One riot after another

Delhi communal clashes confirm that there is lack of political will, always

One riot after another

Fell short: The Delhi riots were a failure of the police and intelligence agencies.

Madhav Godbole

Former Home Secretary and ex-Secretary, Justice

India is still trying to get over the shock of the ghastly communal riots in Delhi in February, in which 53 persons were killed and over 200 injured. And this horrific tragedy was being enacted when US President Donald Trump was being received in India with such meticulously arranged mega events and attention of the world media was on India. If the riots were pre-planned, as claimed by the government, it was an eminently successful operation.

India has the dubious distinction of ‘witnessing’ ghastly communal clashes and the equally shocking distinction of having learnt nothing about how to deal with the communal virus, which is even more deadly than corona. In fact, if communal sickness had been given as much attention as corona, India would have found an antidote to it long ago.

The most disturbing aspect of these riots is that they were perpetrated under the watch of the Centre. The responsibility for ‘public order’ and ‘police’ in the NCR squarely rests with the Centre, i.e. the Lt Governor. The S Balakrishnan Committee, constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1989 to suggest the reorganised structure for the governance of Delhi, had observed that if full statehood were to be given, it would result in a constitutional division of power between the Union and the state and the Union executive would be denuded of executive powers in relation to matters governed by the State List. The committee had opined that ‘the National Capital belongs to the nation as a whole’. It had, therefore, recommended that the subjects of public order and police should be excluded from the purview of the Delhi Legislative Assembly. The committee had suggested making a suitable provision in the Constitution to sanctify the new structure. It said, ‘We have no doubt that this will go a long way in assuring the people of Delhi that the government structure will be stable and will not suffer by the play of political forces.’ The SC had relied on this report in its judgment in State of Delhi vs Union of India (2018).

I knew Balakrishnan well and have regard for his views, but the experience of the 1984 riots and the recent riots in Delhi has shattered these fond hopes. It makes no difference which party is in power at the Centre — political compulsions rule supreme. I am particularly struck by the common features of these two ghastly episodes, 36 years apart.

The debate in Parliament on March 11 was most disappointing. It was on familiar lines — allegations of foreign funding, conspiracy hatched by a community, lack of intelligence, police lethargy, political interference and so on. Surprisingly, there was no demand for a thorough probe. The Congress and other opposition parties blamed the BJP for political complicity, and the BJP returned the vollies by pointing to the Congress failure in dealing with the ’84 riots.

In the 2002 Godhra riots and the ’84 riots, civil society took the initiative in bringing out, in a very short time, solid, objective reports by persons of impeccable integrity to put on record the real story. This was in sharp contrast to the often conflicting findings of judicial and other inquiries by the government. No such initiative appears to be in the offing so far. A committee of eminent citizens, not having any political affiliations and who command respect for their integrity and courage of conviction, be organised soon to bring out the ‘real’ facts. This is important in the era of fake news.

It is shocking how little we have learnt from past riots. In the Delhi riots, fingers are being pointed at the MHA and the Government of India, but there is no mention of the total dereliction of duty by the Lt Governor and the Commissioner of Police. Instead, the Home Minister has complimented the Delhi Police for containing the riots. There could not have been a greater hypocrisy. Former Delhi Police Commissioner SS Jog, would say, ‘Delhi Police Commissioner comes with a lot of fanfare on a horse to take charge and, in most cases, goes on a donkey when he demits the charge!’

The police went into overdrive soon after Trump left, and there was a green light from the top. Suddenly, the police were visible in all riot-affected areas, trying to rehabilitate their own image than anything else. Killing of an IB officer and the destruction of the house of a BSF jawan by the rioters showed how there was no fear of law. It was a monumental failure of the police, intelligence agencies and the law and order machinery as a whole. And the political leadership cannot escape responsibility.

In my book, I have talked of the importance of separation of religion from politics, restricting withdrawal of court cases, strengthening the provisions for calling the Army in aid of civil power, enacting a law for declaration of martial law, enacting a law on genocide, enacting a law on reconstruction and repairs of places of worship damaged in communal violence, and vigorously pursuing police and civil service reforms.

The Army may not have to be involved in handling communal riots if the police become decommunalised and depoliticised. But, this is a big if. Due to lack of political will, it is impossible to bring about police reforms in any time-bound manner. Even the directives by the SC in 2006 have largely remained on paper. It is, therefore, imperative to make legal provisions for the declaration of martial law. But, the question still remains — will anyone take a timely decision to call in the Army?

This is a sad commentary on our vibrant democracy, but instilling confidence among the citizens and the minorities in particular is more important than merely keeping the outward pretences of a civilian authority. It is high time India debates the issues dispassionately and rationally.

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