Political Mileage From Communal Violence

This was the topic of the panel discussion held in New Delhi on November 29 on the occasion of the publication of the book, When A Tree Shook Delhi, authored by Manoj Mitta and H.S.Phoolka. Considering the media’s scant interest in reporting the discussion, I thought our blog readers would be interested in what the various panelists said or did not say on the subject.
The discussion, moderated by Yogendra Yadav, was joined by Brinda Karat, Akali Dal’s Dhindsa, BJP’s Ravi Shankar Prasad, Congress’ Salman Khursheed, and veteran jurist, Rajinder Sachar. Here are some excerpts:

YY at the outset complimented Mitta and Phoolka for authoring a remarkable book, full of facts, adding very little of their own views. “This is how Mahatma Gandhi would write – just facts, which speak eloquently, without bothering too much about the language”. He requested the panelists to reflect on what really happened in 1984, without being inhibited by their respective party lines. In particular, he wished to know why Akali Dal remained silent, as a constituent of the NDA, during the 2002 pogrom. (Dhindsa evaded the issue). He also wanted Brinda Karat to reflect on Nandigram, on whether right under the nose of the State, this could happen in a democracy. He appealed to the panelists to be honest, despite their individual constraints.

Brinda Karat, who played an instrumental role in the appointment of the Nanavati Commission – a fact acknowledged in the book – dealt with dangers of communalization of politics, and identity politics. She referred to the recent Bill on dealing with communal violence, and regretted that the Bill did not deal with weaknesses in the process of punishing the guilty of communal violence. On Nandigram, she disagreed with the suggestion that Minorities were targeted in the violence, and disapproved of the comparison with the Gujarat pogrom.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, denied YY’s suggestion that the BJP did not apologise for the Gujarat pogrom, even though Congress had apologized for 1984. “We condemned on the floor of the House” when it was debated in Parliament, he said (which YY denied through his facial expression). He refused to believe that the apology tendered by Manmohan Singh as the PM was sincere, as no action had been subsequently taken to punish the guilty. He said Gujarat was not the first time massacre was used as a tool for political mobilization. In Bhagalpur, 2100 Muslims died (under a Congress regime). He termed the discussion on the issue, as suggesting some sort of a barter system. But he added, if some one is guilty of massacre, the past will catch up with him. In Gujarat, the process of punishing the guilty has been set in motion, and the Supreme Court itself is monitoring it, he said, as compared to the manner the investigation into the 84 carnage has been derailed.

YY wanted Salman Khursheed to answer the question whether there was a hidden hand in 1984, which instigated the massacre.

Salman Khursheed said Rajiv Gandhi would have apologized if pointed out that his remark that when a tree falls, the earth is bound to shake was insensitive to the victims. ‘One doesn’t know how this remark found a place in his speech. Was there a speech writer who introduced this sentence at that time? One doesn’t know’, he said. His bottomline was that the top leader on such occasions is helpless. He asked: ‘If there is no justice in peace time, is it reasonable to expect it during such crises?” Let’s learn to move forward, politics of the day forced the people to take sides of the killers, he said, almost justifying the manner the leaders of the 84 massacre were politically rewarded by the powers-that-be in the Congress. The book, he said, is not an indictment of the Congress, but a lesson.

Rajinder Sachar said the 84 massacre revealed not just how the political system failed, but how we had become individualized. Asking why did the State collapse, he said it was as if there was a gulf between the perceptions of politicians and the people.

It was Phoolka who underlined the real issue which ought to bother the nation. He said Justice Sachar was among those who suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the 84 massacre, in the place of an inquiry commission to find and punish the guilty. Phoolka did not agree with the suggestion, because he felt punishing the guilty was important not only for rendering justice to the victims, but because the message would go home that the guilty of communal carnage could go scot free. He said had the 84 guilty been punished in time, 2002 would not have happened. The message emerging out of this book and this discussion is chilling indeed: We all have to face the risk of becoming victims of this mad mass violence one day, because the perpetrators of mass violence always get emboldened by the lapse of time, and the system’s failure to punish.

At the end of the discussion, however, I felt, the main theme, that is, political mileage from communal violence, was left unaddressed. All seemed to agree at least impliedly that there was political mileage sought by the perpetrators of the violence. But beyond that, there was no attempt to answer questions like, was there a direct linkage between the carnage and electoral success of a political party, and whether the bulk of the electorate in 1984 and 2002 turned communal, to vote for the party seen as responsible for the carnage. In other words, did the political class in 1984 and 2002 Gujarat require the carnage to polarize the voters? To put it even more bluntly, did the electorate on both these occasions vote the way they did, because the state facilitated the carnage? Would they have voted similarly even if the carnage had not happened? Ghanshyam Shah addresses some of these issues, partly at least, in his article on Gujarat in Tehelka.

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