While Donald Trump and Narendra Modi displayed further bonhomie in India this week, #DelhiBurning trended on Twitter, and mainstream media rushed to control the narrative around plumes of smoke rising from New Delhi neighbourhoods. At least 21 people have died and nearly 200 injured; the videos and photos that have made it out are bone-chilling.
“Friends are in East Delhi and I am worried. Can I text back later?” writes a former student.
Her family lived through the anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi past. Inconvenient memories of the survivors of such violence know how it can torpedo into even a pogrom, know how victims are blamed for their own victimisation, know that the targeting is a deathly signal to minorities much beyond the scope of the current violence. After all, this violence is being performed in the capital city, kilometres away from where Trump dined! These inconvenient memories reject the politically expedient explanations.
Since December, much before Trump’s mega visit, citizens in India have been protesting new laws which are widely understood as anti-Muslim. These laws were barely cloaked with rationales of national security and government benevolence. Unlike the Muslim bans in the US, they have not met rigorous challenges in India’s courts.
The Muslim minority has felt deathly vulnerable in the face of legalised discrimination and social emboldening of the anti-Muslim right-wing. Some citizen-activists from other communities, who have themselves been scapegoated and disenfranchised, have provided visible support to the people protesting these laws.
Now, during Trump’s visit, Muslims are bearing the bloody brunt in India’s capital. Social media recoils at videos of police engaging in violence against injured Muslims lying collapsed on the ground, of forcing bloodied Muslim men to sing the national anthem and chant Hindu slogans, of encouraging armed mobs shouting vicious anti-Muslim slogans, of assailants running right by the police and then proceeding to attack Muslims. Some media houses have minimised the violence as “between two groups”and the government characterizsd the whole crisis as “orchestrated”.
A BJP spokeswoman tweeted the violence and killing (of a police constable) was a “ploy to embarrass India,” and ironically attributes it to the same “anti-India forces” that accompanied President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000. On the eve of Clinton’s visit, 35 Sikh civilians were summarily executed in Chattisinghpora village in Kashmir, by masked assailants, who the government quickly called Pakistani and Muslim terrorists. The role of the Indian forces in the massacre and the later cover-up – including by executing local Kashmiri Muslims men, dubbed “Pakistanis” – was alleged by locals from the onset; then reported internationally; and eventually confirmed in part by the Supreme Court.
The government spokesperson’s seemingly confessional comparison between the death during Clinton’s visit and the death during Trump’s visits today in fact highlights the very crux of the current situation: certain historical facts are declared fictions, entire communities are rendered suspect, and then their victimisation is seen as vindication.
By now, many across Delhi, and Sikhs across the world, are retriggered by memories the pogroms of 1984, when Delhi was shut down for days while armed, organised, government-backed mobs unleashed sadistic, sexualised, ravaging violence against Sikhs (many who were hiding in their own homes, as noted on the lists provided to the “mobs”). Thousands were murdered in days.
The survivors seethed at the mockery and shaming to which they were subjected in the aftermath. Being taunted walking down a street – “Yeh Sikh faise bach gaya (How did this Sikh survive)?” Being prodded with gibes about the recent trauma – “Sardar toh sirf chidiya ghar mein milenge (You’ll have to go to the zoo to find a Sikh now).” Being denied employment, apartment rentals, seats on public transport or basic politeness all became commonplace for Sikhs: rural and urban, turbaned and not, traditional and Anglicised.
Delhi Sikhs especially remember the shock of posters with barely veiled threats and castigations of the entire Sikh community as treacherous: “Will the country’s border finally be moved to your doorsteps?” and “Should you be afraid of your cab driver?”
This memory is inconvenient to any narrative peddled now about “anti-national”, “bad” Muslims “clashing” with “good” Hindu citizens. It is also inconvenient to liberal narratives which, while intent on rejecting the current politics of hate, ignore the pre-Modi, the pre-2002, the pre-1990 history of India. Even when those ignored histories contribute to the popularity of the current strongmen; directly relate to the draconian clampdown in the Kashmir Valley; and fuel India’s oft-rung alarm bells against nuclear neighbour Pakistan.
For too long, there has been an electorally expedient blueprint that actively fuels divisions and mistrust, creates an enemy community, and stokes communal hostility to prevent everyday citizens from exhibiting everyday humanity.
Rather than condemning the armed attackers, politicians of various hues are rushing to issue concerned statements that India’s image is being sullied by the protestors, who are the targets of the violence. Meanwhile, once my former student confirms the well-being of her Muslim friends in East Delhi, I’m sure she will text me back. Hope is hounded, but kept alive by these citizens.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer, lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law, and author of Faith, Gender, and Activism in the Punjab Conflict: The Wheat Fields Still Whisper, Palgrave MacMillan, 2020.