An anatomy of riots and the State’s will through different times
Can riots/violence/arson continue for long—as is being seen in Manipur and more recently in Haryana—even if authorities want to control it? Not at all, and I can cite a dozen examples
I cut my milk teeth as a rookie journalist on riots around the country and seem never to be able to rid myself of the conflicts growing all around me day by day.
The Nellie massacres of Assam (tribals versus Muslims), the Trivandrum riots in Kerala (police versus Muslims), the Bombay police riots (with constables looting the armoury and going on a rampage around the city over labour issues and shoddy work environment), the Shia-Sunni riots in the 1980s in Bombay during Moharram, Bhiwandi riots (Shiv Sena versus Muslims) Khairlanji massacres of Maharashtra (Dalits versus upper castes) and, of course, the notorious post- Babri Mumbai riots and post-Godhra Gujarat riots of 2002 -- there is a long list.
In practically every conflict a few things were common: either political parties were inciting the riots (for example, Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave a call in Assam just before the Nellie massacres to “kill two of them for every one of us” killed) or governments of whichever hue were generally in a stupor in the initial days of the riots, jerking into action only after much damage was done and several lives lost.
Only in Gujarat, though, I found the complicity of the authorities, though I and other reporters covering those riots had trouble convincing our editors about it in the first days of the riots.
Even when the armoury in Bombay was looted by thousands of constables and everybody ducked for cover, Julio Rebeiro, the newly appointed police commissioner, seemed unable to control them in the first couple of days.
But later, the manner he brought the city back to normalcy, restored the confidence of the people in his police force. It earned him many accolades and the moniker of ‘super cop’, the first such designation of any police officer in the country.
The government and cops were, however, most taken aback by the Shia-Sunni riots at Mohammed Ali Road as both belonged to the Muslim community. But soon, there was fair dealing against the rioters and the provocateurs were swiftly arrested. Such a riot has never taken place in the city again.
The most infamous riots of Mumbai in 1992-93 earned the then chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik the distinction of being described by Justice Srikrishna as Nero who fiddled while Rome burnt. But eventually, even these riots were controlled and the violent Shiv Sainiks faced stern action. Many of them were booked the stringent National Security Act and the Arms Act. They never dared to take to go berserk again.
But it has to be a legacy of Gujarat 2002 that the ruling dispensation’s own sister arms are rioting and killing in both Manipur and Haryana, looting armouries in Manipur and being allowed free rampage if the rioters or looters belong to their party. Only victims belonging to the other community are being bulldozed out of existence.
As a raw reporter, I waded into Mohammed Ali Road during the Shia-Sunni riots and it was a learning experience to see the police deal with the explosive situation. It was the era before social media and smart phones but the police painstakingly identified the trouble makers, booked them and corroborated their action with evidence that would not be overturned by the courts.
During the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, a Republican Party of India (RPI) corporator was leading mobsters in a slum area in Central Bombay. To make matters more complicated for the administration, the corporator happened to be a Dalit woman and the RPI was an alliance partner in the Congress-led government of the day. But the good policing kicked in soon.
I watched from a bridge above the area as they brought in loudspeakers warning the corporator and the mobs she led with impunity to desist from hurling fire bombs and Molotov cocktails at the defenceless people.
“We will shoot if you do not stop,” they announced when all other means failed.
I saw her stop in her tracks and the mob she was leading was stunned. Soon, they had all disappeared into their rat holes and with their leader who thought she was immune against action gone, they did not have the gumption to hit the streets again. Everyone in the government, including the RPI, recognised the justice of the police action and neither questioned nor victimised the police officers concerned.
Then there was Maya Kodnani in Gujarat who shot women, children and men in cold blood and cops simply watched taking no action. She was brought to justice by the courts in the initial years but was soon let go, given the way the Gujarat judiciary has now become a handmaiden of the political masters.
So what hope is there for the victims of majoritarian politics in Manipur and Haryana? Gujarat 2002 gave Narendra Modi great dividends and I suspect with the ground now slipping every day from under this regime’s feet, they believe the Gujarat model will carry them further into another term.
But the entire North-East is getting alienated by what is happening in Manipur. As far as Haryana is concerned, it is not too significant in terms of Lok Sabha seats (10 seats) for it to make much difference to the BJP’s tally.
Moreover, the kind of statements coming from its own leaders and allies indicate they have lost more ground than gained any dividends in this state. They might want to repeat the pattern in other states but it might not work even in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan where the Opposition is too strong to let them get away with it.
In all these years, I also saw some exemplary administrators— police officers, bureaucrats and politicians—who acted swiftly at the first hints of a potential violence/ riot and prevented its spread to other parts of their respective cities and states.
An incident from the early 1980s readily comes to the mind. A communal riot had broken out in Nashik when A.R. Antulay was the chief minister of Maharashtra. The Nashik police commissioner brought it swiftly under control and then called the CM.
“Sir, you will be happy to know we put the riot down within two hours.”
“No. I am not happy at all that you controlled the riots in two hours!” snapped back Antulay as everyone around him stared in astonishment. “I am in fact angry. Very, very angry. Why did they even break out in the first place? That means you were sleeping on your job and there was an intelligence failure... Even one injury and one death are not to be tolerated under any circumstances!” Antulay said and banged down the phone.
The police commissioner found his transfer orders on his desk the next day. The Nashik police force learnt its lesson well. There has been no communal clash there ever since, even during the worst of times.