Playing with fire: Communal flames in India pose a national threat

It is a sad picture of India of the 21st century that communal fires have erupted in states as far apart as Tripura and Maharashtra, writes Jagdish Rattanani for South Asia Monitor 

Jagdish Rattanani Nov 28, 2021
Communal violence (Photo: Wikipedia)

Many governments in free India have reached their low point as a result of communal violence. Riots begin small but explode in no time to take on proportions that can be unimaginable. A citizenry otherwise mindful of law-and-order boundaries suddenly crosses all limits and it is not uncommon to see mobs attacking police, burning vehicles and taking to the streets on the slightest rumour. Violence begins on some pretext or the other, real or imagined, and unless the response of the State is not immediate, clear and to the fullest against any and all sides indulging in violence, it is violence that wins and the administration that loses.  That has been the history of many riots. The administrative lesson is simple: do not play with this kind of fire.  

It is a sad picture of India of the 21st century that communal fires have erupted in states as far apart as Tripura and Maharashtra, one triggering the other and fed mostly on some half-truths and a lot of hatred that has been suffused into the political system. Tripura’s response has been shocking. By booking over 100 journalists and lawyers under the stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the BJP-ruled state is covering its failure to control majoritarian violence with action to control reporting of the violence, as the Editors’ Guild of India has correctly pointed out.

In Maharashtra, the situation is different. The communal disturbances in Amravati and some other districts of the state pose a new challenge to the state government, which has been running an experiment in a unique confluence of non-BJP forces glued together to contain an increasingly successful and arrogant BJP. The situation is made worse by attempts by sectarian forces to foment trouble and present the picture, as the BJP has been trying to, of a coalition that is unable to govern.

Credit to state government

Yet, it is the government of the day, led in this case by Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, that is in charge. He is responsible for outcomes, irrespective of the political forces ranged against him. It is the duty and responsibility of the government to not take this rioting lightly and to put down disturbances with a single-minded devotion before the fire spreads. Any delay in responding with all the resources at its command will be suicidal as violence can spiral out of control, particularly with the opposition working overtime to discredit the government.  

It is to the government’s credit that it has been able to stop the violence and has not hesitated to arrest several BJP functionaries, including sitting Corporators and a former state minister who were present when the violence broke out last weekend and who have been accused of stirring the communal pot.

This determination should be followed through with more action against the guilty where required, leading to full-fledged investigations and charge sheets that send out a clear message that rioting will not be tolerated. The state government will also do well to take some lessons from the late former Maharashtra Chief Minister A.R. Antulay, much discredited for alleged scams but a well-informed barrister who knew how to keep his administration in check.  

He was once at a meeting with the Chief Secretary when news came in of some violence in Bhiwandi. Antulay responded with lightning speed. He asked the Chief Secretary to go straight from the meeting to the spot, vesting in him all powers of the Chief Minister, and ordering him not to come back till the violence was stopped and the situation normalized. That violence was not heard of beyond that day. 

Maharashtra’s challenges 

Maharashtra is right now going through some challenging times. A former state home minister from the ruling alliance is behind bars. A former police commissioner of Mumbai is in trouble. There are serious charges levelled by a state minister against the local head of the Narcotics Control Bureau, who has been accused of running a racket himself. All this amid the fact that the alliance that has taken power in the state – Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv-Sena, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and the Indian National Congress – has put up a stiff political challenge to the BJP. 

The BJP had taken it as a given that it would return to power and reinstall its nominee Devendra Fadvanis as the Chief Minister with the Shiv Sena relegated to a poor second partner. Events turned dramatically. The BJP hasn’t been able to digest the fact that the Shiv-Sena saw through the game of being gobbled up, demanded its fair share of power and eventually discarded the BJP to snatch power with new partners in tow. The BJP and its sympathisers hate this; they cling to any straw to put the state government down.

With the three-decade-long Shiv Sena-BJP partnership broken, the Shiv Sena has come up as one of the fiercest critics of the BJP. This is a political development of some significance. Two parties that have risen on Hindutva politics are now at loggerheads, presenting interesting insights into what friends-turned-foes can do to expose each other. As the Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut once said in the Rajya Sabha, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah seated across him in the House: “We don’t need a certificate in patriotism from anyone … The school (Hindutva) that you study in, we have been the headmasters there.” 

Communalism never pays 

The Maharashtra communal differences have to be seen in the light of this tension. The communal divide has been pushed in the state again and again since the BJP lost out on sitting in government in the financial capital of India, Mumbai.

Consider the communal commentary from some sections when two sadhus were killed in a place called Palghar, when what had happened was a case of mob reaction to saffron-clad travelers who were accused of being child-lifters. Or consider the divide sought to be created in one of the most harmonious of workplaces – the Hindi film industry.  A communal divide has no place here but there has been a concerted attempt to create one. The case of Aryan Khan and the allegations of extortion are one part of a drama that has been playing out to demonize Bollywood and break the communal harmony that rules here. 

The result is a tinderbox. More fuel is being added to it, and we know not when it may explode, taking with it dreams of a strong, vibrant, plural India that grows to become a developed nation and goes on to make its mark on the global stage. 

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press/