The first thing to catch your attention when you approach Bawana village to the northwest of Delhi is a newly-erected Indian flag that is hoisted on a 105-foot-long pole, swaying cinematically in the light breeze. The flag—made of “parachute material” for durability, as I was told by the residents—was hoisted on 26 January this year by the village youth who collected donations from the locals amounting to Rs 3 lakhs. Not too far from the flag is a chaupaal—an assembly room—which is used to conduct community functions and gatherings in Bawana. On 2 November 2014, the yellow walls of this chaupaal were host to a mahapanchayat consisting of Hindus from Bawana and its neighbouring villages. This wasn’t a routine event. It was a meeting that could have potentially led to katl-e-aam—bloodshed—three days later.
Bawana comprises a predominantly Jat population and is one of the last few villages near Delhi’s northwestern border. The village was made a legislative assembly constituency in 1993 and was reserved for the scheduled castes. Between 1991 and 2001, Bawana’s population grew from 19,000 to 23,000. But according to the census data of 2011, the population shot up to over 73,000 a little after the Bawana industrial area became operational, and slum-dwellers from Yamuna Pushta, RK Puram and Vasant Vihar were resettled in a JJ colony—that is, a jhuggi-jhopri, a rehabilitation colony for slum-dwellers—here in 2004.
I met a few residents from Bawana this Tuesday, Vinod Kumar, Paramjeet and Suresh Kumar, sitting next to the chaupaal’s gate along with a few others as they were playing their daily round of cards. They had all been part of the mahapanchayat in November. They told me that it had been attended by about five thousand people—most of them from neighbouring villages—to stop the Taziya on 5 November 2014, the religious procession that held in the month of Muharram, marking the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson in the battle of Karbala.
Paramjeet told me, and the others with him agreed, that since the JJ Colony and a neighbouring slum—both of which had a “Bhartiya aur Bangladeshi” (Indian and Bangladeshi) Muslim majority—had come up, the Muharram processions had become larger. This group also claimed that the procession had morphed into a show of strength in the past few years, as around ten thousand people—many of them inebriated—carrying swords and “petrol bombs” would block traffic in the villages and create a nuisance on the streets. It was to stop this, the men said, that the mahapanchayat was called by the local gaushala—cow shelter—committee and the young members of the Bhagat Singh Committee from Poonth, a village near Bawana. However, none of these men were able to tell me of any cases of violence that had been reported as a result of the procession.
In unequivocal agreement, Sukhbir Singh, who was sitting with another group of men nearby when I approached him, told me of the announcements that were made across the village before the mahapanchayat. These announcements, he said, asked Hindus to gather in the chaupaal—where the RSS conducts its daily morning shakha (meeting) on 2 November.
At 11 am on 2 November, a crowd started gathering at the chaupaal. By 2 pm in the afternoon, when the meeting finally commenced, the chaupaal was overflowing with people—some sitting on the ground, while others managed to find some space on the staircase leading to the rooftop and in the lanes surrounding the chaupaal. The tables had turned. As Singh put it to me, it was the Hindus’ turn to display their strength to the police and local administration. He recalled that the people gathered at the meeting warned the police of the consequences if the procession made its way to the village, “toh katl-e-aam ho jaayega” (there will be bloodshed). Singh claimed that the Muslims who belonged to the villages that had participated in the meeting, were ready to forgo the procession—unlike the Muslims of the JJ colony—as they were intent on maintaining peaceful relations with their neighbours.
Paramjeet also told me that discussions had already been underway for over a month before the mahapanchayat, and it had been decided that the “ladke” (boys) from the two committees would stop the procession, armed with the consent of their leaders. However, according to a team of representatives from the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, the Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan and the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union, there was a far more detailed campaign at work, which was planned for around Eid, on 6 October, with the intention of intimidating the Muslims of the JJ colony. Some of these tactics included accusing the Muslims of cow theft and slaughter in an effort to spark communal tension.
Among other things the team found that, “There is intimidation of Muslims and they are living amidst fear. The police protection is not enough.” Furthermore, “That the organizations … are not spontaneous organizations. It is clear from the fact that among the main organizer was the nephew of BJP MLA. Also total inactivity of BJP MP is a clear indication.”
The group of men outside the chaupaal told me that after the mahapanchayat, some people from the villages and representatives from the administration went to speak to the Muslims at the JJ Colony, who agreed to take the procession on a different route that would not disturb the villages. The procession finally took place under the heavy presence of security forces who were present throughout the newly decided route. The possibility of violence had been averted, but the atmosphere was vitiated with communal tension.
All the men sitting with Paramjeet and Sukhbir Singh told me that they had voted for Modi in the Lok Sabha elections and for the BJP candidate, Gugan Singh, in the assembly elections last year. Everyone was also convinced that had Surender Singh—a Congress MLA who had won the past three assembly elections—not been defeated by Gugan Singh, the procession would not have been stopped or forced to alter its route. They believed that Surender Singh, a resident of Bawana, would have supported the Muslims. Sukhbir Singh went on to tell me that while the Bhagat Singh Committee had existed for some time, it had emerged as a powerful and active force only after Narendra Modi’s ascent to power. I ventured to ask all of these men if they would vote for Gugan Singh again, particularly since they believed that the BJP leader’s position of power had been a factor in their successful intimidation of the Muslims. Some among the group favoured him, but others were tilting towards the Aam Aadmi Party this time. All of them agreed that when Kejriwal was the chief minister—even if it was for only forty-nine days—the police and local administrative officers had stopped asking for bribes and had started reaching their offices on time. They all liked Kejriwal, but some professed that they liked Modi more, and would vote for his party even in the state elections.
None of them said they would vote for Gugan Singh, claiming that he was generally ineffective and citing his residency in Begumpur—a village on the other side of the constituency. Interestingly, it seemed to emerge from my conversations, that there was another factor that had contributed to the close contest between the AAP and BJP in this constituency. The AAP has backed Ved Prakash as its candidate for Bawana this time. Prakash, who lives in Bawana village, enjoys local support and was slated to get a BJP ticket the last time around. However, he had left the BJP when he was denied a ticket in the last state election. He was also, I was told, present at the mahapanchayat and had expressed his support for the collective sentiment that presided over the meeting.
So, if the battle for the Delhi chief ministerial post was between two former India Against Corruption members, the Bawana constituency was also being fought along similar lines, between two right-wing leaders who were unabashedly coloured with the BJP’s philosophy.
A recent study titled Do parties matter for ethnic violence? Evidence from India conducted by three political scientists in Yale University stated that “the BJS [Bharatiya Jana Sangh]/BJP saw a 0.8 percentage point increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election.” Among all the areas in Delhi that I visited in the past six months, which had witnessed attacks alleged to be religiously motivated in the last six months—be it the vandalism of churches in Dilshad Garden, Vasant Kunj and Jasola, or the Hindu-Muslim clashes in Trilokpuri—Bawana appeared to provide the clearest advantage for a local leader who was the BJP’s progeny.
Regardless of whether the assembly election is won by Gugan Singh or Ved Prakash, the real victory in this constituency, will be that of the BJP’s majoritarian ideology.