This is the age of the rabble-rouser with social media amplifying the noise of the loudest voices. In Delhi, a marginal politician like Kapil Mishra has mastered the art of staying in the news by making provocative remarks. Mishra, once a minister in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government and now with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is accused of fuelling the flames that have engulfed a part of the national capital by threatening the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, street protesters to withdraw their agitation or face the consequences. The same leader had during the Delhi election campaign pitched the election as an "India versus Pakistan" battle, a shockingly communal remark designed to spread hate in the hunt for votes. Then he was barely rapped on the knuckles by the Election Commission, but now his mischievous role in the Delhi violence needs to be investigated.
Mishra is not alone in being a troublemaker. Last week, Waris Pathan, a local leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Mumbai, had warned of how "our 15 crore" can outweigh "their 100 crore" in the context of the anti-CAA protests. These incendiary remarks have only added a toxic edge to communal relations on the ground, leading to an eruption that has left dozens dead and more than 100 injured in the Delhi riots.
Let's be clear: This was a riot waiting to happen after months of hateful, high-pitched rhetoric that has sparked off fear, resentment and anger among communities. When protesters at Shaheen Bagh are described as "desh ke gaddar" (anti-nationals) who "deserve to be shot" by government ministers and their cheerleaders, and when every attempt is made by the political leadership to demonise the Indian Muslim, the seeds are sown of a potential flashpoint. When a relentless propaganda machine with the aid of some media caters to the worst prejudices of the majority community, then a deepening religious divide on the ground is almost inevitable. That the State did not seem to anticipate the likelihood of trouble is even more perplexing: The government machinery was caught napping, deliberately or otherwise. That it should happen while a high-profile United States presidential visit is underway is even more baffling. Surely, the last thing the Narendra Modi government wanted was the pageantry of a ceremonial occasion being shadowed by the grim underbelly of religious violence on the street.
Which is why the role of the State machinery in failing to control the violence needs investigation. It's the oldest rule of the administrative rulebook that no riot is allowed to simmer for 48 hours without some level of either administrative incompetence or complicity or both. On day one, the Delhi police was outnumbered and ill-prepared to handle the spurt in street violence. On day two, there is enough video and anecdotal evidence to suggest that the police, instead of acting in a strict and non-partisan manner, was seen to shamefully side with one group of rioters. This "communalisation" of the police force is not new: In almost every major riot, the police's role as an enforcer of the rule of law without fear or favour has come under the scanner. In recent times, the police has been totally embedded with the ruling elite:
The entire system of transfers and appointments is decided on the whims and fancies of the political class.
Which is why both the police headquarters and administrative leadership in the home ministry need to answer some tough questions. Who failed to ensure that sufficient police forces were on the ground on the first day of the violence? And who allowed the police to get away with their one-sided actions on day two of the rioting? This dangerous mix of incompetence and complicity cannot go unpunished. The fact that some anti-CAA protests organised by Muslim groups in northeast Delhi took a terribly violent turn, was seen as enough reason to allow local Hindu groups to retaliate with impunity. The result is a scarred and divided neighbourhood where both ordinary Hindus and Muslims have suffered a loss of life and property.
The real worry is that north-east Delhi may only be a trailer, and that it will not take long for similar violent eruptions to spread elsewhere. For there is little sign that the ruling party at the Centre has learnt its lessons or that it genuinely wants to bridge the growing religious divide. If it did, it would sack the likes of Kapil Mishra, instead of indulging and even legitimising their venomous rhetoric. If it did, it would start a dialogue with the Shaheen Bagh protesters instead of ostracising them. And if it did, it would realise that the politics of reflexive anti-Muslim hatred may consolidate a Hindutva vote bank but will only end up polarising society to the point of no return.
Post-script: In my reporting from northeast Delhi, I met Kamal Sharma, whose restaurant was gutted and I met Mohammed Nawaz, whose fruit shop and house was razed to the ground. Both lived on opposite sides of the main road. If we can't heal both their lives, we will have only created another unofficial "border", this time in the heart of the national capital.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. His latest book is 2019: How Modi won India