Next week, Parliament is likely to discuss the tragic and much avoidable Delhi riots, in which, so far, more than 53 persons have died. The Opposition parties have been accusing the treasury benches of downplaying the violence, which was supposedly sparked off on account of some irresponsible statements made by fundamentalists. The Centre has not yet ordered even a judicial inquiry, which would expose, amongst other issues, the passive role of the police, and the manner in which many senior officers reacted to the dangerous situation.
The government has responded rather promptly to the threat posed by the coronavirus. Primary schools have been closed down, and Holi festivities have been put on the back-burner due to this contagious disease that has emanated from China. However, unlike the mayhem in which so many people lost their lives, thankfully, so far, no one has succumbed to this deadly ailment; this, in a country as large as India, where health and hygiene issues are practically non-existent. The emphasis laid on the prevention of this ailment is commendable, but an equal amount of attention should also be paid to the communal malaise, that is affecting the unity and integrity of our vast nation.
Holi celebrations stand cancelled. Some months back, we witnessed a muted Deepavali with environmental issues cropping up, throwing a spanner in the traditional manner in which people mark the occasion, one of the two principal festivals of the Hindus, the other being Holi. When Deepavali revelry was sought to be curtailed, several voices were raised on how Hindus were being deprived of celebrating this annual holy day. This time round, there is no such sentiment that has been expressed, despite the fact that Holi is also a time when comradeship and kinship is at high mast.
There is a clear divide that is visible, following the skirmishes and Holi could easily have provided the much-needed healing balm. “Holi Milan”, signifies bonhomie and brotherhood, and such an opportunity comes once a year, when past deeds and wrong-doings, can be remedied for people to move forward.
Religious festivals serve as platforms for bringing together warring groups and in politics as well, there are forums which come handy when the situation becomes explosive. The Centre used to always have a National Integration Council (NIC) which would function under the aegis of the Home Ministry. Eminent citizens, from various walks of life, would be nominated as members of this prestigious body which would meet once in a year or so, to address contentious concerns that confronted various communities. The 120-odd members would allow the grievances of the affected citizens to find a vent, at a forum other than Parliament. It is quite possible that had such a body existed, the Shaheen Bagh deadlock would have been broken. The Apex Court had appointed interlocutors to commence a dialogue with the aggravated and agitating women, and this may not have been required if there was an NIC. This body of people, having high credibility in society, could in other matters as well, proved to be a safety valve.
Community relations have always been an integral part of any governance strategy; even in basic policing, a great deal of underlining priority is accorded on building bonds amongst the citizens with the uniformed personnel acting as facilitators. In Northeast Delhi, these basic elementary steps were found to be absent, and it was, far too late, to restore any kind of semblance, once the barbarity erupted. There have been allegations that the perpetrators of this inhumanity came from outside—probably from some place in Uttar Pradesh—and enjoyed the patronage of a handful of powerful people. If this is true, it is absolutely deplorable and goes against the basic grain of our Constitution.
In this regard, the role of the police and the Delhi administration needs to be closely scrutinised. There have been reports that the men in uniform did not respond to the unfolding situation and chose to adopt an ostrich-like approach. At the time when the riots were at their peak, the police did not resort to firing so as to quell the violence. The standard operating procedure, in these kinds of situations, is that the police begins with a lathi charge, and then escalates its action by lobbying teargas shells, followed by measures such as using water cannons, the final recourse being firing. Although a thorough judicial inquiry would unravel the facts, there are reports that the police did not fire at any place, nor did it call in for water cannons.
If this is the case, then surely, officers entrusted with the task of maintaining law and order have not performed as per established norms. In other words, they are guilty of dereliction of duty. Under the criminal procedure code, and the Indian Penal Code, if a police personnel does not act in accordance with the law, cases against him can be registered and he can be put on trial. This provision is rarely invoked but is as significant as the powers which are provided to the police to fire in self-defence.
The sort of callousness demonstrated by the police in addressing the serious issue has to be taken up by their superiors. Fortunately, the new acting commissioner, S.N. Srivastava, is leading from the front, thus displaying leadership qualities. However, the Centre must take an immediate decision regarding his continuation. The bottom line is that communal virus is more lethal than coronavirus. Between us.