Thursday, November 15, 2007

When a Tree Shook Delhi

I have just finished reading the book, When a tree shook Delhi: the 1984 carnage and its aftermath by Manoj Mitta and H.S.Phoolka (Roli Books, 2007). The book serves the useful purpose of bringing together various bits of information regarding the carnage, emanating from official and non-official sources, and raise crucial questions about what went wrong and how.

The authors, journalist Mitta and senior advocate, Phoolka have brought together their years of association in their individual capacities in reconstructing the tragedy and its aftermath. Although there are a couple of official reports of inquiry commissions regarding the carnage, the book fills a void in that it brings together all these reports, and analyse their findings holistically from the readers’ point of view.

What struck me after reading the book are a few nagging questions which perhaps were beyond the scope of this book.

The first is the authors’ claim, duly substantiated by the affidavits of the victims before the inquiry commissions, that the carnage was an organized one (which would perhaps justify the use of the term pogrom, rather than carnage, as the role of the State was implicit in terms of its connivance, and the active participation by the police). It was organized because the actual killings of Sikhs began only on the morning of Nov.1, 1984, although Indira Gandhi was assassinated on the morning of October 31, 1984.

Had it been spontaneous, then the killings must have started almost on the same day. The interregnum, perhaps, points to the constant signals to the would be rioters, that anything would be tolerated for at least three days, and the State, with all its instrumentalities, would look the other way. Thus signals led to meetings at various places, and organization, materials, men and so on.

Of course, this is quite a plausible account. But it falls short of answering the question, why? Did the Congress stand to benefit from the carnage? It is true that Rajiv Gandhi who succeeded as the PM, made no effort to stop the killings immediately; instead he encouraged them, by his statements seen by many as justifying the violence. But did he have the ensuing elections in mind? Did he think the carnage would polarize the voters?

Mitta admits that he did not deal with this issue, but said (while discussing it with me), that the Congress campaign managers were under the compulsion to demonstrate that the Indian State had the potential to strike back, as the assassination suggested that the fight against Sikh terrorism suffered an irreversible setback. The Indian State had to demonstrate this potential, by its inaction against the rampaging mobs in Delhi for three days. And the voters, convinced as they were about this potential, decided to vote en masse the Congress, to further strengthen its resolve to control Sikh extremism.

Two things follow from this. One is that the Congress leaders assumed that through carnage, it would be easier to consolidate and mobilise the Hindu vote-bank. However this is only a facile assumption. In my view, the voters in 1984 election voted out of sympathy for the assassination, no doubt. But would they have voted so as to show their approval of the carnage? If the vast majority of voters did feel that carnage was necessary to send a strong signal, then we could as well be subscribing to the theory of spontaneity as a probable cause of the violence. But as the authors show it was not a credible explanation. Indeed, there were many Hindus on October 31, 1984 and later, who went out of their way to help and save the Sikhs from the rampaging mobs in Delhi and elsewhere.

Therefore, the question of what the top Congress leaders stood to gain by being indifferent to the carnage on the first three days has not convincingly been answered yet. Well, it could be said that similar interpretation can be placed on the 2002 Gujarat carnage and the subsequent consolidation of Hindu voters in Gujarat assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

Were the voters influenced by the fear of reprisals by the minority community in both the instances? If that is so, it clearly shows that the voters disapproved the original carnage, because they undoubtedly feared reprisals. In which case, the political class could be said to have felt that the carnage would serve a political purpose, by instilling this fear, and thereby serve the immediate purpose of consolidation and mobilization of the majority community.

The lack of clarity on the issue was so glaring to me also because in the post-1992 phase, the BJP did not actually benefit from the demolition of Babri Masjid, as every election after that it only paid diminishing returns to the party. Are the killings of minorities less tolerable than the demolition of a religious structure of minorities? Well, I have no answers, as no serious academic has addressed this issue in this manner.

The book also raises an important issue regarding institutional safeguards. The book confirms the worst suspicion that had the army been deployed in all the trouble-spots of the Capital on October 31 itself, the killings would have been almost nil. So, who delayed the deployment? The L-G of Delhi has the powers to deploy Army in such circumstances, without waiting for political clearance. The L-G claimed that he gave the go-ahead to the Police Commissioner on the morning of Nov.1. What followed was the clash of institutional egos between the Police Commissioner and the general officer commanding of Delhi area, as the Army did not want to work under the Police in Delhi, although the peculiar position of Delhi required that Army was answerable to Delhi Police in such situations.

Mitta told me –although he did not elaborate this issue in the book – that this was perhaps the reason why there was the needless delay in deploying the Army. Strangely, I find this issue –although it must have been obvious to any observer – has not been addressed at all, and corrective steps taken so that such clash of institutional egos does not undermine our response to a grave national crisis in the Capital.

Another larger issue also deserves consideration: how to fill a political and administrative vacuum in a crisis of this proportion. If a Prime Minister dies in office under tragic circumstances, why can’t we institutionalize his or her succession,(I mean automatic) so that there is no vacuum till a successor assumes office? It appears that certain political leaders of Congress used this vacuum and the inexperience of Rajiv Gandhi in governance to teach Sikhs a lesson, although the political and electoral benefits to the Congress from this carnage were dubious.
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