By Jamal Kidwai [ Director of AMAN Trust, New Delhi. ]

The recent violence in Trilokpuri and communal incidents in some other areas of Delhi suggest that these have been instigated with an eye on the coming elections in the city state. The target seems to be to communalise important sections of Delhi’s dalit population and mobilise them politically with Hindutva. Worryingly, there seem to be little counter-mobilisations and initiatives from political parties, which claim to oppose communalism and also profess to represent the poor and the oppressed.

On Diwali night, Thursday, 23 October 2014 a minor brawl between groups of young Hindus and Muslims in the Trilokpuri locality in Delhi escalated into a full-fledged communal conflagration by the next afternoon. The violence continued till late Saturday evening.

There is no official version of what caused the initial confrontation except for the fact that it began at the site of a makeshift Hindu shrine called the Mata-Ki-Chowki. The locals and the police confirm that the Mata-Ki-Chowki came up sometime in late September at a spot where there was earlier a garbage dump. The violence took the form of heavy stone-pelting between communities, some instances of gunfire and the burning down of some vehicles. A clothes showroom called “A2Z” owned by a Muslim shopkeeper was completely burnt down. It took the administration and the police almost four days to quell the violence. The Delhi Police, the Rapid Action Force and the Central Reserve Police Force were deployed, Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was instituted, and curfews were imposed in several blocks of Trilokpuri. By then, fearing more violence, a large number of families had migrated to safer places in the city and many have returned to their villages in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), in the districts of Meerut, Badaun and Bulandshahar.

Over a hundred people were detained by the police and nearly 50 arrested. The police conducted sustained door-to-door searches and claimed to have recovered a large number of swords, empty bottles, bricks and other such objects used during the violence. For the first time, drones were deployed by the police to scan terraces for such material and they claim this method provided them much assistance in conducting search operations.

By 31 October, exactly a week after the violence began, there was apparent peace and gestures of reconciliation between the two communities. A prayer ceremony with bhajans and kirtans was organised in the evening at the Mata-Ki-Chowki. Members of the “peace committee” formed by the police and residents of Trilokpuri took an active part in the event and, according to the police, over a thousand people, including several Muslims participated in the event. Prohibitory orders were relaxed for over 12 hours and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament, Mahesh Giri, also participated in the ceremony for a short while.

A Difficult History

Trilokpuri, located in the trans-Yamuna area of east Delhi, came up as a resettlement colony, along with several others like Kalyanpuri, Seelampur and Nand Nagari during the post-Emergency years of the mid-1970s. These colonies were established to house thousands of people who were evicted from central Delhi during the Emergency as a part of the slum-clearance drive by Sanjay Gandhi and Jagmohan. Large number of Muslims and Valmikis (a sub-caste of dalits) came to settle in Trilokpuri in 1976. The Muslims were mostly displaced from the demolitions that took place at Turkman Gate near old Delhi while the Valmikis were evacuated from Mandir Marg, behind the famous Birla Mandir in central Delhi.

Trilokpuri has 36 blocks and five out of these 36 blocks have a large population of Muslims, while the others have a significant dalit (Valmiki) population.

Until November 1984 Block 32 used to be dominated by Labana Sikhs, who originally came from Sindh in Pakistan but had migrated to Rajasthan after Partition and then subsequently to Delhi. Among the three communities, they were the first to settle in Trilokpuri. In 1984 some of the worst violence during the anti-Sikh pogrom was witnessed in Trilokpuri. According to some estimates, more than 300 Sikhs were killed in this area.

One of the few people convicted by the courts for leading and inciting the mob that killed the Sikhs was Kishori Lal, also known as the “Butcher of Trilokpuri”. The massacre led to the migration of Sikhs from Block 32, which was subsequently occupied mostly by Muslims. The present-day residents of Trilokpuri, like those of many other resettlement colonies of Delhi, are mostly migrants and daily wage earners and work in informal sectors like construction work, as cycle and autorickshaw pullers and housemaids. The construction of the Metro line in Trilokpuri has temporarily created severe dislocation on the roads and with the infrastructure, but as typically happens, the coming of the metro connectivity has also led to a sharp rise in property prices in the locality.

A Well-Honed Strategy

The scale of violence and the damage caused in Trilokpuri in the past days is relatively minor if it is compared to the characteristics normally associated with a communal riot in India. There were no deaths, very few injuries and no major damage to property. Moreover, the situation was brought under control in three to four days.

What is disturbing though about the Trilokpuri violence is that it seems to replicate and reinforce several disturbing trends that characterised the Muzaffarnagar violence in UP exactly a year ago. These events highlight and point towards a well-thought-out political and social strategy by certain right-wing social organisations and political parties to not merely systematically polarise society on communal lines but to also drive a social and political wedge between dalits and Muslims.

A closer look at some events related to communal tension in the recent past indicates that there is a running theme and design to create communal polarisation. Issues such as vandalising of temples, conflict and dispute over the use of loudspeakers in mosques and temples, “love-jihad” and cow-slaughter have regularly been invoked in Delhi and surrounding towns and villages of western UP in this project. The partisan role of the police and the systematic utilisation of rumours as a tool to instigate violence and create panic, as well as the transfer of assets and migration of population have become key characteristics of this polarisation.

Let us look at some events related to communal tension in the recent past. During the first week of October, just when the Eid festival was approaching, tension prevailed for several days in north-west Delhi in the Bawana-Narela area when a newly-formed group, called the Hindu Krantikari Sena (Revolutionary Hindu Militia) put up inflammatory posters announcing that the India-Pakistan war had reached Bawana, that the Muslims were slaughtering cows and that the Hindu religion was under threat.

On 2 October 2014 some 200 young Hindu men patrolled the area on motorcycles demanding that the police search Muslim houses, alleging that there was cow-slaughter happening.

Like Trilokpuri, Bawana-Narela is also a resettlement colony inhabited by people who were displaced by slum-clearance drives during the mid-2000s. A large population of Muslims now living in Bawana-Narela came from Yamuna Pustha where their houses were demolished to build a bus depot as part of the Commonwealth Games infrastructure. And, as in Trilokpuri, dalits in Bawana-Narela have a significant presence. An uneasy calm stalks the area even now with the Hindu Krantikari Sena still carrying on its propaganda. As this article is being written, posters have come up in Bawana where right-wing Hindu groups have called for a “Mahapanchayat” (just like in western UP last year before the riots started) to decide on a strategy to ensure that “Muslims do not indulge in violence during the Muharram on 4 November” when Tazia processions are taken out.

Keep the Cauldron Boiling

The demographic profile of Trilokpuri and Bawana-Narela is very similar to several towns and villages of western UP that experienced communal conflagrations after the Muzaffarnagar violence in August 2013. In July this year, removal of a loudspeaker from a Valmiki temple in Kanth town of Moradabad led to communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims; the town remained under curfew for several days and the conflict was used by organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad to deepen the divide, by giving a call to conduct rituals like the jal abhishek at the same temple. This was followed by rumours that a Ravidas temple in Badaun district had been vandalised, and then in Meerut Valmikis alleged that their temple had been desecrated.

The similarity between Trilokpuri and Kanth is even more stark. No Mata-ki-Chowki existed in Trilokpuri and no loudspeakers had been used before in Kanth, which suggests a well-thought-out plan. In the last week of July, Saharanpur, another town in western UP, was gripped by violence over a land dispute at a gurudwara between the Sikh and Muslim communities. The confrontation began by stone-pelting between members of these two communities but soon turned into a full-scale communal riot in which three people died, many were injured and a large number of shops and houses were burnt down.

Love-jihad” is the other running theme that the right-wing Hindutva groups have successfully managed to install as an agenda in national politics and around which communal mobilisations are taking place. The accusation by a Hindu girl from Meerut that her Muslim boyfriend had kidnapped her and she was gang-raped eventually proved to be false and made under duress. It was discovered that the girl was forced to make such a false accusation against the boy under pressure from her family and a new organisation called the “Meerut Beti Bachao Andolan”. In neighbouring Hathras, a dalit woman immolated herself and the accusations were made that she did it because she was gang-raped by Muslim men, charges that have not been proved yet.

For Hindutva groups and the BJP, Muzaffarnagar has been a trendsetter in many ways as far as electoral politics and political dividends are concerned. The Hindu-Muslim polarisation and the vicious hate campaign that happened after the Muzaffarnagar violence is believed to be one of the reasons why the BJP was able to win an unprecedented 73 Lok Sabha seats in UP (out of a total of 80).

Three assembly seats in Delhi are going to the polls on 25 November. The outcome of these by-elections is being seen as an indicator of which way the votes will swing. If the BJP retains these three seats it will get closer to the half-way mark and it will be that much easier for it to get the support of the three MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) needed to prove its majority on the floor of the Delhi Assembly. If it is unable to do that and fresh elections take place, it would have in any case created a rift between the social alliance of the poor and working-class dalits and Muslims and the middle classes that voted in large number for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has emerged as its main challenger given the electoral decimation of the Congress. It is instructive that the sitting MLA of Trilokpuri is a first-time MLA from AAP. Sunil Vaid, the former MLA, is from the BJP and one of the accused in instigating the Trilokpuri violence; he had been proactive in the setting up of the Mata-Ki-Chowki.

Partisanship and Rumours

The partisan role of the police during communal violence has been extensively documented. Investigations conducted by independent organisations have highlighted the fact that in many instances, the police have actively participated in targeting members of the minority community. The starkest examples are the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in Delhi, the riots in Bombay in 1993 and the Gujarat violence in 2002. Fact-finding investigations conducted by civil society and human rights organisations into the Muzaffarnagar riots and the testimonies of Muslims from Trilokpuri have accused the police of demonstrating their biases in two ways. First, violence could have been prevented if the police had acted swiftly when the trouble began.

Second – a more serious accusation – that, on the one hand, the police collaborated with the Hindutva instigators and those indulging in violence from the side of the majority community, and on the other hand, also implicated Muslims in cases under false charges and indulged in custodial violence. These alleged atrocities by the police during the Trilokpuri violence have been submitted as a status report to the National Human Rights Commission by human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover and some residents of Trilokpuri. Though no official figures and estimates are available, the partisan role of the police is also reinforced when we find that the maximum damage caused to the property during the violence occurred in areas inhabited by Muslims. Yet among those arrested, the number of Muslims far outnumber Hindus. A total of 35 people accused of violence in Trilokpuri have been arrested by the Delhi police. Out of these seven belong to the Hindu community while the majority of the others are Muslims.

Rumour has always played an important role in instigating communal violence. This has been demonstrated time and again in academic writing and various fact-finding reports conducted by human rights groups. It is typically assumed that modern methods of communication and a strong independent visual media will assist in objective and transparent coverage of communal violence and will act as a deterrent as those indulging in communal propaganda.

On the contrary, the events of Muzaffarnagar, Trilokpuri and other places mentioned above show that cell phone and social media have been effectively used by the communal elements to incite violence and create panic and insecurity. What caused the riot in Muzaffarnagar last year is still in the realm of speculation and there is still no official reason given by the investigating agencies. Whether it was the circulation of a fake video in which Muslims were accused of killing two Jat boys that caused the riot, or an alleged sexual harassment incident, or a combination of these factors and some others that led to the riot, all of this remains unknown.

Similarly, in Trilokpuri, we still do not know when the Mata-Ki-Chowki came up, how long it will remain there and whether it was the drunken brawl between some young men of the Hindu and Muslim community at the site of the Mata-Ki-Chowki that led to the conflict or a dispute at the illegal gambling den that started a fight and became a riot. In Trilokpuri, there were several other rumours doing the rounds throughout the week on cell phone applications like WhatsApp and through the “sms”. One related to the death of a Valmiki youth injured in firing, and this created fresh tension in the area. This rumour kept doing the rounds for two days. There was another rumour which claimed that some plain-clothed cops were raiding Muslims’ houses and illegally detaining people, which led to widespread panic.

How to Conclude

Finally, what stood out in Trilokpuri is the role played by civil society groups and various human rights organisations in mitigating the violence and ensuring that minimum human rights violations take place. Within hours of the eruption of violence, these organisations got into action at several levels. There were groups who went to Trilokpuri to mobilise people and campaigned for restoration of peace; there were others who arrived at the various police stations in and around Trilokpuri to put pressure on the police to take action while others appealed to the higher officials in the state police administration.

Media was mobilised and monitored, and advocacy was conducted to ensure that as far as possible, there was objective and unbiased reporting. Legal assistance to those wrongly arrested and visits of the family members of those lodged in were facilitated by these groups. Memorandums were submitted to the National Human Rights Commission and National Commission for Minorities, the members of the latter also made a visit to Trilokpuri. Peace committees and interaction among members of the two communities were initiated and regular coordination meetings were held in and outside Trilokpuri. The fact that despite all these efforts, there were still reports of human rights violations and atrocities shows that an absence of such groups could have made the situation far worse.

In contrast, what was disturbing was the complete absence of the mainstream political parties which claim to represent secular and liberal ideologies. Most noticeable was the absence of AAP which is considered a grass-roots party in Delhi and has developed a wide network in slums and working-class colonies of Delhi. Their leaders made statements and visits only when the situation was brought under control. The inactivity on the part of these political parties is troubling, because on the one hand it shows that they lack the political imagination to counter a resurgent Hindutva politics in everyday life. On the other hand they practise politics in a narrow sense of winning and losing elections. Perhaps, they fear that if they stand up against the politics of communal polarisation they will alienate communities and lose votes and face electoral setbacks.

The violence in Trilokpuri is a warning about the larger strategy of Hindutva politics in the present context. The communal cauldron is sought to be kept at just below boiling point, enough to polarise social constituencies and individual voters along religious and caste lines. It is instructive that dalit and other working-class voters are being targeted for communal mobilisation in Delhi when it is on the cusp of new elections. The by-elections in UP some months ago indicated that voters saw through such cynical ploys and did not coalesce around the BJP as had been hoped for by the instigators of the various communal campaigns. What lessons the electorate of Delhi learn, and teach, will be known soon in the future. However, the battle against the present round of communal mobilisations will be much more difficult to sustain, given how meekly political parties which claim to oppose them have surrendered themselves.