Pogrom Politics from 1984 to 2002: Sanjay Kumar

Guest post by SANJAY KUMAR

Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 are among the darkest spots in India’s post independence history. Like all other communal killings in the country, they too were similar in the mechanics of their violence. Connivance of the top state authorities, active role of elected politicians, police and bureaucratic indifference, a cornered and hapless minority, and participation of ordinary folks in violence and looting, all elements of the process of communal killings almost reached the  point of perfection in these two pogroms. So much so, that they indeed were not contained, but played themselves out fully, till the time killers and looters got tired, or when nobody was left to be killed, and nothing remained to be burnt and looted. All those who talk, think, write or make claims about civilisation in India, should take a few moments off to come to terms with these two events. Victims of these pogroms too, like of other communal killings in the country, continue to wait for justice. Collusion of investigative agencies, protective shadow of state power and judicial lethargy has meant that prime movers behind these killings have remained beyond the arm of justice. In fact, particularly in these two cases, the political fortunes of parties involved in killings witnessed an unprecedented boom. Congress party under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 returned with the largest ever national mandate to Lok Sabha; and the BJP under Narendra Modi has successfully decimated all political opposition in Gujarat, and is now eyeing central power under his leadership.

The manifest similarities of the two killings are integral to one species of argument put forward by the Hindutva Right. Why should only the BJP be painted with the stigma of communal killings, while the Congress, despite 1984 escapes opprobrium on this count? Does that not show the duplicity of the so-called secularist crowd? This note does not respond directly to this argument. Instead it attempts to explore the politics of these pogroms, that go beyond their manifest similarities. The two killings were motivated and organised by two very different political programmes and modus operandi.  However now, in 2014, the two different politics of killing seem to be coalescing into the political success of Mr Narendra Modi. This is a sign of the increasing acceptance of violence as a legitimate  political tool in the country.

Why the killings? This question is pertinent because in a functioning political system not facing  immediate crisis, violence is a high stakes gamble for any player. Violence is naked power, its consequences are irrevocable, and it often results in permanent changes in the chequer board of social power. The powerful reliance on overt violence do not always get to the purpose of their violence, because it  also unleashes unpredictable counter reactions which the existing institutions of control and hegemony find difficult to tackle. From a political science understanding, the most cogent answer to the ’84 killings would be despotic tyranny. It was widely rumoured during the riots, and much commented later, that Rajiv Gandhi had uttered ‘Teach these ba—–ds a lessons!’ upon returning to Delhi after his mother’s murder. Veracity of such utterances can never be established. However, it is fairly certain if he had even a wee bit of humanity and decency to look beyond his immediate grief, and a shred of political wisdom, he could have prevented the large scale mayhem, and contained the reaction to Prime Minister’s murder to sporadic rioting. Despotism as a political phenomenon refers to concentration of state authority in the personhood of the ruler, and with weak institutional structures to disperse, divide, filter and contain this authority. Consequently, an individual’s weaknesses and strengths come to define the character of the state power. Whether there was an actual despotic intent for violence in 1984, or whether it was only a license, will never be known. Actual violence was planned and executed by local level Congress leaders, including its elected MPs. They mobilised their base in poorer neighbourhoods of the city for violence. A typical Congressman in these neighbourhoods was essentially a local bully involved in illegal (black economy, state corruption), or criminal activities. Killers of Delhi 1984 were mostly petty criminal lumpens from its poverty stricken underbelly.

As is well known, there was also a prior and wider context to the murder of Indira Gandhi. The key political question here was the distribution of state power between the central authority and  emerging political and economic elites in different regions of the country. Indira Gandhi responded to their challenge by subterfuge and over-centralisation, for which the country ended up by paying a heavy price. A wiser ruler would have responded differently. But these are the wages  of despotism, and let us not forget it were the citizens of India who had voted her back to power after booting her out in 1977. In Punjab the politics of regional autonomy led by moderate Akalis quickly turned into a movement for Khalistan: an ethno-fascist project that defined political community in terms of adherence to a religion, rather than the concept of citizenship, and violence as its main tool, rather than electoral or mass mobilisations.  Display of weapons, take over and fortification of Sikh places of worship, murder of political opponents, and random terrorist violence to spread fear, were chief tactics of the project Khalistan, and its leadership around Bhindranwale. The project ended up in the bloody conflagration of Operation Blue Star, in whose reaction Indira Gandhi was killed, and whose consequences people of Punjab were to face for a decade.

Against such a turn to the politics in Punjab, it should be noted that the Sikhs of Delhi, who constitute about five percent of city’s population, had traditionally been voters of Congress party. In contrast, the upper caste Hindus of Punjab, and their descendants in Delhi, have generally supported the Hindu Right; and since independence have formed a core support group of political fronts of the RSS in Delhi. Despite this contrast in political preferences, Punjabis of both religions had generally maintained friendly relations at the personal and social levels. It was not uncommon for Punjabi Hindus to regularly visit Sikh places of worship before 1984. It needs emphasis that even though Hindus of Punjab suffered at the hands of Khalistani violence there, the Punjabi Hindus of Delhi did not participate in the killings and looting in 1984. Unlike in other parts of India outside Punjab, where Sikhs generally form a prosperous entrepreneurial class, Sikhs in Delhi are from diverse caste and class backgrounds. A significant proportion here is of erstwhile artisan castes, mostly Dalits, who too like the killers of 1984 lived in poorer neighbourhoods, and were the ones mostly killed.

The 1984 pogrom proved to be an important link in the cycle of violence. In Delhi, the anti-Sikh violence was not repeated; when a few Congress leaders were killed by Khalistani militants, or when the city faced the terror strike of ‘transistor bombs’ in 1987. A shift in Congress strategy was an important reason. The Central government even managed to get Rajiv-Longowal pact signed by the moderate faction of Akali leadership. Most of the violence fed by the 1984 pogrom was suffered in Punjab. Random killings of soft targets like migrant workers and bus passengers, targeted killings of undefended artists or progressives who raised their voice against Khalistani violence, and targeted political violence (Sant Longowal,the leader of moderate Akali leadership was killed  after  signing the Rajeev-Longowal pact) became the norm. Rural Punjab witnessed an ethnic filtering as Hindus, who were mostly petty traders, migrated out to urban areas. State brutality became a counter factor. And,  in operational terms the cycle of violence was broken when the state power proved itself to be the bigger terrorist. Rhetoric apart, the manner of state violence gives important clues to the underlying political issues. The state violence in Punjab was executed by locally recruited police force, unlike in Kashmir, Central India, or the North-East where the Indian Army, or Central police forces are deployed. Neither the  rich landed, capitalist or upper professional groups of the state, nor ordinary people found much at stake in the Khalistani movement. Once the key political question of balance of power between the central state authority and regional dominant elites had been resolved through electoral politics in the rest of India, initiating the so called era of coalitions at the center, the Khalistani violence in Punjab had little political relevance. While violence is an essential component in the structure and reproduction of all unequal societies, what stands out most about the 1984 pogrom and subsequent violence, is its utter futility when looked at from the long term interests of dominant political forces. This is true of regional elites of Punjab, as well of the Congress in Delhi.

While before 1984, the Sikhs in Delhi consistently voted for the Congress, post pogrom, as expected, they withdrew their support. In the electoral calculus of the Congress however, they remained an important factor. This showed clearly in the policies of the Sheela Dixit government in Delhi that ruled the state for fifteen years. Ms Dixit’s government followed a conscious policy of granting land and other resources to Sikh institutions and building monuments in the name of Sikh gurus.  Sikh religious symbols were also added on to the secular institutions of the government. For example, the name of the tenth Sikh guru Govind Singh was added on to an important university that earlier went simply by the Hindu mythological name of the city. If the intent was to acknowledge the contribution of minorities to the secular culture of the city, then a Muslim scholar like Khusarau or Ghalib would have been a better choice. In the competitive electoral politics however, that did not count for much. Ghettoised Muslims of Delhi, who actually number more than double the Sikhs in the city, have little choice but to vote Congress and form a helpless vote bank.  And it can not be denied that the efforts of Ms Dixit did yield desired results. For more than a decade till recently the management of Sikh religious places, which is decided through elections among Sikhs,  was under the control of the faction aligned with the Congress party. The leader of the Congress legislative party in the latest  state assembly is a Sikh, as is country’s Prime Minister for the past nearly ten years. The party leadership has offered a half hearted apology for the 1984 pogrom, even while it has continued to shield its leaders from legal punishment. What all this shows is that the largest political party in the country is an opportunist player. It is essentially a ‘power’ party that balloons while in power, and disperses while out of it, mainly due to the absence of a solid social core behind it. Hence, it is not organised from within, but from the top; and the top becomes an effective top as long as it has power and can disperse patronage and pelf. It is a ‘pure’ political party with no other purpose  than access to state power. Coming back to the 1984 pogrom, what its internal logic and subsequent actions show is that the violence and demonisation of Sikhs is not integral to its politics. It also of course, does not care at all about justice to victims of this violence.

The politics of Gujarat 2002 pogrom had a different background and trajectory. Muslim have been the target community of Hindu Right for long, and unlike Delhi 1984, Gujarat 2002 was not an one-off affair. Why the Muslims? Politically they are among the least effective group. They do not form  the dominant social group in any part of India, except in the Kashmir valley which is a separate issue altogether. In Kerala, where they are 25% of the population, their political parties are well integrated into coalitions with other parties. Even in Assam, where they are 30% of the population, their autonomous political mobilisation is very recent. In all other parts of the country, they have been voting either for the Congress, or Left, or regional parties, many of them based in other communities. All of these imply that Muslims are severely under represented in elected bodies. Their share hardly goes over five percent, even though their share in the population is nearly three times greater. The political backwardness of Muslims in India is a consequence of their economic and social backwardness. That only mystifies the question, if Muslims are actually so marginal to the political dynamics in the country since independence, why has the Hindutva Right been targeting them so viciously for so long? The so called terrorist violence, organised and funded from outside the country can hardly be a justification for demonisation and violence against an entire community. Actually the violence against Muslims is a surrogate, and a stimulant for making India a different kind of national community from what it has turned out to be in the past sixty years. The Indian national community imagined by the Hindutva Right is not premised on citizenship and democracy. It is internally authoritatian, valorises violence and craves for powerr. Like all such ideologies, closed minded arrogance, and suspicion are its subjective traits. Without a minority community which is a target of its suspicion, ridicule and violence, this ideology can not be what it is. Hence, animosity towards minorities is not incidental, but a programmatic feature of very politics of the Hindutva Right. This animosity is carried through persistent cultural and ideological indoctrination, in Gramscian  molecular form. Unlike parties like the Congress, which essentially follow the politics of unprincipled opportunism for power, and play along with the existing power structures and everyday practices of the people at large, the Hindutva Right seeks an intensive transformation of Indian society.

Coming back to Gujarat 2002, the success of its politics shows in the degree of consensus for violence. In Delhi, propertied sections had largely kept themselves away from killing and looting, and sexual violence was limited. In Gujarat the VHP and Bajrang Dal cadre from all classes were active participants in violence, the propertied Hindus were a significant proportion of looters, and the sexual violence reached a level perhaps never witnessed in the history of humanity. The politics behind the killings is still active and shows in the increasing ghettoisation and marginalisation of Muslims of Gujarat. In Delhi or Punajb the logic of competition of electoral politics, and Congress’ manipulations within that logic allowed a new political equilibrium to be achieved after the 1984 violence. The key political question could get settled with a new answer. In the absence of justice for victims of 1984 violence, the wounds persist. However, the social separation of Sikhs from the rest of the people has been contained. For instance, the Sikhs places of residence are likely to be correlated more along the class variable with their ethnic Punjabi Hindu cohorts, than with their religion alone. No such possibilities of new political solutions and re-integration of a traumatised minority at the qutodian level exist after Gujarat 2002. Such is the final and totalising character of its politics.

All successful fascist projects have relied on the charisma of an unquestioned leader, who connects directly with its social base, and whose persona represents the success of the project. The Fuhrer and el Duce were the unchallenged masters of their domain. Yet they were different from an Indira or Rajiv Gandhi because they also had a well oiled social organisational set up, their parties with deep social roots to implement their plans. The Hindutva Right appears to have finally discovered such a persona in Mr Narendra Modi. Many commentators have noted with concern the singular fixation of the BJP election campaign with Mr Narendra Modi. This is not only a matter of the internal politics of the BJP, the pushing aside of the other leaders, and the party organisation. It represents the attempted march of a fascist social order.

Coming back to pogrom politics, the two traits responsible differently for the 1984 and 2002 killings, the despotic tyranny and programmatic communalism, appear to be coalescing in the persona of Mr Narendra Modi.  What ills this will bring to the already battered and wounded country, only time can tell. Fight dear country for very survival.


Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College and is associated with the New Socialist Initiative

5 thoughts on “Pogrom Politics from 1984 to 2002: Sanjay Kumar”

  1. Good analysis, no doubt, the Hindutva Right has been pursuing programmatic communalism to achieve its goal of Hindu Rashtra- no longer a hidden agenda of RSS. For that purpose, the Muslims who have already been rendered submissive socially, economically and politically are being deliberately made the target of attacks and aggressive Hindutva propaganda. Recent trouble witnessed in Western UP, is an instance of that . And Pakistan is also being kept in that ‘firing range’ and Kashmir kept smoldering for that matter.
    But in the case of the Sikh minority and events of 1984, the Congress, too, was tinkering with the larger Hindu social base and the November killings consolidated that based. Because of that Rajiv Gandhi had reaped as a biggest victory in Parliamentary polls by winning 404 seats. And, in Punjab, Indira Gandhi deliberately fomented, prolonged and intensified the Punjab trouble to a level where cracking of the whip should leave a relieving and consolidating impact on the Hindu majority outside the state and keep the Hindu population in Punjab a strong base of Congress. Indira Gandhi administered a dose of the Hindutva in Punjab ( soft Hindutva) and Rajiv Gandhi went ahead for teaching a lesson to the Sikhs in Delhi and other places in November 84 and to keep that Hindu consolidation intact for the Congress, he laid down the foundation ( Shilaniyas) of Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

    All that was the continuation of Nehru-Patel’s project of building Indian-Nation State based on the Hindu religious ethos and culture– just after creation of Pakistan as theocratic state– besides their trappings of secularism. Nehru-Patel chose to be vague on issue of minorities and communalism.
    The Hindutva Right took lead from the Congress policies and politics of 1980s to send its sizable number of MPs in Parliament, rule as NDA coalition thereafter.And now , they are aspiring for big victory in 2014 with Modi as Hindu Nationalistic icon. The Hindutva Right now seeks to maintain socially Status Quoist situation, brushing under carpet the ignoble Caste-system, upholding supremacy of the upper caste ruling Hindu elite who is either part of, or aligned with the corporate world.
    The Hindutva Right has, thus, always been part of Indian polity whether it was practiced at a low key by the Congress with projection of secular expediency or the NDA ruling under coalition compulsions. With Hindutva Right looming large as main opposition out to usurp power , the UPA-1 and UPA-2 left with only option of practicing social democratic polity.

    Till today,Indian sub-continent is paying price of giving religious color to the mobilization of Indians for waging for freedom against the British which resulted in Partition.
    The Left of various shades also rode bandwagon of Indian Nation State ignoring social movements and bigger question of eliminating caste system . Their pursuing of National Democratic revolution and class struggle theories led them to the self-imposed political isolation.


    1. Your ignorance is breath-taking. May I congratulate you on that? Nehru was one of the first to find fault with Hindi communalism in this country. I do not like the Congress very much, but get your facts right. Till his death the poor fellow cribbed about Hindu forces gathering and how it would kill the country some day.
      As for Patel, the less said that better – in the opposite direction.
      I know you are well meaning.. I know you are someone like me.. And I hope you keep the anger aloft.. but I also hope you learn to identify the enemy and know the enemy first. I am not quoting the Art of War. Just common sense. I hope you are not offended with my crass rebuttal. :)


  2. Excellent. Yes, the state did turn out to be the bigger terrorist, but to my mind it seemed then that even those sham elections made a huge difference. It was like the people suddenly gave up, not just the extremists. The sense was that there would be little violence once an elected government was in place, no matter how illegitimate. The same with other places. I don’t know why that happens.
    I am not really surprised Modi has won election after election. It is what happens. Almost like the Stockholm syndrome. Except, in his case, it is the Munchausen by proxy syndrome :)))


  3. Such a lengthy article, just to arrive at a flawed conclusion. Modi has not been voted into power because of communal angle. Modi won because people were fed up of corrupt UPA Govt. and also because he promised better governance. Whether he delivers is another matter but please be sure, skies are not going to fall.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s