Thoughts on the recent violence in Delhi


The polarisation which led to the sectarian violence in Delhi in February 2020 can be seen through the perspective of a series of sporadic violence which happened in the last five to six years. These describe some general trends which have to do with the emergence of a new working class in suburban Delhi. While the right-wing takeover of the parliament and civil society in the last six years is due to a host of reasons of which sectarian polarisation is not the most significant, but today mobilising sectarian faultlines is the major strategy by which the state maintains its hegemony over the “rabble” in the midst of a crumbling economic and social situation. In such times, sectarian clashes between sections of the urban proletariat and middle classes on lines of religious identity pose important questions for the emergence of working class hegemony in the industrial belt of Delhi NCR.

There are interesting parallels between similar incidents which took place earlier in Delhi and the recent spate of violence; but there are very important differences too. Structurally speaking, there is segregation of people in residences along sectarian lines within the same bigger neighbourhood; this also comes with the presence of identitarian structures in local politics; most important of all, multiple segments of the working class, both with regular and irregular employment, as well as small tradesmen live in close proximity. While most earlier incidents of sectarian violence in the region de-escalated within a day and did not spread much beyond a block or two, the scale of the violence which took place between 25th February and 28th February is incomparably greater. This was due to the additional factor of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the subsequent protests by the Muslim population of the region. 

Residential Segregation

To place the situation in general terms, it is important to start with residential segregation. Within the same neighbourhood – be it a slum or a more fixed residence – blocks are organised along sectarian lines. There are also mixed localities, or rather blocks in which some members do not belong to the same sect or community as most others. Residential segregation becomes the ground for a sectarian feeling and mobilisation, especially when coupled with cultural assertion. During times of escalation, segregation proves significant for defense as well as offense at the block level. At the same time, emergence of mixed localities also suggests possibility of class consciousness beyond the identitarian community. These are two tendencies which act against each other, and ample cases of both tendencies were seen during the recent violence.

Sectarian Culture

Second, sectarian organisations play a crucial role in strengthening the divides. These may be religious sites such as temples or mosques, or even political groups organised along religious or caste lines. Apart from local religious leaders, political groups often have activists who create networks with residents, particularly by participating in local affairs such as religious processions or by organising activities for local youth. They establish their clout mainly due to support from the local political and business leaders, and are in the know of the police too. The Narela-Bawana clash of August 2014 resulted from rumours about Muslims carrying cow meat spread by right wing organisations, and culminated into clashes during a Moharram procession. Right wing organisations sought to search the homes in the muslim blocks. Similarly, the Trilokpuri clashes of November 2014 unfolded over drunken brawling during a public festival being celebrated by Hindus of the area over accusations of sacrilege. Once the brawl took place, the local VHP leader got involved. Once such incidents break out, it becomes an occasion for local sectarian groups to conduct a wider mobilisation. This becomes the basis for organisations and religious groups to collect donations from patrons living around, and religious bodies, places, and sectarian groups are often the main ones. However, their sporadic nature still differentiates such incidents from anything as wide in scale as the conflict in Delhi in February 2020.

Government and Administration

Besides the above two reasons, the role of the local administration and the state can be an important one. Pressures from below upon the administration can be because of popular pressure, or influence by local organisations or business interests; pressures from above include state policy. The response of the local administration can very well reveal the intent of local or higher political leadership, or even the force of the people pressuring them from below sometimes. These factors are important in setting the mood, as the debate around the Citizenship Amendment Act did very well. When the state and its media – and the civil society – create an atmosphere, like in the case of the CAA and NRC debate, the resulting polarisations can have a wide-reaching impact. In this case, the protesting Muslim population created a challenge to the state in multiple points across the city. Failing to generalise, however, a counter-mobilisation also sprang up, which led to the violence.

Changing Class Composition

But the crucial question to ask is how these rival mobilisations came to be. A unique aspect of the places in which sectarian clashes have taken place is that they are either in the vicinity of de-industrialised locations (Trilokpuri falls close to both Shahdra-Jhilmil and Sahibabad-Ghaziabad; Wazirpur; and North-Eastern Delhi flanked by Shahdra-Jhilmil and Sahibabad-Ghaziabad towards East and South, and ), or of small scale industry (Narela-Bawana), or residential colonies for domestic or other kinds of unofficial work. These small or defunct industrial areas frequently come to limelight for factories catching fire and the death of workers in the same. Apart from the regular housing which sprang up along these regions over the years, these areas also house migrant workers in irregular accommodations. Many places which witnessed such violence were settled with people relocated from demolished slums in more inner parts of Delhi. Thus, these places show a mixed class composition, with a relatively more educated as well as rooted middle class living side by side with an irregularly employed small industrial, domestic, or small trades working class. This situation is unlike either the more posh inner city enclaves fo New Delhi, or the more regimented layout of global industrial cities like NOIDA or Gurgaon.

Citizenship, Nationalism, Elections, Constitution, etc.

Seelampur-Jafrabad recently first came into prominence when it saw an immediate response in terms of protest and clashing with the police after the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed by the parliament in Dec 2019. By the time these clashes were put down, protestors at Shaheen Bagh (a locality more proximate to the inner city) had managed to blockade the highway connecting Delhi to the satelite industrial city NOIDA. While traffic jams ensued, the state contained that blockade by allowing it to continue, and meanwhile putting up its own barricades around it, one sealing it by road from the Delhi side, and another from the NOIDA side. The Shaheen Bagh protests continued for several days, and such blockades of major roads were repeated at Jafrabad, Khureji, and other sites in Northeastern Delhi. These anti-CAA protests were made sites for parliamentary democratic, nationalist protests in which civil society, particularly the Muslim middle classes, set the debate in terms of rootedness to India and nationalism. This proved to be hot stuff for the predominantly right-wing or right-centrist media, and soon the Hindu nationalists joined the fray by staging counter-protests with the same symbols of nationalism as their opponents. This struggle over who the real nationalist is led straight into the Delhi state elections in February 2020. The intra-nationalist strife provided no real content for imagining a possibility for resistance, and meanwhile served to heighten polarisation in the places where it took place. For example, the Shaheen Bagh protests, though they gathered media attention, failed to spread among the industrial workers working barely two kilometers away at the Okhla Industrial Area. Barely ten days after the election results – in which the BJP fared badly, while the populist-centrists (Aam Admi Party, or AAP in short) won a clear mandate – the police along with the pro-CAA faction threatened the anti-CAA protestors to clear out as the US President was about to visit New Delhi. Scuffles led to anti-CAA protestors massively outnumbering the police at various places in Northeastern Delhi and injuring many policemen in the clashes. A police booth was burned in Chand Bagh, and stone-pelting began between pro and anti CAA groups. Thus, the polarisation culminated in clashes at multiple points between the two groups, and for three days mob violence gripped large parts.

State-sponsored violence or result of social polarisation?

While it is not possible to deny the role of the state in encouraging these polarisations, the stand that these riots were manufactured by the government is incorrect. It discounts the faultlines which exist at a social level, and the limits they pose upon political action. Leave alone their failure to mobilise beyond immediate Muslim interests, the anti-CAA protests did not articulate any working class demands, thus leaving out a large section among the Muslim population itself, politically. Rather, its appeal and demands were of the nature of a citizenship and civil rights movement. This, along with the roadblocks and traffic jams, resulted in wide scale polarisation. This polarisation translated first into an electoral battle, and once the Hindu right-wing lost that, it took the form of a sectarian clash. 

Most violence began between pro and anti CAA protestors on the 24th Feb at road intersections where protests were ongoing just before. After fights and scuffles there, the mobs moved towards housing localities, where they identified and attacked people, houses, shops, sacred places and other installations identifying them by religion of the owner. A petrol pump and a tyre godown were set on fire. In many localities, residents banded together at entry points to prevent mobs from entering. There are many stories of mixed localities in which majority members shielded minorities living within. There were areas in which locals stood vigil early on and conducted peace marches, which have seen minimal damage. 

Who comprised the people in the mobs? The left and Muslim organisations call it an organised attack by Hindu right-wing goons on Muslims; the Delhi Chief Minister (political rival of BJP) blames “outsiders” from Uttar Pradesh for entering and attacking a large portion of an entire city; the Hindu right-wing calls it a conspiracy on part of Muslims to take over the country. None of these points of view attempt to hide the inconsistencies. There are stories in which parents are preventing their children from leaving their house, fearing they would join the mobs too. There are incidents in which people recognised faces in the mob while looking down from their windows. A thread running through the violence is that most of the people in the mob as well as most of those who died were young boys. Many stories now emerge of people who are afraid to go back to their shops or trades because of threats received from others in the locality. These suggest that the narrative of violence done by outsiders does not capture what is happening here. “Outsider” can mean any unknown face, and in an urban setting in which it is easy to reach long distances within minutes, that means nothing. While “outside” support from the rightwing organisations in political power cannot be denied, it seems that the CAA protests and countermobilisations became an areawide issue for rival camps to emerge in Northeast Delhi, which then led to the targeted violence which ensued. A participant’s testimony notes that this was not done by the RSS, but every Hindu who was concerned about their well-being had taken to the streets. While it is true that the state and the media set the terms of debate in terms of CAA and NRC, or refused to send in military or block cellphone signal (as it is fond of doing in other places), the reason for this is not active planning, but because it cannot appear as the villain to the “Hindu cause” which it has become a mascot of. Even while tolerating the mob violence (in which Hindus as well as disproportionately larger number of Muslims were killed), the present government faces the anger of Hindus too for whom this violence is a loss of normalcy and trust with neighbours. Violence of the scale seen in Northeast Delhi has shown the weakness of the state more than its strength, and this applies not only to the BJP, but to all other parties as well. Injured police, local leaders under attack, local administration being outnumbered in a state directly under the Home Ministry! Merely 10 days after elections! Some liberal commentators argue that this presents a bad image of India to global investors (in a time of slump), and that the Modi government failed to save face! Perhaps they should try explaining this to the people attacking each other over who the real nationalist is. Social contradictions ought not to be written off by complaining about governmental irresponsibility.

On the other hand, one could hazard to suggest that such contradictions did not play out much in parts of Delhi NCR with global organised manufacturing. Cities like Gurgaon, NOIDA, Faridabad, as well as Okhla Industrial Area (just about 2kms from Shaheen Bagh) did not see either anti-CAA protests, or pro-CAA countermobilisations. It is perhaps the difference between the organised productive working class and the mix-up of multiple segments of labour which plays an important role here, and needs to be studied more carefully. However, it is not to suggest that there is no link between these two. The point of discussion among workers even in the organised global manufacturing is often the same debate about identity or nationalism. And this debate also has consequences upon how not only the organised working class, but even the other segments of labour self-organise. For this reason, it is important to shift focus from causes such as sect, nationality, etc. and ground debates on class interests and control over means of life. It is important to emphasise that the violence which unfolded was without content, and comprised mostly of proletarianised people killing each other to vent their frustration in trying to make it inside a decaying social order.

(For some comments on this piece, click here.)

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