Kaleem Kawaja


Over 150 people gather at MIT Campus, Cambridge, MA, USA to listen to top academics and law makers analyze the causes and effects of violence in India challenging its secularism.


What are the threats to secularism and the rule of law in India?  Why has group violence become a frequent occurrence in India?  Fifteen of the best minds of the academic, legal, police administration and media circles from US and India, came together to discuss some of these challenges to India at the two-day India Workshop on April 9 and 10.  The conference attended by over 150 people was organized at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA.  Many people came from all over US.  Instead of being emotional or angry it was a very intelligent and analytical workshop. The key organizers of the conference were three senior MIT academics, namely:  Prof Balakrishnan Rajgopal, Dr. Haimanti Roy and Dr Omar Khalidi.


The program opened on Friday April 9th with a keynote speech by Professor Paul R. Brass. Professor emeritus, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Prof Brass, who has made more than thirty visits to India, his research focusing on group violence in north India, examined in details the anatomy of communal riots.  Communal riots unfold in three stages, with pre and post riots stages as important as what happens during the actual violence. Each of these stages has various actors that seek to gain from this violence.


Almost all group violence is means to some pre-conceived political or economic end. Prof. Brass opined that all district magistrates have the capability of stopping the violence if they so wished.


On April 10, the workshop comprised of five separate sessions:  Secularism and the state; State performance during group violence; Assessing police performance; Bringing violence perpetrators to justice; Terrorism and the challenges to secularism.


The discussion in the conference divided its attention somewhat equally among case studies and causes of group violence that Dalit, Sikh, Christian and Muslim communities in India have experienced over the last about four

decades; the less than adequate performance of police in controlling them; and the inability of the justice system to make the perpetrators of violence accountable for their offenses.


Dr Chinnaiah Jangam of the Wagner College stated that to understand caste violence one has to understand the democratic politics in India.  He claimed that every hour two Dalits are killed and two Dalit women are raped.

Atrocities on Dalits have increased in India; however the growing assertion of Dalits now ensures that such instances of violence get recorded either by police or media.  He also claimed that now middle castes have replaced Brahmins in post-independent India as the dominating force over Dalits. Indian state dominated by caste Hindus continue to subvert neutral state institutions and legal guarantees.


De Angana Chatterji of the California Institute of Integral Studies, who has in recent years spent considerable time in India investigating group violence against minorities, and who was recently in Orissa studying the

violence against the Christians in Kandhamal, elaborated her lecture with over a dozen references to recent case studies that, the violence in Orissa was meant to discipline and terrorize the Christian minority there.  She

discussed case studies where some Hindus who advocated Hindu-Christian unity were subjected to gory violence.  She gave examples of where some Christians were falsely identified as Maoists and of adopting terrorist methods in Kandhamal.  She claimed that the Hindutvaization of Orissa is largely due to Hindutva-State association.


Addressing the 25 year old incident of large scale violence against Sikhs in Delhi in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, Manoj Mitta, senior editor, Times of India, New Delhi, stated that in 25 years since the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, no more than half a dozen of those marauders have been convicted.   Quoting from records made by several credible journalists in Delhi he described that some known political leaders were seen at the sites of the killings of Sikhs, but in all these years neither Delhi police nor judiciary made any serious attempt to follow up on such evidence.  He said that killings of Sikhs in Delhi in October-November 1984 continued even after the deployment of the Indian Army for several days with impunity, and that violence stopped only after the funeral of Indira Gandhi, as if on a cue.   Mitta said that both judiciary and the police forces should be treated as part of the process of impunity that the marauders and rioters benefit from in India.  He suggested that a serious analysis of this unfortunate impunity process should be made.


Addressing the well known sectarian violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002,  Mukul Sinha, the head of the Jan Sangarsh Manch human rights group in Ahmedabad, displayed a graphical chart listing the timelines from the cell phone records of then Gujarat ministers, Maya Kodani, Jayadev Patel and senior police officials like Vanzaraa and MK Tandon, that at least these ministers were directly instructing police officers to move their police units away from the sites of gory attacks on Muslims in Gulbarga and Naroda Patia areas, and not protect them.  Sinha said that cell phone records obtained under the Right To Information Act demonstrate a direct nexus between some ministers and some police units in Ahmedabad in those fateful days.


Sinha also provided detailed information that Gujarat senior police official Vanzara was involved in several instances of fake police encounters that resulted in the deaths of several Muslims.  He said that lafter the arrest of Vanzara,  police encounters in Gujarat have stopped almost completely.


Meenakshi Ganguly of the Human Rights Watch group, Mumbai, addressed the issues resulting from the upsurge of terrorism in recent years in India. She said that now India’s individual states have become more assertive and are trying to solve their own terrorism cases.   She said that in India counter-terrorism cases follow a pattern- a group is identified and often arbitrary detention and illegal detention is the result.


Another notable speaker was Arvind Verma, a former Indian Police Service official, presently at the University of Indiana.  He made a succinct case for senior police officials like Superintendents of Police, enumerating the many constraints on them from senior politicians, the pressures from local politicians and community groups.  He emphasized that every superintendent of police in every city has a desire to control a sectarian riot as soon as he can.  But that most of them are handicapped by a host of factors beyond their control.


Summarizing the 2 day discussion and analyses of the very complex situation, Dr Omar Khalidi concluded that in order to control group violence, the state and its constituents, i.e. the political authorities comprising of union and state home ministers, district magistrates/collectors and police authorities must be ideologically committed to neutral law enforcement. That is presently lacking.  Often the political authorities and the law enforcement institutions show bias against the ethnic and religious minorities.

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