A riot here, an election there

REGARDLESS of what the urban crusaders against corruption would have us believe, it is the more reliable communal polarisation or some other parochial mobilisation, say caste, which is more likely to set the agenda for the next general elections in India.

This has been par for the course since the beginning of India’s free-market economic policies in 1991. Had the fabled economic agenda found traction with the electorate, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would sit in the Lok Sabha and not the Upper House.

The trick is simple. Distract the middle classes with the lure of the free market and let loose an Advani here or a Modi there to set up the more compelling agenda. The current ethno-communal inferno in Assam may have started the race ahead of the whistle that is otherwise only due in 2014.

I have not visited Assam recently, but colleagues I trust have seen some of its strife-torn areas. They found hundreds of thousands caught in an unabated spiral of Muslim-tribal violence, most of whom are forced to live in camps in subhuman conditions.

To compound the chaos, Muslims in Assam are split into moderate Barelvis and the doctrinaire Wahabis. The internecine rivalry could get a wider play in the next polls.

Assam’s Bodo tribal people, like their hapless and unlikely rivals, the state’s Muslims, are used as cat’s paws in what has been essentially an upper caste-led communalisation since 1978. That year the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh got a toehold in the power structures of Delhi.

That’s how the political class has dealt with ethno-communal stand-offs anyway. If a wedge is driven, say in Orissa, between a low-ranking Christian tribal community and a poorly off Hindu Dalit group, then a combination of dispossessed Dalits and tribespeople could be mobilised to target equally helpless Muslims elsewhere, for example in Gujarat.

Uttar Pradesh, to take another example, looks ripe for a pitched confrontation between the lowly but communalised Muslims and the lowlier community of communalised Dalits. The mullah and the pandit have been locked in a veritable futures trade in which political parties play the punters.

It would be an exaggeration though to suggest that the BJP’s Hindutva hordes start communal riots and that the Congress uses its secular demeanour to win over the minorities. The game is more nuanced.

As the incorrigible Muslim-baiter Narendra Modi undergoes an image makeover to gain acceptability for his reported ambition to become prime minister, the Congress is keenly eyeing the oncoming Hindu-Muslim confrontation as an opportunity to play both sides of the street.

Having done poorly in most states and reeling under serious corruption charges, it will need an Assam-like tinderbox to improve its chances for 2014.

In a sense, the cynical approach to politics is dictated by the exigencies of India’s bipartisan reforms regime. Free-market policies were initiated by the Congress to be owned by the BJP during the Vajpayee tenure. As part of the bargain, BJP leaders took turns to incite communal violence before passing the baton to the next in line.

It was Vajpayee’s incendiary speech in the 1983 Assam elections that led to the Nellie massacre of a few thousand homeless Muslims. Their killers were equally impoverished tribal people. Vajpayee then placed the responsibility into the capable hands of Lal Kishan Advani.

As if on cue, Manmohan Singh’s cause was boosted as Advani kept the country riveted to Ayodhya, away from parliament where Nehru’s India was dismantled and pawned away to corporate bidders bit by bit without anyone taking much notice.

It is not quite clear to me when or how precisely the current communal upsurge began in Congress-ruled Assam. Given the cocktail of stupor and bias in much of the national media, it may leave us with little choice but to find hints in rival narratives. One encapsulates the views of Assamese Muslims, though not without their share of communal vitriol. The other follows the events as the BJP sees them unfolding in Assam.

The Muslim construct traverses history. The Assam agitation in the early 1980s, according to this view, began in protest against the exploitative practices of outsiders, including Bengali bureaucrats, Marwari businessmen, sundry moneylenders, contractors and other carpetbaggers from different regions of India.

The RSS cleverly turned it into an anti-Muslim, specifically anti-Bengali Muslim affair. The witch-hunt that followed the communal hysteria did not hurt the so-called Bangladeshi Muslims as it did Assamese Muslims of Bengali origin.

According to the Assamese Muslim view, it was the Bengali Hindu clerks who came to Assam with the British from Calcutta and Dhaka in 1834. Then in 1836, Bengali was imposed as the official language in Assam. Muslims in Assam see the BJP as a party of traders and moneylenders mostly from Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat.

An inspired Hindu view of the conflict is aptly represented by the BJP. The party’s stance on Assam is not surprisingly nuanced and keeps the pretence of its image makeover. It prefers to relish highlighting the Congress’s double game instead of instigating sectarian violence as the BJP otherwise does with ease.

About the Nellie massacre, which the BJP fuelled and fanned in 1983, the party says glibly but not without a grain of truth: “The Congress did not raise an eyebrow. In July 1983, a commission was set up (and) submitted a 600-page report in January 1984 ... Till date it is kept a closely guarded secret. So much for the Congress’ concern for the minorities.”

The BJP twists the knife further in the Congress’s back. “Nellie survivors received Rs5,000 for each dead and three bundles of tin sheets for roofing their houses,” the party spokesperson recalled tartly. “The Sikh survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi and nearby areas, received up to Rs700,000 each.” What a way to pit two of the most battered Indian communities against each other.

Indian elections do take a cue from the fatal duels that Roman slaves were forced to fight for the glory of rulers. The Indian version of the Coliseum — somewhat like a circus tent — keeps moving, from Assam to Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat to Delhi, negotiating the world’s largest democracy, putting on a dazzling display of grit and gore, of triumphant cynicism, of wounded hope.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. jawednaqvi@gmail.com

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Comments (23) Closed

Aug 16, 2012 03:43pm
Mr. Jawed Naqvi, I have been reading your columns from some time now, and I can't escape the fact that your world view has a certain colored tinge to it. I espouse to a views which would be regarded as "liberal fascist" in certain quarters, but growing up as a Shia with somewhat atheistic streak in India helps to view things through minority world view. And now my penny worth an opinion, me thinks the best way to combat any sort of alienation is stake in the system itself. Belief that one can work hard and ripe rewards that they deserve. I, in no way want to have Ayn Rand's world, but I subscribe to the cynical greed/aspiration/incentive driven society. I see free market as a part of solution in this regard. Clearly we disagree, and let the time be the judge.
Aug 16, 2012 12:00pm
Aug 16, 2012 03:13pm
Shias like razavi's and naqvi's are MORE safe in India than in the last citadel of Islam i.e. Pakistan (http://dawn.com/2012/08/16/several-forced-off-buses-killed-in-northern-pakistan/). Face the truth dear friend and don't listen to garbage journalism as is presented in this article....
Aug 16, 2012 12:46pm
Javed Sahab you are spot on . You hit the nail on the head .There is only and only "politics' no sympathy no secularism ,only power game . I love the mirror you hold out to the India .A true journalist who only shows the mirror and doesn't change the pic instead . We need more like you .Great going . Power to you .
Aug 16, 2012 03:48pm
Javed Naqvi has acknowledged on a number of occasions that he is a Marxist, and unlike a lot of his ilk who reformed after the death of communism, Javedsaab still remains committed to his beliefs. Ignore him, people like him are a dying spieces
Deep Ranjan
Aug 16, 2012 12:35pm
Dear Javed, I am from North East of India and before reading your this article I used to respect you for your secular views and pro socialist approach as well as anti nuclear armament mindset I remember you used to mention about the sorry situations of tribal in India including North East and Central India. Where is that affection now? Recent wave (From 1970) Illegal migrants of Asam are from Bangladesh and they have usurped indigenous tribal people (Bodo). Not only Bodos, these settlers have usurped other indigenous tribal of North-East India. These illegal migrants have changed the demography of Asam. These illegal migrants are from Bangladesh happening to be Muslims. Why don't you say the truth? Failure to condemn illegal settlers will slowly push tribal to extreme edge. We may be wiped out as we don't have suave representative like you and millions of petro dollar to back us. Why is the double standard applied to condemn these illegal settlers? When you condemn Israeli settlers for usurping indigenous Palestinian land I never see you applying this duplicity.
jagar singh
Aug 16, 2012 10:38am
not by illegal immigrants.muslim artisans were invited by Assam rajas to manufacture war materials back in1 500's.They were settled by them.
Aug 16, 2012 10:31am
Once again the author is talking in circles and trying to make illogical conclusions; The current riots is a culmination of an increasingly frustrated Assamese people who see uncontrolled illegal immigration, political apathy to this and the migrants who are becoming vocal and aggressive because they have changes the demographics and are being supported by Congress.
Aug 26, 2012 03:01am
I am surprised Dawn lets these propagandists go unchecked. This author has lost touch with reality and facts. BJP engineered Nellie? BJP wasn't even there in 1983! Vajpayee inciting riots is just garbage of the first order. I always used to think of Naqvi as a little twisted as far his views are concerned. But to go so far as to rabidly manufacture facts and data to support his twisted views, puts him in the same class of conspiracy theorists such as those espousing "Jews did 9/11". This article is just the purest form of falsehood and outright propaganda that I have ever observed on Dawn.
Aug 16, 2012 10:58am
But the way Indian society has evolved ,it is remarkable, people like Mr.Naqvi who is from the minority reaching such heights . He is not the only example. There are thousands of personalities from minority who are enjoying power and fame and people of India regardless from any community ,love them.The growing Muslim middle class is a force to reckon with in the urban India. Fortunately this middle class are progressive in nature.
Aug 16, 2012 10:57am
I have very high regards for Mr. Naqvi as an Intellectual . It is true that different sections of Indian Societies have become pawns in the hands of Politicians and the worst sufferers are the that section of minorities which have economic backwrdness and have no say at the higher levels of political power. _
Aug 16, 2012 11:40am
Dear Mr. Jawed Naqvi, I admire you. I admire the way in which you first give the most outlandish and overreaching of conclusions - and back them up with a sly, even more outlandish and irrelevant argument. "India's polity is determined not by development but by caste" - case in point - "Manmohan Singh lost an election a long time back from South Delhi." When it comes to bashing the upper castes and the BJP leaders, howsoever accredited with moderation, you don't even bother with the supporting argument. "Vajpayee engineered the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983", "Upper castes are responsible for the Muslim-tribal riots" yada yada yada. Did you not see Nitish Kumar getting reelected on the back of development work? Did Akhilesh Yadav come to power because of one of the many polarizations you mentioned, or due to the ill-governance of Mayawati government? YS Rajasekhar Reddy was a Christian, got Congress to power in an extremely conservative state, and even till now his son is reaping the harvests of his father's charisma. There is such a story in every state. India has changed, Mr. Naqvi. If someone hasn't changed, it's you and your viewpoint. Same old anti-upper caste rhetoric; same jaundiced, one dimensional view of India - along caste and communal lines. Good thing there are few like yourself in the pipeline of new Indian journalists.
Aug 16, 2012 03:08am
The article makes no sense
Mustafa Razavi
Aug 16, 2012 03:28am
Watch out, that was a real broadside against the Baniya Brigade, Naqvi sahib is going to get a lot of hate mail.
Aug 16, 2012 04:45am
yet another gem from the "Secular" Jawed Naqvi. Does he see anything....anything other than saffron in everything that is bad? you have not visited assam "recently" and you see Hindu conspiracies but no instigation and trouble from the islamic organisations. you remember BJP creating trouble since the 80's but i am sure you have not even heard of the illegal bangladeshis who are changing the demography is assam or the militant islamic organisations active there with outside support. i truly admire your "impartial" view. it is so, because in the hindu-bashing world of yours there is no other view. PS: any impartial analysis of the riots in mumbai or the threats that North Easterners have to face in their own country. the people behind this are the same "hapless" and "tortured" souls in your stories.
Aug 16, 2012 05:01am
Please don't hide the cause . It was caused due to illegal immigrants . Try to go to the root .
Aug 16, 2012 01:51pm
Dear Mr. Naqui, I read your column regularly just to know how baised one could be and how one can quote things selectively to just to address one's personal agenda. Sir, just for a chnage, I will request you write about recent Hindu migrants pouring in India from Pakistan. It is difficult isn't.
Aug 16, 2012 06:33am
Please give your views on recent ( August 2012) riots. I am sure they will be equally interesting.
Illegal Migrant
Aug 16, 2012 08:04am
I think muslims have got more than they deserve in India. It is Logical that when you have all, you crave for more. If all Muslims of the Indian sub continent want a share in the Indian progress and wealth, why don't they first dismiss their own nationality and then create a United India. Else, the smartness of illegal migration will be dealt with massive force which will further take poor muslim back 30 40 years.
Aug 16, 2012 08:34am
Wasted my 10 minutes on this.
Aug 16, 2012 08:44am
As usual everything blamed on upper caste hindus, jawed is as communal as Narender Modi . I think dawn should stop his articles as they are communal in nature . Like extreme jihadi or hinduvata ideology , maoism is a extreme ideology and should be shunned from public discourses
Aug 17, 2012 05:08am
if you read newspapers/articles/blogs etc. which you obviously don't, you'll see the term associated with India is "biggest democracy" not "best democracy". No country can be referred to as best simply because every country will have some or the other flaws.
manu sharma
Aug 19, 2012 12:39am
Mr. Naqvi: I think you would never be able to view the situation (any situation) related to India or Pakistan or South Asia with a clean and impartial view. Why would you drag BJP into the communal riots which are happening now and giving instances of 1983?? Bangladeshi illegal migrants are a BIG issue in that part of the country and the local people do not want them there because those guys are changing everything which was native to the locals. Meanwhile, Bangalore and Hyderabad are raging in retaliation from some fanatic uneducated folks. You should have talked about this view point as well.