The rioting near the communally sensitive Old City in Hyderabad is the third major incident of communal violence since India went to the polls last month. Wednesday’s clash between Sikhs and Muslims after a religious flag that was found burnt, amid conflicting reports of mischief and accident, or last week’s violence in Meerut over the ownership of a public well, must not be written off as isolated events. India has already been mute witness to the potential of localised disputes escalating into unmanageable violence spreading across districts and even states. Take the example of Muzaffarnagar, where an alleged eve-teasing incident sparked off rioting that has polarised the entire Western UP region on religious lines. Both the Old City and Meerut have a history of not just communal violence, but communal politics too.
Two weeks ago, in the Kokrajhar and Baksa districts of Assam, 32 Muslims were killed by alleged Bodo militants. In the days preceding the massacre, a leading Bodo politician had queered the pitch alleging that Muslims did not vote for Bodo candidates.
It may not be coincidence that these three riots have taken place during this election season. The past months have seen many politicians adopt a heightened communal pitch to consolidate religious votebanks overcoming caste and class identities. While the political ends of indulging in communal hate speeches are met at election-time, the suspicion and enmity they foster lingers. Not surprisingly, several parts of the country are communally troubled today. India’s tragedy has been the flourishing of a class of politicians eager to fan the communal flames rather than those engaged in cooling tempers. From the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Babri Masjid demolition riots, the post-Godhra riots to last year’s Muzaffarnagar riots, the involvement of politicians implicates our parliamentary democracy and its institutional watchdogs.
Even as the facts of the Hyderabad and Meerut outbreaks remain to be ascertained, the disconcerting aspect was the rapidity of communal mobilisation in the age of pervasive social media. The use of SMS and social networking websites to rapidly disseminate information or misinformation poses a challenge to law enforcement officers. In Hyderabad and Meerut, even as attempts to solve the issues was underfoot, fresh mobilisation of mobs from surrounding areas, left the police with no other option but to fire at the protesters. In the narrow bylanes of these old towns, where communities live in close proximity to each other, evolving occasional examples of communal harmony or syncretic culture, decades of population explosion, ghettoisation, in-migration, overcrowding and crumbling urban infrastructure have placed a great strain on resources.
Though Narendra Modi led a campaign largely focussed on a new developmental paradigm, the BJP’s politics on the ground often returns to the Hindutva idiom of the Sangh Parivar, as evident from Giriraj Singh and Amit Shah’s campaign speeches. Their polar equivalents can be found in the Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan and Abu Azmi who have left Akhilesh Yadav’s 2012 electoral promise of transforming UP in shambles. The UPA’s failed communal violence legislation promised exemplary administrative and judicial assistance to communal riot victims besides punishing officials who fail command responsibility during riots. Unfortunately, the bill got drawn into a needless controversy over its perceived bias towards minorities. The fate of this bill is now uncertain; but the time for a fresh debate on secularism and communal politics, is nigh. In the possibility of developmental politics surmounting communalism lies a future where local communities co-exist peacefully.