This essay, on last week’s violence in Delhi, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece onaudiobooks) It was published on 1 March 2020, under the headline ‘The violence in Delhi is not a ‘riot’. It is targeted anti-Muslim brutality’.
In August 1958, gangs of white youths began systematically attacking West Indians in London’s Notting Hill, assaulting them with iron bars and meat cleavers and milk bottles. One policeman reported a 300-strong mob shouting: ‘We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?’ The attacks continued for a week before order was restored.
The incident is still referred to as the ‘Notting Hill riots‘. It was nothing of the sort. It was a vicious week-long racist attack. Mr Justice Salmon, sentencing nine white youths at the Old Bailey, called it ‘nigger hunting’. There is, though, a long history of describing racist violence as a ‘riot’, to portray it as a general violent mayhem rather than as targeted attacks.
And so it is with the violence that over the past week has engulfed parts of the Indian capital, Delhi. Journalists and politicians have talked of ‘rioting’ and ‘communal violence’. That’s no more accurate than describing the attack on Notting Hill’s black residents as a ‘riot’. What Delhi witnessed over the past week is the Indian equivalent of ‘nigger hunting’, targeted violence against Muslims, led by mobs of Hindu nationalists, mainly supporters of the BJP, India’s governing party, many chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (‘glory to Lord Rama’) and ‘Hinduon ka Hindustan’ (India for Hindus).
The violence began after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, told a rally last Sunday that unless police cleared the streets of protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), he and his supporters would do it themselves.
The CAA is a new law that allows undocumented migrants from neighbouring countries to seek citizenship in India – except if they are Muslim. It’s the first law since India gained independence that explicitly excludes Muslims, and has generated widespread protests.
Within hours of Mishra’s ultimatum, BJP gangs started attacking anti-CAA protesters. Within days, they were burning down Muslim houses, shops and mosques. And Muslims themselves. At least 39 people have been killed, including a policeman.
Hindus, too, have been attacked and their houses burnt. This has led some to portray the events in Delhi as general lawlessness, even primarily as Muslim violence. In 1958, many West Indians armed themselves with bricks and bats, some ganged up looking for whites to attack. That did not detract from it being a racist assault on local blacks. Nor does the fact that Muslims in Delhi have also responded with violence diminish the Hindu chauvinism and anti-Muslim hostility that lies at the heart of the ‘riots’.
The BJP is driven by the ideology of ‘Hindutva’, or ‘Hinduness’, seeing the Hindu way of life as the only authentic model for India. All of India’s Muslims should have been packed off to Pakistan at partition, a government minister, Giriraj Singh, said last month.
Like many European reactionary groups, the BJP has won popular support largely because of disaffection with the failure and corruption of mainstream parties, especially Congress, which has governed India for most of its post-independence history. When the BJP came to power in 2014, its Hindu chauvinism was kept on a short leash. A resounding second victory in elections last year has, however, given the prime minister, Narendra Modi, licence to pursue exclusionary policies without restraint.
In August 2019, the government stripped Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status – a demand of Hindu nationalists since the 1950s – and dealt brutally with local protests. Then came the CAA, part of a two-pronged attack on Muslim citizenship. The second prong is the creation of a national register of citizens, compelling all Indians to provide documentation of their citizenship. Millions of poorer Indians have no such paperwork. For non-Muslims, this is unlikely to be too great a burden – the amended citizenship law provides a path to citizenship. Muslims, however, excluded by the CAA, fear that they will be deemed ‘foreigners’ even if they have lived in India for generations; that they may end up as India’s Rohingya.
While the attempt to exclude Muslims reveals the chauvinist ideology of the BJP, mass opposition to the CAA, from Hindus and Muslims alike, shows the depth of hostility to bigotry. In Delhi, too, amid the violence there have been many stories of Hindus protecting Muslim neighbours, and of Muslims aiding Hindus.
What is playing out in India is not a simple religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims but a political struggle between two visions of India: between those who see it as an open, secular nation and those who wish to create a chauvinist Hindu state. Who prevails in this struggle matters not just to Muslims, or to Indians, but to all of us.
Photo of the violence in Delhi by PTI