In today’s India—where tensions between different religious groups are high, and fears run deep about communal conflict ahead of the upcoming general election—Netflix’s first Indian original web television series Sacred Games provides a timely and accurate depiction of the anatomy of a communal riot.
The thriller depicts the nexus between Mumbai’s underworld, police and politicians. It shows how honest policemen suffer as they are forced to lie to protect their jobs, and how circumstances define people’s actions. Just like in the real world, it’s difficult to decide if one of the show’s main characters, a Hindu gangster called Ganesh Gaitonde, is a protagonist or an antagonist.
The show has already received criticism from politicians. A Congress member from Kolkata even filed an FIR over a scene where Rajiv Gandhi is called “fattu” for overturning the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano case. Several people have also criticised the series on the grounds that it shows Hindu politicians and babas colluding to orchestrate a terror attack—just like the American show Quantico, whose makers were forced to apologise.
But Sacred Games seems to be in no danger of that. It provides tremendous nuance in showing the internal conflicts of people, making it difficult to put the blame squarely on one side. Most people in the show could be classified as the villain—including the Hindu and Muslim gangsters, the senior police officials, and the politicians—as their collective actions are pushing the city towards destruction. Yet it’s difficult to put the blame on anyone, as is often the case with complex realities of life.
Like most people in India, the show’s characters are driven by personal greed and ambition. Their actions are not driven by ideology, and yet they’re sucked into ideological wars due to circumstance. The series shows a Rightwing politician who approaches a local gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, to ask for his support in ensuring a low-voter turnout from Muslim neighbourhoods within his constituency, so that he can win the election. Gaitonde initially declines as he favours communal harmony, since he’s running a gang that has people from both religions amicably working together. But he later relents when an offer of a huge amount of money is made.
In the India of today where two worlds coexist, where people live in slums and in mansions right next to each other, it is easy for morals to erode when an amount beyond a person’s wildest dreams is on the table. The story of many riots and clashes in the country starts out this way.
There is an inherent distrust of the “other” sown into our conscience, but actual conflict only arises through someone’s deliberate prodding, which is usually done because of greed or ambition. What is worrying is what happens once this violence begins. At that point, most people start losing control over their choices. Their identity defines which side they would be a part of, and no amount of secular thought can prevent the polarisation. Once a Hindu mob attacks Muslim neighbourhoods, and vice versa, retaliation is inevitable.
As the show depicts, even people who aren’t religious extremists end up demanding that the other community be killed as retribution for the death of their loved ones. It isn’t their belief in their religion, but their desire for vengeance that dictates their actions.
In Sacred Games, a Muslim gangster, Suleiman Isa, orchestrates a series of bomb blasts after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Gaitonde deliberately murders innocent Muslims to avenge his wife’s death. In both cases, their actions are a consequence of their circumstances. The political origins of the conflict are left far behind.
The key lesson from the series is that once a riot starts, no one has the luxury of remaining secular. It doesn’t matter if you know the riots are politically motivated, because once a mob of the opposite community has surrounded you with swords and flaming torches, your identity has already been defined for you. The only option left to most people—especially those in poor neighbourhoods who don’t have the financial strength to just leave—is to side with people from your own community to get the protection that numbers offer. At this emotional juncture, the calls for revenge overshadow any rational consideration of the situation. And even people who don’t care about their religion will get involved.
The way the contagion of a riot spreads is an important lesson that we should remember as the elections approach.