Communal violence is not a new phenomenon in India. It has been occurring since the 1940s. The reasons for riots earlier were usually political, and seldom linked to economics. The riots during the 1940s were majorly linked to political and economic reasons. Ever since the 1960s, till the 1980s, most riots were incited mainly due economic issues only, although the outward appearance was just, mostly, Hindus and Muslims attacking each other.
From the early 1990s the rules of the game changed. Riots began to take a distinct political colour. The rise of Hindutva, as preached by the BJP, became the primary thought behind major riots, though sometimes the initial sparks were political or economic. It all started with the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.
In terms of involvement of political parties, the riots after 1947 can be broadly divided into two phases – the ones till the late 1980s that mostly occurred in Congress-ruled regions while those after the 1990s that occurred in the BJP-ruled regions.
Post-independence, two riots which left a grievous wound on the fabric of the nation were the Anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the Gujarat Genocide of 2002. In both, leaders of the ruling party, the Congress and the BJP, respectively, were allegedly involved. Of course, there were other clashes, which have left an indelible mark on the Indian psyche, including the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 and the Mumbai riots of 1993, but what makes these two doubly abhorable is that not only were numerous innocents killed, but that there has been no justice for them either, in all these years.
1969 Ahmedabad riots
Communal riots between Hindus and Muslims erupted in Ahmedabad in 1969. At least 1000 people had died during this riot.
At the time there was a dispute over the leadership of the Congress party between Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai. There were suggestions that violence was deliberately engineered to discredit the chief minister of Gujarat who was a supporter of Mr Desai.
They were followed by riots in Uttar Pradesh with periodic violence erupting elsewhere.
Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Jamshedpur and Aligarh in 1979 and in Moradabad in 1980.
1984 Sikh Genocide
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984; the riots began that evening, with people calling for the death of Sikhs. The series of pogroms was an attempt at a systematic cleansing of the Sikh community. There was alleged direct collusion of some leaders of the party in power, that is, Congress, who instigated the rioters, as well as a substantial part of the police administration, which stood by to watch the mayhem, willingly as well as under the orders of political bosses.
- The riots slowly engulfed large portions of northern India. In Delhi, they ended only on November 3. By then, nearly 3,000 Sikhs had been butchered in Delhi alone.
- In other parts, the riots continued. At the end, including those in Delhi, more than 8,000 Sikhs had been killed all across the country.
- A total of ten commissions have been set up to investigate the riots, beginning with the Marwah Commission in November 1984, with the latest being the Justice Nanavati Commission in 2000.
- The findings of these commissions was that senior Congress leaders like HKL Bhagat, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler were directly accused of instigating rioters and the police was accused of abetting through inaction, apparently under orders of their political bosses.
- The Congress, which has been in power most of these years at the centre, refused to act against most of the complaints.Only 30 people in 12 murder cases have been convicted so far.
- Seventy two police officers were identified for connivance and gross negligence; 30 of them were recommended to be sacked, but no action was taken.
Significantly, this September, a federal court in New York issued a summons to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for "shielding and protecting" the leaders of her party who were allegedly involved in the 1984 riots. The summons was issued by the court after a rights group Sikhs For Justice and two victims of the riots filed a complaint before it.
1987 Meerut Riots
The riots began on May 21, 1987 and continued for two months. The state police conducted a probe but all cases were later withdrawn by the state. The armed personnel accused went scot free.
As with most riots, there are conflicting versions on what set this one off: burning of mills or a reaction to the carnage by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel. A majority claim it was the armed police.
1989 Bhagalpur Riots
On October 23, 1989 began the month-long riots triggered by police atrocities. Of the 864 cases filed by the police, 535 were closed and most accused acquitted for lack of evidence.
Following police atrocities in 1989, the silk city of Bhagalpur saw massacre and arson in which over 1,000 people died, nearly 50,000 were displaced and 11,500 houses torched.
1992 Mumbai Riots
The politicisation of the Mandir-Masjid issue and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 gave the BJP the opportunity to consolidate its vote bank. But in the process the controversy created a communal divide, and the frequency of riots also increased.
For five days in December 1992 and then again for a fortnight in January, the city witnessed unprecedented riots. As many as 1,788 people were killed and property worth crores of rupees destroyed.
On January 25, 1993, the Maharashtra government set up the Sri Krishna Commission of Inquiry, which recorded the evidence of 502 witnesses and examined 2,903 exhibits. But three years later, on January 23, 1996, the BJP-Shiv Sena government wound up the commission, only to reinstate it later under public pressure. The commission finally submitted its report on February 16, 1998. Of the 17 police officers who were formally charged in mid-2001, not one has been arrested so far. Even departmental action has not been initiated against them. In April this year, former city police commissioner RD Tyagi and eight serving police officers accused of killing nine people, were discharged by a Mumbai sessions court.
2002 Gujarat Massacre
The 2002 riots in Gujarat is one of the worst to have happened in India. On February 27, 2002, when the Sabarmati Express came to a halt at Godhra station in Gujarat, the karsevaks inside a particular compartment, returning from Ayodhya, allegedly harassed a group of Muslim vendors. Muslims from around the area gathered to protest. Then, according to most commentators, accidentally, fire started inside the compartment. According to commentators, this was taken advantage of by the agitators and around 58 people, including karsevaks and general passengers, were killed.
But people were instigated into believing that it was a fully preplanned attack by Muslims on Hindus. Instead of the police being called on, what was allowed to happen was senseless mayhem.Many politicians of the ruling BJP were alleged to have played a major role in the instigating rioters. Chief Minister Narendra Modi was also accused of being complicit by intentionally refusing to act for the first few days. Many in the police and civil administration were also accused of helping the rioters go ahead with their plans.In a two-day spree of killing, nearly 1000 Muslims were butchered by fanatic Hindus.
- The killings and burnings continued for a month, though the major ones took place within the first few days.
- Sexual violence formed a major component of the riots. According to testimonies, the leaders of the mobs even raped young girls, some as young as 11 years old, before burning them alive.
- Even a 20-day-old infant, or a fetus in the womb of its mother, was not spared. For the first time in the history of communal riots Hindu women took part, and looted Muslim shops.
- According to Vandana Shiva in one of her books, young were taught to burn, rape and kill in the name of Hindutva.
Similar to the 1984 riots, commissions and special investigation teams have come and gone. Despite reports on the contrary, the state government refused to act. Most major players, including the chief minister, are still to meet any punishment. Some complaints have been acted upon, but a lot still needs to be done if there is going to be any sense of closure.
As we see, in most of the riots, the party in power has used its influence to control rioters, and exonerate them later. The power of the law has been blatantly misused. It is a shame for a democracy to have mass murderers shamelessly go scot free. If no major player is punished, people would go on committing such atrocities knowing the state machinery is behind them.
These two have set a dangerous precedent, one that could bring about more such pogroms in the years to come.