In mid-February, I was traveling with a Sikh friend in South Delhi when she stopped the car. Pointing to a house in the distance, she said, “That is where my family hid in 1984, in the house of a Hindu family we did not know.” The 1 BHK flat housed 20 people for four days even as Hindu mobs killed nearly 10,000 Sikhs.
We were glad 1984 was an aberration till we remembered how 18 years later 2002 happened. How were we to know then that perhaps then, in another part of Delhi, a plan was perhaps being hatched to have another round of violence in Delhi and Khambat in Gujarat, again 18 years almost to the day, from 2002, Gujarat.
Peace-loving, secular and democratic-minded people are obviously angry at what has happened in Delhi in the last 3 days. Many are sleepless about this unexpected Hindu nationalist, violence-ridden turn the nation is taking. So was I, till it struck me that the riots in Delhi in the last 3 days show not the failure, but success of democratic, secular values in the country. I do not mean it in the negative or even sarcastic sense. I mean it positively.
Let’s take the case of Delhi and Gujarat pogroms of 1984 and 2002. The bulk of both these pogroms happened in the first 3 days when mobs ran amok and destroyed everything that was Sikh in 1984 and everything that was Muslim (and Dalit) in 2002. And what was the result? Almost 10,000 people killed in Delhi and 2,000 in Gujarat (official figure), a majority of them in the first three days.
Now consider the case of Delhi in the last few days. By various estimates, the death toll has been anywhere between 12 to 40. And the deaths occurred mostly in the northern parts of Delhi, majority of the areas being in seats won by BJP just 2 weeks ago in the Delhi Assembly elections.
Thus, unlike during 1984 and even during Partition and to a great extent Gujarat in 2002, this was not a community rising against another. If you have seen the videos shot by rioters, you’ll see some disgruntled youths brought in from outside in buses, armed with sticks, swords, bricks and a few cases pistols, and let loose in Muslim areas of North Delhi with police either standing as mute spectators, or in a few cases, actively participating in helping the rioters and murderers.
Despite all this, despite all the help from the central Home Minister under whom law and order of Delhi comes, all they could manage in 3 days were a few dozen deaths and the burning of hundreds of houses, shops and vehicles.
Don’t get me wrong. I am sleeplessly saddened by these deaths and destruction. It is just that as a history buff, I am also explicitly aware of how bad such pogroms have been in the past. Now it could also be that the intention of the mobs here was not to inflict such wide-scale damage as in the past. If that is the case, this itself is reason to feel that things are not as bad as they could have been.
That doesn’t mean that things won’t go as bad as they have in the past. What was gut-wrenching for most was that despite knowing, getting calls and getting a stream of images and videos almost in real-time, people in Delhi and elsewhere could do nothing.
The question is how do we address that feeling of helplessness, sleeplessness that many concerned people feel (islamophobes, those sold on the ideology of hate that is based and spread on lies do not count). How do we actively challenge such violence as and when they happen? Is there a way, or are people just forced to be bystanders?
One way to counter this is through the truth. In one video shot by a rioter hurling stones, the guy can be heard saying that the number of Muslims are increasing so they need to be culled. This is patently false as has been proven time and again. Yet this is the very foundation upon which 2002 and 2020 happened, and future riots can happen as well. Hence, attacking such lies from the very inception in whatever way is one method.
The other, more potent way has been experimented on and successfully implemented by none other than an Indian – Mohandas Gandhi and time and again, it has proven its strength. The American civil rights movement is a case in point. And this method works even if you don’t like Gandhi.
The potent way he found is active non-violent resistance against a violent force.
If you saw the videos yesterday, you realize that the mob was never more than a couple of hundreds armed with sticks, rods, bricks, etc. Even in Gujarat, the mobs never reached over 1000 people in one place. Now what if those 200 odd people yesterday in Delhi, were met by a force of 2000 people marching towards them, no one hurling either abuses or stones. What if these band of brave men and women took on the violence of these men without retaliating? How much damage could the rioters have done?
I understand that this is not so easy to do when multiple places are exploding in violence. But Delhi violence in the last few days has been concentrated in North Delhi where by many accounts buses full of young rioters were brought in from outside. And it wasn’t so difficult to travel to those areas as well as some journalists did report and some got assaulted there.
What if a mob of 5000 people had reached this area and taken on the violence of these rioters head-on, but without using violent action or words, without retaliating. Think of the optics of the same. Think of the photos and videos such a thing would make and the impact it would have on the world. Arundhati Roy was right that Gandhian tactics is an optics driven theatre. Instead of scoffing at it, why can’t we use this theatre in the pursuit of justice and peace as many have in the last 70 years.
Of course, it cannot be done by a few people. What is needed are numbers. And it cannot be done by the community that is attacked. E.g. in Delhi right now, it cannot be done by Muslims. But it can be done by Hindus. If 5000 Hindus march against 200 Hindutva rioters, how will they attack. If 50,000 Hindus flood those Muslim areas to protect the victims against rioters by the sheer power of their numbers and not by violence, do you think it won’t work? Police would be shamed into reacting and best of all the message of peace and love would spread quickly.
The problem is thus not this tactic. Gandhi used it. Various Civil Rights group like the SNCC - Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - used it to phenomenal success e.g. when blacks and their supporting white people rode in forbidden buses or refused to get up from restaurants not allowed to them even after being beaten and abused but not raising a hand to hurt anyone.
I am sure that in a country like India, there’d be no shortage of people ready to be part of such a non-violent, civil-resistance force – the Satyagrahi Sena if you can call it that. I know I would join such a force and be willing to take the violence of another man without raising my own hand at it. I know there would be millions like me all over the country. The only problem is who will gather them into this force? Which individual, group or even political party can do it. The RSS has its cadres ready to unleash violence at a moment’s notice. Can’t the peaceniks of the nation not form their own peace army to take on this violence on their own minds and bodies instead of letting it reach the intended minority?
Is it possible? You tell me.
I talked to the same Sikh friend yesterday. She was despondent, inconsolable at her city burning. And then, I reminded her, that in focussing on the thousands who had indulged in violence in 1984 and 2002, why don’t we also talk about the millions of Delhites, Gujaratis who took on strangers into their homes and saved their lives, like the middle-class Hindu family whose house she showed me. Who is more important, I asked her, the one who were out to kill in the open, or those who save? Who should we talk about more? Who should we empower?
Both of us cried tears of gratitude when we thought of these millions who must have saved hundreds and thousands of lives in the life of this great nation. We cried when we also remembered what Gandhi said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it--always.”
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)