The bloodbath in Delhi should serve as a grim reminder to the catastrophic result when diabolical politics and institutional inertia exist together.
For those familiar with the developments prior to the election in the state, the riot in north-east Delhi would appear a logical progression of toxic events in the months of December and January. After naked threats and the deafening communal pitch during the campaign, violence post the results was not entirely unexpected. Only the scale of it remained a subject of conjecture. The jury is still out on whether Delhi escaped a bigger riot, more vicious in its spread and far more murderous, but whatever the conclusion, it would be foolish to presume that the worst has blown over and chances of a repeat are remote.
The conditions that made Delhi a tinderbox continue to hold strong. Before we go further, it would be instructive to get into the nature of riots. There are those which happen spontaneously with an immediate development as trigger. These occur in sharp bursts of frenzy and cool off quickly as communal good sense and intervention of authorities and institutions come into play. And there are those in which communal hatred is allowed to fester. The flare up has elements of preparation and organisation. The destruction to life and property that follows also has certain meticulousness. The violence in Delhi, as evidence suggests, falls squarely in the second category. It was waiting to happen. A recurrence may be round the corner.
Coming to collapse of institutions, the video image of a gun-totting young man coolly walking to a police man in riot gear and shooting at random in the direction of a group of protesters paints a telling picture. No police man tried to dissuade him and it was obvious from his swagger that he expected no action from them. The latter remained a spectator even as violence unfolded and gathered momentum. This despite clear possibility of violence after Kapil Mishra issued a warning to the anti-CAA squaters. They were either not willng to take action or they were instructed not to. That they had no power to take preventive action in a volatile situation does not wash. Either way, it reflects the collapse of the institution.
The build-up to the conflagration was long. It started sometime in late December with hate speeches as the campaign for the Delhi election picked momentum and continued through January and early February. The Election Commission let the hate-mongers escape with a rap on the knuckles. In the absence of strong admonishment or threat of strong action, the latter did not need to be careful with their language. All this while, communal heat was rising high, waiting to explode at some point. As former CEC SY Quraishi observed in a newspaper interview, an FIR against those making hate speeches would have been a deterrent against more such vitriolic talk. What was conspicuous in its absence was the intent from the EC to act tough. Such failure at meaningful intervention could make future elections really ugly.
Nowhere is institutional collapse more prounced than in the media. It has been fairly long since a large section of the media abandoned its primary role as the neutral watchdog in the democracy. Servile, communal, irresponsible, overtly political and devoid of principles or intellectual vigour it has normalised hate and mainstreamed negative tendencies in the society that should stay ignored. It is in a credibility crisis, veterans in the profession would say, but the fact is it is beyond caring about credibility anymore. This section of the media has been largely instrumental in fanning hate and sustaining the communal bad temper.
As the possibility of large-scale violence spiralled in Delhi, it chose to stoke the fire instead of making efforts to douse it and calm things down. Even after the riots, which have claimed 41 lives so far, there seems little effort to advocate peace and harmony. The role of the media as influencer has been starkly cynical and negative. With the uncontrollable social media also in play, there is little hope of the tension dissipating anytime soon.
The developments in Delhi offered ample evidence that institutions supposed to protect citizens and the superior values of the democracy were reluctant to do so. At some level, such attitude reflects a collapse of the system of checks and balances which is critical to keep each player in the state within its limits. This is a problem if left unaddressed would have consequences beyond imagination.