The attack on the US Capitol reminds Indians of mob violence at home

Chink in the armour.
Chink in the armour.
Image: REUTERS/Kamal Kishore
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Indians waking up to the news of a violent mob attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6 will likely remember a similar assault on India’s seat of democracy. Prime minister Narendra Modi expressed his disappointment at events in the US.

On Dec. 13, 2001, five militants who were a part of a suicide squad attempted to make their way into India’s parliament in New Delhi. They tried to storm into the building, guns blazing and armed with explosives, before they were killed by security forces. Ten people lost their lives besides the attackers, most of them from the security forces.

No parliamentarians were hurt, and the attackers did not make their way into the central hall. But it was a huge shake-up for the government of the day, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which once again runs India today.

These attackers were believed to be a part of proscribed militant organizations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, both believed to be based in Pakistan and allegedly close to the country’s intelligence service. India’s home minister at the time, LK Advani, called this attack “the most audacious and…the most alarming.”

After all the attackers were killed, the Vajpayee government launched a hunt for the organizers, and arrested four suspects—Mohammad Afzal Guru, Shaukat Hussain Guru and his wife Afsan Guru, and SAR Gilani.

While Afsan Guru and Gilani were acquitted later, Afzal and Hussain Guru were sentenced to death. Of the two brothers, Afzal Guru was hanged in 2013, after spending over a decade in prison, while Hussain Guru’s sentence was commuted to a 10-year term.

Though the attack on India’s parliament resembles what happened at Capitol Hill, the key differentiator is perhaps that the latter involved a large mob that ended up rioting, rather than a precisely targeted and meticulously planned act of terror, although it may be that there are more details yet to emerge. Joe Biden called it an “insurrection.”

Indian sadhus (monks) storming the parliament complex in 1966 perhaps bears greater likeness to what happened in Washington. They made their way into the complex, demanding that the Indian government declare a national cow-protection law. While police stopped the mob from entering the building, seven sadhus and one policeman were killed in the clash.

And by no means is such mob-led violence an anomaly in India.

A brief history of mob violence in modern-day India

Over the past four decades, violence targeted mainly towards certain religious communities has left huge scars on India.

In 1984, for instance, after then prime minister Gandhi was assassinated, supporters of the Congress party carried out violent attacks on the Sikh community. This was to avenge the death of Mrs Gandhi, who was killed by her Sikh security guard—who, in turn, was trying to avenge Gandhi’s decision to allow military forces into the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site.

What followed over four days in November 1984 was mass killings and rioting in Sikh neighborhoods in New Delhi, with at least 2,000 Sikhs being killed. The Sikh community still awaits justice, and believes the Congress party leaders responsible for the massacre have been allowed to roam free.

India was shaken by another massive riot in December 1992, when a “spontaneous,” angry mob demolished a mosque, the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya. This mob, allegedly led by right-wing Hindutva leaders, believed that the mosque was built on land that originally was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

The reverberations of this demolition were felt in Mumbai, India’s financial capital. Large-scale rioting ensued, and 900 Mumbai residents lost their lives. Of these, a majority were from the Muslim community, which was targeted by right-wing Hindu mobs for protesting the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque.

Just a decade later, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in Gujarat—Narendra Modi, now the country’s prime minister, was then the state’s chief minister. A train ferrying Hindu karsevaks (volunteers) was allegedly burnt by a Muslim mob. In revenge, Hindu groups stormed Muslim-dominated residential complexes and massacred people.

At the time, Modi received national and global condemnation for not acting swiftly or calling in the army, and allegedly letting the mobs run amok. According to official figures, often criticized for allegedly underestimating fatalities, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus lost their lives during the February 2002 violence.

Protest versus riots

More recently, the riots in Delhi in February 2020 have brought another bitter reminder of the tinderbox of India’s socioeconomic fabric. The violence was retaliation to the peaceful demonstrations at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi, where Muslim women sat in protest against the Modi government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizen. These laws could potentially take away the citizenship of those who cannot prove their Indian ancestry, but allowed concessions only for members of non-Muslim faiths.

Much like the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were framed by opponents in the US, the anti-CAA and NRC protests across the country were termed violent and “anti-national” by BJP supporters. Modi, too, called it “anarchy in the name of protests,” seemingly justifying the use of brute force against students.

Almost exactly a year ago, on Jan. 5 2020, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi protested a fee hike, but violent mobs raided hostel rooms and attacked so-called “leftists.” There were no arrests or convictions.

While protests were largely absent from the Indian social context for most of 2020—because of Covid-19 and its attendant lockdowns—India’s farmers have now taken to the streets against the government’s contentious new agriculture laws, which they say are weighted in favor of large-scale agribusinesses.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is among the world leaders to express concern and solidarity with Indian farmers, but India takes a dim view, condemned foreigners for interfering in what it sees is its internal matter. In this context, Modi’s remarks on the events at Capitol Hill are particularly noteworthy. While he has condemned the rioting in the US, he is also commenting on protests in general, and possibly referring to those back home.