As Delhi burned, institutions looked away
Harsh Mander
Children watch with frightened eyes as distraught mothers lament and mourn before people with cameras and notebooks. Proud working people are forced to depend on the charity of strangers who open their homes to them in kindness because the state refuses to create for them places of safety. The horror does not abate: fathers scour morgues for their missing sons, and mothers await with dread as bodies are dredged out of the putrid nallah.
I have never witnessed such an abysmal low in the trust of the citizen in her government. Muslim victims with bullet wounds lodged in their bodies or with many broken bones say they would rather die than go to a government hospital because of the contempt and neglect that they expect to encounter there. Victims turn away officials filling death and property compensation forms because they suspect the officials are secretly filling forms of the National Population Register to disenfranchise them.
Failure of the political class
Among the many public betrayals of the unfortunate survivors of the carnage, take first almost the entire political class. The ruling establishment criminally stoked and fuelled the hatred over the past several weeks, with venomous hate speech led from the top. Their political project was apparent — to crush the resistance to the citizenship project and the unprecedented display of unity and solidarity across religious identities of people in this movement across the country. The communal carnage was waiting to happen.
But the remainder of the political class, who could have led the resistance to halt their tracks, did nothing to fight back. They abjectly lack the political conviction, the moral courage, and the cadres on the ground to resist in any way.
Delhi has the largest police force in any State or Union Territory outside Jammu and Kashmir. If it had the will, it could have prevented this violence or crushed it in a few hours afiter it broke out. The stark and frightening truth is that the communal carnage unfolded in Delhi because our elected representatives wanted it and the police allowed it. Even with a police force which is a small fraction of what is stationed in Delhi, no riot can continue for more than a few hours unless the state wishes it to.
Police response
There are many police images of this pogrom which should long rankle our conscience. Of thousands of desperate rescue calls made to the police going unanswered, as people were slaughtered and homes set alight. Of the police refusing to allow safe passage of ambulances ferrying the injured to hospitals, unlike even during a war between enemy countries. Of policepersons compelling a patient with bullet wounds to open his bandage four times at four different checkpoints to prove that he was actually injured even after the Delhi High Court in a midnight order directed the police to ensure safe passage and emergency treatment for those injured in the violence. Of policepersons standing by as mobs ravaged homes and shops of people of one religious identity, and sometimes a few even joining in. Of policepersons in riot gear tormenting a group of unarmed Muslim men, forcing them to sing the national anthem as they beat them with batons. The national anthem has become an icon of the protests against the citizenship law, so clearly the police were punishing them for the protests. Later, after one of these men died from police beating, the national anthem has become for me not just a song of love, but also of pain.
The midnight intervention by Delhi High Court Justice S. Muralidhar (who was later transferred) to order safe passage of ambulances, and his directions for considering immediate registration of FIRs against senior BJP leaders for hate speech, are a reminder of what role a conscientious constitutional court can play in a moment like this. Our citizen group had established a 24X7 control room to respond to distress calls. As the night progressed, the calls got more desperate and the police more criminally unresponsive. Gravely injured and lying in a small private hospital, 22 persons needed to be moved urgently to bigger hospitals, but mobs would not allow this, and the police refused protection. Two of them died. It was a midnight knock at the judge’s door which ensured not just the saving of the remaining lives, but of many more that terrifying night. The next day he gave police 24 hours to consider arresting all those who incited hatred. But after the court changed, this urgency evaporated.
The intensely communalised actions of the medical establishment raise equally troubling questions. Allegations of wanton obscuring of evidence in post-mortem reports require the entire medical fraternity to reflect on what has gone so worryingly wrong in injecting the poison of communal hatred in a profession of care and healing.
Nowhere in the picture
We have reached a point almost of amnesia about institutions like the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Minorities, and the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Each is mandated to step in during moments like this when vulnerable minorities suffer discrimination and violence at the hands of the executive. But all of them are missing in action as Delhi burns and writhes in torment.
There is also a great deal that the State administration should have done. The rescue control room should have been set up and run by the state from the first night of the riots. The entire health machinery should have been mobilised, and the best medical treatment to victims assured. Large relief camps should have been established overnight as places of safety.
To lose in a few fevered nightmarish hours your loved ones, home, small business, and life’s belongings and savings is enough to ravage any of us. How much darker must be that desolation if you know that the violence was enabled by those duty-bound to protect you, and that among those who led the mob to your door were your own neighbours?
The carnage which engulfed the narrow lanes of working-class settlements of Delhi for three days signals the disgraceful and comprehensive collapse of every institution of the Indian state without any exception. If not urgently addressed and mended, this comprehensive cessation of a constitutional state will destroy hope, peace, social trust, development, the economy; and ultimately the possibilities of our becoming one day a country of kindness and justice.