Even as the Supreme Court chose not to examine issues relating to violence in the national capital, leaving the matter to the Delhi High Court to examine, the two-judge bench, while hearing the bunch of cases relating to Shaheen Bagh protests on February 26, made some adverse comments against the Delhi police. Questioning its professionalism and independence, Justice K M Joseph said he would be failing in discharging his constitutional duties if he does not comment on how the police let instigators get away. “The problem is lack of professionalism...and their (police) lack of independence,” Justice Joseph observed. “If the police act completely in accordance with the law, many of these problems won’t take place.”
Giving an example, Justice Joseph added, “In UK, if someone makes an inflammatory remark, police will swing into action. They will not wait for orders from anyone.” Justice Sanjay Kaul intervened, “What has happened (in Delhi) is unfortunate, but this is not the way a society should behave”. The communal cauldron that engulfed north-east Delhi last week for over 72 hours, leaving more than 40 people dead and over 300 injured, is indeed a result of laxity on the part of police, the Delhi administration and the home ministry, which is responsible for maintaining law and order in the national capital. What should worry the government is that the deadly riots have not only robbed the much-hyped visit of US President Donald Trump of much of its sheen, but also damaged India’s secular fabric and tarnished Brand India internationally.
What happened in Delhi, just a few kilometres away from where Trump was feted, was a reflection of deep social instability and communal schism in the country that claims to be a rising economic power. When anarchy and riots overshadowed the pomp and show that the government laid out to impress the US President and the rest of the world, it turned the focus away from Trump’s visit to a disturbing display of lawlessness and killings that attracted international criticism from UN organisations, Organisation of Islamic Countries and political leaders in US and Europe. This should worry the government that claims to abide by India’s secular Constitution and welfare of minorities. Rarely has India’s image as a secular democracy taken such a hit with blatant spread of hate politics and hate speeches targeted at Muslims.
The State is constitutionally bound to safeguard life and property of all its citizens; it is the constitutional duty of the government for which it is elected. It is also the constitutional duty of the law enforcing authorities to maintain peace and harmony and any attempt to breach peace needs to be dealt with swiftly. That the Delhi police did not act and, in many cases, looked the other way while goons wreaked havoc on hapless and poor citizens means that it did not do its constitutional duty. Neither did the Centre, the home ministry and Delhi administration do their constitutional duties. What does one expect when authorities fail to discharge their constitutional duties? Chaos and lawlessness, as the riots were a direct result of incendiary slogans, police inaction and Central government’s silence.
What happened in Delhi was waiting to happen for some time. But certainly not at the scale it has happened. No one really expected such organised and targeted violence and destruction of property right under the watch of the home ministry. It is often said that riots don’t happen but are allowed to happen by those who want them to happen. Whatever is the truth, but rioting in Delhi did not happen accidentally or all of a sudden. The communal poison that the BJP had injected into its campaign for the Delhi election is said to be the proximate factor that incited rioting. But it is also true that the riots could have been prevented, the toxic eco-system could have been averted from going bad to worse and the communal flare up promptly controlled. Even the Delhi High Court was “amazed” and expressed “anguish” at the inaction of the police.
Whether we are still in the Modi era or in the age of Amit Shah, things are certainly not looking good for India. The large scale communal violence in Delhi is a stark reminder of the difficult times we are living in. No matter how normal things look on surface, deep malaise has set in Indian society. There is widespread disaffection among the minorities, particularly Muslims, and backward classes with the ruling dispensation. The economic slowdown has taken its toll on both urban and rural India. The muscular politics and marginalisation of the Opposition has created a sense of alienation among masses with the ruling class. The continued dereliction of duty without fear of punitive action is not only alarming for a civilised society, but also dangerous for democracy. The fact that the Delhi High Court’s intervention was needed before the police agreed to ferry the riot victims to safety tells its own disturbing story.
Recurring incidents of mob lynching was a “new normal” during Modi government’s first term. Many people questioned the prime minister on his silence on lynching, but the government didn’t do much to control the menace, till the SC intervened and directed the central government to enact a new anti-lynching law to instil fear and preserve the rule of law in a pluralistic society. No anti-lynching law has so far been passed by the parliament though. Rising intolerance and polarisation was a recurring theme in Modi government’s first term; it is the same case during its second term with rising cases of arrests being made to suppress dissent, while those indulging in hate speech and using incendiary language against the government’s critics facing no consequences. Call it India’s civilisational descent or democracy slowly turning into monocracy, the concept of legal citizenship has begun to break the soul of India. The Hindu-Muslim division has started fuelling mistrust and hatred.
India and the US are world’s biggest democracies and both are home to religious diversity. At a time when Modi and Trump were hailing the two democracies and also praising each other lavishly, the rest of the world was witness to something gruesome in India’s capital. It is said that one of the fundamental features of a democracy is the non-partisan character of its security forces and their duty to protect the lives of people and their property without any religious bias. Indian democracy has failed this basic test. And the central government has failed Indian democracy.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.