Where were you during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots? It’s a question I have been often asked by some twitter followers who wrongly accuse me of having only focused on the 2002 Gujarat riots to the exclusion of previous clashes.
My answer: I was in the comfort zone of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, far away from journalism and the pogrom-like fury in the national Capital. The answer may please few of my perennial critics since we have reduced riots to a tragic ‘Your 1984’ versus ‘Your 2002’, BJP versus Congress political narrative.
My conscience tells me that both 1984 and 2002 were a disgrace, a permanent blot on a republican Constitution that promised the equality of citizens, irrespective of religion. Sadly, we choose to view riots through a partisan political prism shorn of the universal humanism that must underpin every act of violence against innocent Indians.
The Congress will use 2002 to demonise Narendra Modi and question his moral right to be prime minister. The BJP will use 1984 to suggest that Rahul Gandhi has blood on his hands because of his lineage. Kashmiri Pandit groups will use the 1990 violence in the Valley to hold the Abdullahs accountable for a monumental failure.
Critics of the late Bal Thackeray will remind you of Mumbai 1992-93 to suggest that the Shiv Sena chieftain could be a murderous rabble-rouser. And Muzaffarnagar will now be used to suggest that the Mulayam-Akhilesh duo are closet communalists.
The ‘truth’ is often more complex. Let’s be clear: no riot takes place without either the incompetence or complicity or both of the regime in power. No riot also takes place without one group using its numerical majority to ‘settle scores’, real or imaginary. In the two riots that I covered extensively — Mumbai 1992-93 and Gujarat 2002 — the similarities were uncanny.
Mumbai exploded in December 1992 as a result of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It re-ignited again in January 1993 when a Hindu family was burnt alive: no one is still certain what led to this grisly incident but it would be fair to suggest that the scars of the original bout of violence had yet to heal.
The Gujarat riots were triggered by the Godhra train burning. In both Mumbai 1992 and Gujarat 2002, the original act of terror — be it the demolition of a mosque or the burning of a train — offended the ‘sentiments’ of a particular community and set in motion a vicious cycle of hate and revenge.
In both cases, the police did not act as swiftly as they should have, either out of choice or under orders. The chief ministers were in both instances caught napping: if Sudhakar Naik appeared somnolent, Modi who had been chief minister for four months was perhaps too inexperienced.
In both instances, the dominant party of the city took over the dual role of ‘avenger’ and ‘protector’: in Mumbai, it was the Shiv Sena, in Ahmedabad, it was the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Which brings me back to the riot I did not cover: 1984. Almost 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the violence that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination, barely 28 have been convicted for murder.
By contrast, the conviction rate in Gujarat has been much better. Over a 1,000 people died, more than 400 have been convicted even though it required a Supreme court appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) to nudge the criminal justice system to act in major cases.
An important minister in the Modi government like Maya Kodnani was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Naroda-Patiya case in Gujarat; in the 1984 violence, no senior Congressman has been convicted even though the political involvement has been well-documented. In Mumbai 1992, the only major politician to face a one-year jail term was the Shiv Sena’s Madhukar Sarpotdar, but he got bail right away.
I have said this before, but will reiterate: 1984 and the 1992-93 riots were in the pre-television era. The television image is a powerful one: it prevents the setting in of early amnesia.
The Rajiv Gandhi government got away in the aftermath of the 1984 riots because there wasn’t the enduring image of the camera to capture the horror of the time, human rights activists were less assertive, civil society less vocal and the courts were not as unrelenting as they are today.
The fact that the Rajiv-led Congress government won a massive majority in a general election that took place within weeks of the riots almost seemed to ‘vindicate’ their action and wash away the stain of the massacre. The 1992-93 riots were followed by the blasts of March 1993, a ghastly terror act which threw up a parallel narrative for the likes of Thackeray to exploit.
By contrast, in the 21st century, no government can get away with either sponsoring violence or failing to prevent it. The utter bankruptcy of the Akhilesh government in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar violence will reflect in the anger of the minorities when it comes to election time.
The shameful pictures of bullodozers running through ‘relief’ camps will haunt the Samajwadi Party forever. Modi may have got a clean chit from a lower court, but he knows that the tearful image of a Qutubuddin Ansari pleading for mercy from the rioters will haunt his politics even if he becomes prime minister.
And while this year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 riots, the demand for an SIT to re-investigate the violence only confirms that the ghosts of the past have an uncanny knack of returning to haunt succeeding generations.
Post-script: One of the recurring themes after every riot is a demand for an apology. We seek one from Modi; now we want one from Rahul Gandhi. The fact is what the riot victims really want is accountability, not just a ritualistic apology. And yes, a willingness of governments to face up to inconvenient truths.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal