For three days early this week, the north-east parts of Delhi were riot stricken. As of Thursday, more than 30 people were killed, nearly 300 people injured, and properties and assets worth crores damaged.
All of it happened not just in any city, or a typically remote part of India, but in the national capital. If it was just another city, the inept state machinery could have been blamed. Or the local politicians. If it was a remote area, mayhem could be seen as the result of natural entropy: in remote areas, anything could happen as civilisation tended to break down with more ease out of sight and reach.
Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story of a power-cult set in the Congo jungles, though of course the source of the corruption is traced to European imperialism, in fact, to London, ‘the greatest town on earth.’
The most troubling puzzle of the Delhi breakdown — a breakdown encompassing all aspects of life, political, judicial, even philosophical — is how a riot situation was in the making for long, and how it was not curbed when it actually exploded into action, spread over three days
In the event, the riots took place smack in the seat of power. Parliament, the executive, and the judiciary are headquartered in Delhi. So, after a manner, is the fourth pillar, the media. Since Delhi is also a state, it has an elected assembly of representatives, whose leader is Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, except that the police report to the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, a stalwart BJP leader.
For three days, all the pillars were shaken in varying degrees. How did this happen? In retrospect, the breakdown was as much willed — if inertia could be willed — as it was fated. From December last year, the links in the chain were locking into place. The JNU riots. The Jamia Millia University riots.
The anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and protests against it across the country. The Shaheen Bagh (an area in Delhi, and an epicentre of anti-CAA celebrations and revolts) sit-ins entering now its third month.
Nothing is true
In between, too, there have been assaults by the police and goons, shoot-outs, and stone pelting, all often aggravated by a cacophonous media which, like the main actors of this bloody political opera, is so intellectually challenged that it could not find a median space to articulate the antipodal positions of the stakeholders.
The social media, no doubt the modern fifth pillar of democracy, flaunted their outrage at first and then when people started killing and dying, shed copious tears, showing us how Hassan-i Sabbah, the 11th century founder of the Assassin Order, got it all so right so long ago: ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’
Both Hindus and Muslims died. Policemen, too. As this goes to press, no compensation has been announced. No politician, least of all prime minister, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Kejriwal, or the main Opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi visited the sites. The telling absence of the leaders might be owing to security reasons. Or maybe they just lack the conviction, and, therefore, complicit in their political dereliction.
The most troubling puzzle of the Delhi breakdown — a breakdown encompassing all aspects of life, political, judicial, even philosophical — is how a riot situation was in the making for long, and how it was not curbed when it actually exploded into action, spread over three days. The National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, walked around the areas (on Wednesday) in sunshades, presumably hoping if the vision was dark enough, it would all just disappear.
He told reporters: ‘The situation is under control and people are satisfied.’ No less: the people are satisfied — after so many deaths. No one, least of all the reporters crowding around him, bothered to ask him if there was an intelligence failure. Besides, why is he appropriating to himself the role that a Mother Teresa or her political equivalent — such as it is — a Modi or a Shah or a Kejriwal should be doing?
Last year, after the Kashmir crackdown, Doval — wearing the same shades — was suddenly visible doing the peace rounds, measuring the satisfaction of the people. The only surmise one can draw from this ritual is that a hawk believes it must wear dark-glasses when it wants to appear as a dove.
It is a schismatic civilisation negotiating a massive crisis of communication and unable to find common ground, a voice, for articulation. When arguments fail, slander and bullets start flying
Who stood to benefit from the riots? Not Modi, it appears. The US President Donald Trump was visiting, and it does not make sense for the BJP to wreck that show with a bloody riot. It does not help Kejriwal on the face of it either; especially since he has just been elected as the chief minister for the second time in a row. The Congress just does not have in them to engineer an internecine war of this kind.
That leaves fringe players like Dalit leader Chandrashekar Azad and marginal Islamist parties. Neither seems to have gained anything out of this protracted act of frenzy. A conclusion one can draw then is a societal breakdown long in the making, and when it slowly — and then suddenly — gathered forces, the powers that be let it happen.
Life in Delhi will go on despite the lives lost. It is, of course, possible that not all who died early this week are innocent. But the one thing that Delhi can’t explain away is the culpability of not just the political and administrative machinery: surely that is why no one in power, not even a law officer, has been asked to resign.
But it is not the politics and the administration alone. It is a schismatic civilisation negotiating a massive crisis of communication and unable to find common ground, a voice, for articulation. When arguments fail, slander and bullets start flying.
The last words of Socrates — awaiting execution in his prison cell — to his wealthy friend was: ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget?’ Asclepius was the god of healing, and Socrates may have meant life was a disease for him, and that the fowl was his token of thanksgiving for getting cured of it.
The periodic Indian riots with its killing and maiming rituals look like the price we all owe to society at large. It is a terrible sacrifice. But one that India seems to do every now and then. The period in between is possibly occupied with fattening the fowl.
— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India