On August 27, a girl was ‘molested’ by a youth in Kawal village, Muzaffarnagar; the molester was killed by her two brothers, who, in turn, were lynched to death by persons belonging to the molester’s religion. If you thought that this was a matter for the police to take action, you are wrong. Because the molestation incident was the trigger for the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, which cost 43 lives and brought untold misery to thousands who fled their homes.
If one samples the traditional ritual provocations — slaughter of cows in public, music before mosques, and processions shouting provocative slogans while marching through the ‘adversary’s’ localities, one can find that barring a few accidental cases, most are planned or are preceded by inflammatory communal propaganda.
One finds evidence that passions are deliberately stirred up as they were in Saidabad and Madannapeth areas of Hyderabad in April 2012 following the ‘news’ of the desecration of a Hanuman temple in the locality. On New Year’s eve last year, the ‘news’ that a Pakistani flag was hoisted on a government building led to violence and the destruction of government property in Sindagi, Karnataka. Later it turned out that those behind the incident were activists of the Sri Ram Sene.
In his book, Theft of an Idol, Paul R Brass, one of the world’s pre-eminent experts on South Asia, focused on five incidents in Uttar Pradesh (UP) that led to riots, apparently to show that inconsequential triggers often lead to violent riots like an incident of theft of an idol in Aligarh, a bus running over a woman in Narayanpur, a brawl between police and villagers of a backward caste in Gonda district, or the case where you can identify the cause and effect — the demolition of a mosque in Ayodhya.
The fundamental contention of Brass is that an institutionalised riot system exists for riots to happen. It is an informal network of persons who maintain communal, racial and other ethnic relations in a state of tension. At the hub of the network are what Brass calls “the fire tenders or riot professionals,” that is, people whose primary function is to always keep the embers alive, and in some cases transform small incidents into categorical riots, and groups trained in the use of weapons (police, for example).
A paper ‘Does timing of elections instigate riots? A subnational study of 16 Indian states, 1958-2004’ by Krishna Chaitanya Vadlamannati contends that increase in riots and intensity of riots are associated with scheduled election years and that the number and intensity would increase as the incumbent government nears scheduled election year. Riots were instigated in Ayodhya and Aligarh before state elections in 1992, the Mumbai riots before 1994 state elections in Maharashtra, the Godhra riots before 2002 Gujarat elections.
On the ground, despite warnings by the Union government that riots might be propped up to stir up communal passions, it passes all belief how the UP government allowed a Jat mahapanchayat of 1.5 lakh people organised by the Bharatiya Kisan Union where leaders of the BJP, the Congress and other parties honed their skills of incendiary oratory — knowing well that prohibitory orders were in place in the district due to prevailing tension.
Therefore, there is no point in guessing if the Muzaffarnagar riots will be used as polarising tool by the political parties relevant to the scheme of things including the SP, the BJP and the RLD by weakening the Muslim-Jat combination to reap electoral gain.
For the RLD, the traditional harmony forged between Muslims and Jats by the late Choudhary Charan Singh lies in a shambles and with it, the prospect of a putative Harit Pradesh. The SP must take a drubbing from its Muslim electorate for its inactive role handing over brownie points to the BSP and the BJP which stands surely to gain with the accession of the Jat vote to its kitty.
Lest you ask who fired the first shot, or who posted the video of the two youths being lynched that went viral on WhatsApp, remember in riots there are no truths, just beliefs. Riots are run by a well-oiled political machine and they are here to stay.
Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal