Nous Indica

Harking to dog whistle

The colonial script gets played out again & again, with old puppets now puppeteers

Harking to dog whistle

Sinister plot: Identity politics has the potential to set the entire country ablaze.

Rajesh Ramachandran

Hate speeches, communal clashes, death, destruction, the intervention of the courts, peace marches and finally the government announcing compensation for loss of lives and property — another cycle of riots has just got over in the national capital. The third major riot in Delhi after Independence — and the first-ever televised one — was probably the most embarrassing one too as it was ill-timed for global prime-time TV. Why the BJP leader who gave Delhi Police a three-day ultimatum to get the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protesters removed did it to coincide with the visit of the US President will always remain a mystery. But what was on display was complete ineptitude of the AAP’s state government and the police force controlled by the BJP’s Central Government.

But beyond the inefficiency, incompetence or, as some have alleged, complicity of the police force, the responsibility for the carnage that consumed nearly 40 lives and property and business worth crores of rupees squarely lies with the goli maaro politics of hatred towards Muslims. This politics of hatred has indeed catapulted a small party of the Hindi heartland to vaulting heights of the Raisina Hill; but the Delhi riots could even have got triggered by frustration over the limitations of identity politics.

The Delhi polls were projected as a referendum on the Hindutva politics over CAA-NRC against the protesters, who feared possible disenfranchisement of the Muslims who are unable to establish their citizenship in a survey for the National Population Register or the National Register of Citizens. The ‘referendum’ went against the BJP, with a critical mass of Hindus voting for the AAP. This is an anxiety-inducing prognosis for any election machinery, which prides itself on its foolproof winning methods and past record. But will a riot recalibrate the electorate and turn them into hate-filled monsters? For a political observer, this question makes this riot a make-or-break event in the contemporary practice of identity politics.

During the worst days of rioting, a strange tweet appeared at regular intervals from many Twitter handles thanking Jinnah for creating Pakistan and foreseeing the rise of Hindutva politics. Nothing could be more ludicrous than this assertion of Islamist secessionism. Jinnah planned and executed the first organised communal riot aided and abetted by the British administration and its police on August 16, 1946, declaring that he will either have India divided or destroyed. The ‘great Calcutta killings’ that ensued left thousands dead and established the template for modern-day riots, like much else the British left behind. For three days, there was no policing and only after all the damage was done did the British bring in the Army on August 19, 1946.

We still follow the colonial model of rioting: A dog whistle by a rabid communal leader sparks communal clashes, to be followed by murderous attacks against the weakest members of the community that is weaker in a given neighbourhood. And all of this gets done under the benign watch of the administration and the police, for no rioting in India is possible without the police either remaining proactively passive or even participating in it. The ’84 riots of Delhi are the best example.

Behind all the dog whistles and the actively absent administrative machinery is the underlying belief that a riot leads to the polarisation of the communities and the consolidation of votes, which is completely anchored on the theory of identity politics. Each one of our riots needs to be traced back to Jinnah’s Direct Action Day and even further back to the colonial idea of separate electorates. Once the theoretical framework of identity politics gets established behind every act of communal violence (in certain cases, caste clashes too should be read in terms of attempts at political mobilisation using the caste identity), it becomes easier to analyse, understand and counter the politics of hatred, violence and exclusion. Thus every attempt to cleanse Muslims from a Hindu-dominated locality is the actualisation of the theory of pitr bhumi and punya bhumi of VD Savarkar, ‘the prodigal son’ of the colonial masters; just as the cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley was the answer, four decades later, to Jinnah’s call to divide the country according to religious identities.

How much longer can this politics — which has the potential to set the entire country ablaze — be played? Only as long as all the actors play their assigned roles. If the Muslim councillor from the AAP had not stored and thrown petrol bombs from his rooftop and had instead tried to calm down the mobs on both sides, appealed to his chief minister and the MLA to dash down to his ward, remain beside him, and if he had used social media to spread the word of peace, the horrific events in his locality could have played out differently. But the colonial script continues to get played, the only difference being that the old puppets have now become puppeteers.

The puppeteers can be exposed if the rest of the puppets snap the strings, dump the script and start afresh, playing the new politics of transformation and brotherhood. Unfortunately, for every Kapil Mishra there is a Waris Pathan, offering the people no choice. Sharjeel Imam, too, is a disastrous choice. No single political entity can be blamed for this situation; don’t we have a Marxist party that decides poll tickets on the basis of the dominant caste and community of a constituency?

The time is ripe for new politics, the script is ready and all that the people of India want are players with integrity. The Delhi election outcome should not be read simply as a vote for delivery of services or free electricity. It was a vote, a message from the people, against bigotry. Read it and act on it. After all, should we not remember how the first Delhi riots were quelled by Gandhi’s fast, followed by his martyrdom?

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