growth already slowed down, this will be highly undesirable for the people and the government.
As India's next-door neighbour sharing close historical ties with it, we watch with concern and apprehension as the country descends into chaos. We would like to see our neighbour flourish and prosper, and would like to strengthen our bilateral ties, be it economic or cultural.
But for India to steer its economy back towards the growth trajectory and to re-establish peace, the government must now demonstrate a strong political will to root out all the factors creating rift among the people. If it requires the BJP government to rethink its decision to implement the CAA and NRC across the country and revisit its approach towards Kashmir and Assam, then it must do so immediately, placing national interest above all else.
India is one of the world's oldest and largest democracies, and everything that can be done should be done to uphold the secular and pluralistic spirit of the nation.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: