Beneath the searing sunlight of a Delhi sun, at the high noon of his power in May 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi stood at Delhi’s Boat Club to rage against Pakistan and its agents in India. “We will respond with a bang and that reply will put fear in the hearts of their daddies,” he said, his anger rendered mildly comical by his inelegant Hindi.
Ten kilometres away, two men would soon brawl on the streets — and the Prime Minister’s words would collide with theirs to spark off a communal war.
This week’s savagery in Delhi is the worst Hindu-Muslim communal violence the city has seen since Partition: 38 people have been killed; 19 Muslim, 10 Hindu; seven still unidentified. For many, the grim history of hate in Delhi teaches us that the executioners are heroes, warriors for their faith.
Illuminated by the bright, shining red of blood is an India with a blind right eye: gazing terrified at the carnage all around — but unable to see that its own hands are wielding the cleaver.
Less than a week after Rajiv Gandhi’s Boat Club speech, as Vijay Kumar Sharma and his wife rode their motorcycle down crowded Nai Sadak in old Delhi, a passing cyclist made a lewd remark. Sharma began brawling with the cyclist, Bal Krishan. Two other men — Muslims, it so happened — stepped in to keep them apart. The police eventually arrived and carted all four off to the Town Hall police station. Negotiations continued for two hours.
In the meantime, however, rumours had spread that Muslims had harassed a Hindu woman and mobs began clashing.
Late that evening, the police opened fire. Ballimaran resident Om Parkash Kashyap, watching the violence from his rooftop, was among the victims. The killing was blamed, however, on his landlord, Fazl Illahi, with whom there had been a long-running property dispute. More violence followed.
Fifteen people were to die before the rage spent itself.
The story of how those killings happened teaches us the rioters in Seelampur were acting on a script written long before they were born. The year before Rajiv Gandhi’s Boat Club speech, his government had opened the gates to the Ram temple in Ayodhya, hoping to cash in on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Islamic groups protested, leading to violence in Ahmedabad, Allahabad and Bharuch.
In Delhi, clashes between Hindutva groups and Muslim organisations had broken out in February and September, 1986; again, in March, 1987, tensions flared after clerics warned Muslims that their religion was in imminent danger.
For the Congress, this played to a well-rehearsed plan. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother, the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, her legitimacy battered by the Emergency and a moribund economy, had successfully used communal mobilisation through the early 1980s to rebuild her worn legitimacy.
Large-scale communal violence broke out, beginning in Moradabad in 1980, where 130 people were killed in a single police-led massacre — the worst such slaughter, The Hindu’s GK Reddy noted, since Jallianwala Bagh.
Instead of cracking down on the Uttar Pradesh police, Indira Gandhi claimed the killings were engineered to “undermine the stability of the government”. In one speech, she went even further, asserting that the Hindu “religion and traditions” were under attack.
Through to 1983, there was further slaughter, in Aligarh, Allahabad, Godhra, Biharsharif, Nalanda, Hyderabad, Vadodara, Pune and Meerut, culminating in a massive pogrom in Assam’s Nellie. The Congress emerged as the protector of Hindus.
Long before BJP leader Parvesh Verma claimed that Shaheen Bagh protestors would “enter your houses, rape your sisters and daughters, kill them”, Hindu nationalism had embedded itself in Indian politics.
“The wavelength of Congress culture and Hindu culture,” Congress general-secretary CM Stephen declared in 1983, “is the same”. Babu Jagjivan Ram, a senior Congress politician, described Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 election triumph as “a vote for Hindu India”. Muslims, he went on, had no choice but to vote the Congress, “because they have to live in this country”.
Living together hasn’t come naturally. In May, 1974, Gali Milwali resident Vishwakarma became enraged as he watched — perhaps imagined — Nasim Ahmed eyeing up his sisters as they waited for the 9pm show at the Palace Talkies. Friends stepped in to stop the argument. But the next morning, Ahmad showed up at the Vishwakarma home to demand an apology and a brawl erupted on the street. Bombs were soon being thrown from the roofs of the Imliwali mosque and snipers opened fire from inside homes along Bahadurgarh Road.
Eleven people — eight Hindus, two Sikhs — ended up dead.
From 1975, just months after the violence, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government began to push Muslim communities out of the walled city. Seelampur, Welcome Colony and Jaffrabad, the so-called resettlement colonies, were seen by Emergency-era planners as easier to police than the fraught lanes of Turkman Gate, Ballimaran or Daryaganj.
Later came large numbers of Muslims from western Uttar Pradesh — the backbone of Seelampur’s economy, built around small-scale manufacturing.
“The ghetto grows organically,” scholar Ghazala Jamil has evocatively written, “packing in as many people as possible in a bid not to spill over the boundary.” Each gali, or lane, in Seelampur is, among other things, a border between faiths and social classes.
In this petri-dish, hatred festered, as the new arrivals competed with Dalits and other marginal groups for meagre state resources and economic opportunity. In 1992, violence exploded in Seelampur, sparked off by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Twenty-three people were killed.
Like in Delhi’s walled city, the criminal replaced the political leader as the arbiter of social conflicts, the provider of patronage and the mediator of engagement with the police and civic authorities. In times of communal conflict, local gangsters were the community’s last line of defence — just as a Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar had once been in Mumbai.
From the 1990s to the Gujarat carnage of 2002, nearby Jamia Nagar emerged as a magnet for Muslims seeking insulation from Hindu nationalist violence too —but this ghetto was middle-class, suffused with beneficiaries of education and liberalisation. In enclaves like Zakir Nagar Extension or Johari Farms, the kernels of a Muslim middle-class emerged, powered by jobs in the service sector, information technology and the media.
The ghettos around Seelampur, though, evolved differently. In a thoughtful study, scholar Kartik Sivaram and others recorded that Seelampur’s Muslims fared worse than their Hindu neighbours on everything from access to civic services to educational outcomes. The conservative Bab-ul-Uloom seminary, not democratic institutions, shaped the course of civic life.
For prospect-less young people in Seelampur, a cohort that grew ever-faster as the economy began to splutter, the gangster and god became the only sources of agency and self-worth: the temple or the mosque offered at least a simulacrum of social respectability.
Even times of communal peace were fraught: in 2017, the murderous pogroms against the Rohingya in Myanmar led communalised young men to block ethnic-Tibetans from Majnu ka Tila from trading at Jaffrabad’s wholesale garment market.
Protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Jamia Nagar were able to build linkages with middle-class liberals across Delhi, using a shared language of constitutional values. Lacking credible political leadership or representation — and ignored by the city’s major parties — Seelampur’s Muslims had no instrument with which to engage the wider community around them.
To their neighbours, the citizenship protests appeared as an effort to project power into Hindu areas — as a disruption of the fragile balance of power between north-east Delhi’s communities.
Long before the riots began, suspicion and hatred had flared into skirmishes between protestors in Jaffrabad and Hindus in areas like Karawal Nagar, fuelled by Hindu nationalist propaganda. Local criminals often used these clashes to project their power to their own audiences. In December, anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in Seelampur exploded into violence. Local resident Muhammad Raees was arrested after he lost one of his hands while allegedly throwing a petrol bombs at the police.
Even as the area’s Muslims were convinced they were perched on the edge of a battle for survival, many Hindus had come to believe they were faced with exactly the same thing.
Low-grade attritional violence has long characterised Delhi's Hindu-Muslim relationship. In 1924, disputes over a slaughterhouse left 15 Hindus and a Muslim dead; in 1926, more violence followed. “Between 1954 and 1973 — a period of twenty years — there was one long stretch of peace, and then between 1957 and 1960,” the scholar Gopal Krishna has noted. “But otherwise, there have been small disturbances every year, except 1964 and 1966.”
In the wake of the 1987 riots, an investigation by the Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) noted that old Delhi was sundered into caste and communal agglomerations whose inhabitants regarded each other with fear and suspicion.
Three out of every 10 Hindus and almost two out of 10 Muslims, a study of the 1974 riots found, had never even met with members of the other religious community in any social context — political, casual, or even business.
“The rise of a younger, articulate generation of Muslims who voice their grievances against discrimination in educational facilities and jobs, some of whom have made good by competing with the Hindus is modern business enterprises, is often perceived as a threat,” the PUDR report noted. The walled city’s mercantile community, it went on, were irked by “the Muslim assumption of symbols of upward mobility”.
Pained by the corruption of their party and the induction of criminals, the PUDR study noted, an older generation of Congress politicians who successfully mediated these kinds tensions vacated political life, leaving “the walled city an ideal breeding ground for communal and religious fanatics, as well as the local underworld”.
Forty years on, the hatred has congealed: in spite of economic progress, Delhi’s civic culture has failed to birth the kinds of rich consociational relationships that could engender a functional social fabric. Few Muslims, and even fewer Hindus, have any meaningful engagements that cut across communal lines: economic partnerships are rare; miscegenation almost unknown.
Even Hindu and Muslim children at Seelampur’s schools, Sivaram and his co-authors record, all but never visited each other’s homes.
In Seelampur, we have a metaphor for a new kind of India: one where communal divisions are, quite literally, cast in steel and concrete, and political conflict mediated by the bomb. Blinded by religious hatred, though, India is unable to see the abyss ahead.