On February 13, two days after the Bharatiya Janata Party received a drubbing in the Delhi Assembly election, Amit Shah made a candid admission. Referring to incendiary comments made by leaders of his party, the home minister “speeches such as ‘goli maro’ and ‘Indo-Pak match’ should not have been made by BJP leaders during the campaign”.
Shah was speaking at the Times Now Summit. When the TV news channel’s political editor Navika Kumar asked him if the saffron party’s defeat was a result of such remarks, he gave an ambiguous answer. “Perhaps we did,” he said. “There is no system for people to write why they voted in a particular way, so it will be difficult to know the exact reason but maybe we did suffer.”
Shah also claimed that the BJP had “immediately distanced itself from these remarks”. , really.
Kumar, notorious for being pally with the establishment, restricted her questioning to comments made by Delhi BJP leader Kapil Mishra, Minister of State Anurag Thakur and Member of Parliament Parvesh Verma. She did not ask Shah if speeches made by him or Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, could be counted among the inciteful and incendiary comments that supposedly tanked the party’s electoral prospects in Delhi.
In late January, when Shah was campaigning in the capital, the chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission, Zafarul Islam Khan, had written to the chief electoral officer, that the “provocative and totally baseless statements” made by BJP leaders, including Shah, could easily lead to “riots” in the city.
The BJP organised campaign events across Delhi ahead of the Assembly election on February 8. At least 45 of these events — public meetings and roadshows — featured Shah. Adityanath attended another 14 events. They together attended 19 events in North West and West Delhi parliamentary constituencies, and 16 in North East and East Delhi.
The rest of the rallies were held in New Delhi, Chandni Chowk, and South Delhi constituencies.
BJP’s Delhi campaign events featuring Amit Shah and Adityanath.
North West and West Delhi constituencies are the largest constituencies by area in Delhi. According to the 2011 census, the districts they cover — that is, North West, West and South West Delhi — are also the most populated.
Delhi parliamentary constituencies map.
In contrast, North East and East Delhi constituencies are small but densely populated. In fact, they rank first and second in population density in the city; there are 37,346 people per sq km in the district of North East Delhi, and 26,683 in East Delhi.
The population density is 19,625 in West Delhi, 8,292 in North West Delhi, and 5,445 in South West Delhi.
Population density of Delhi by district. The districts of Shahdara and South East Delhi were carved out in 2012.
So, if one were to estimate where Shah and Adityanath would reach the most voters, it would be in North East and East Delhi. This explains why they held 16 campaign events in the area.
North East and East Delhi
The areas traversed by Shah and Adityanath included neighbourhoods that formed the ground zero of the Delhi violence, in which 53 people have been confirmed killed so far.
Shah began his Delhi campaign on January 23. The next day, he held rallies in Mustafabad, Karawal Nagar, and Gokulpuri. He returned on January 26 with consecutive rallies in Rohtas Nagar and Babarpur, and a road show in Ghonda. On February 2, he held a rally in Burari. Two days later, he spoke in Timarpur. The following day, he was in Krishna Nagar and Gandhi Nagar in East Delhi. On February 6, the last day of campaigning, Shah led a roadshow in Seemapuri in North East Delhi.
On February 1, Adityanath spoke in Karawal Nagar. On February 4, he held rallies in Shahdara and Patparganj in East Delhi.
Most of the areas covered by Adityanath and Shah were affected by the Delhi carnage: Karawal Nagar, Mustafabad, Gokulpuri, Babarpur, and Ghonda. These Assembly constituencies encompass localities such as Yamuna Vihar, Brahampuri, Bhajanpura, Shiv Vihar, Khajuri Khas, Chand Bagh, Johripur, and Kardampuri.
Seemapuri, Shahdara, Krishna Nagar, Gandhi Nagar, and Timarpur are in the vicinity of the areas affected by the violence.
Provocative, inciteful, incendiary
On January 26, Republic Day, I attended an Amit Shah rally in North East Delhi’s Babarpur. It was hosted beside a Shiv temple, about half a kilometre from the Maujpur-Badarpur metro station. This stretch was barricaded at one end, and Delhi police, Central Armed Police Forces, and Rapid Action Force personnel manned it for several hundred metres; they directed public and traffic movement, frisked attendees, and guarded entrances to the rally.
The RAF’s Riot Control Vehicle, which has become a familiar sight lately, was parked nearby.
I at the time that less than half of Shah’s speech focused on local issues. He touched upon beautifying a local lake and extending Ayushman Bharat to Delhi. He also chastised the AAP government for failing to “protect mothers and sisters” and not building good schools for their children.
This seemed like a formality, however. Shah, introduced at the rally as “Hindu Samrat”, set the pitch with the very first sentence: “Your voice should reach the supporters of Shaheen Bagh. Lift your hands, clench your victorious fists, shout with me, ‘Bharat mata ki…’” “Jai” boomed back from the crowd.
The “supporters of Shaheen Bagh” was a dogwhistle for Muslims. Shah’s North East Delhi audience understood this and responded honestly. There was loud cheering when Shah said voting for the BJP would “make the city and the country safe and secure“ and “stop thousands of Shaheen Baghs”.
Amit Shah speaks in Delhi’s Babarpur on January 26, 2020.
In the flair of a firebrand, Shah thundered about Kashmir, Ayodhya, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the surgical strikes on Balakot. At one point, he asked the audience if they were the “vote bank” of the Congress and AAP. “No!” came the loud reply. “Who is their vote bank?” Shah asked. “Mullah!” a few shouted, referring derogatorily to Muslims. The rest were satisfied with Shah’s dogwhistle. “Shaheen Bagh,” they answered.
Shah’s histrionics vitiated the air with the promise of violence. When Harjit Singh, 20, who stood a dozen metres behind me, shouted anti-CAA slogans at the home minister, he was pulled to the ground and badly thrashed by the crowd. I could see chairs flying and CAPF personnel taking him away at Shah’s insistence. The Indian Express later that Singh was alleged harassed by the Delhi police.
The Babarpur rally was also where Shah made one of the most infamous comments of the Delhi campaign. When people go out to vote, he said, they should “press the button so hard and with such anger that the current reaches Shaheen Bagh”.
When I returned to Babarpur a month later, on the fateful evening of February 25, the area stank of anarchy and devastation. Smoke from small fires billowed everywhere and masked men postured around street corners shouting “Jai Shri Ram”. Shops owned by Muslims were sacked and looted, and the street that had hosted Shah a month ago was filled with stones. It was patrolled by the RAF and the CAPF, though there were far fewer personnel present than at Shah’s rally.
According to media reports, Shah had regurgitated his provocative remarks in other places of North East Delhi during the campaign, in Rohtas Nagar, Karawal Nagar, Mustafabad, and Gokulpuri. In Ghonda, Shah’s roadshow loud chants of “Desh ke gaddaron ko”.
Adityanath went even further. At his rally in Karawal Nagar, he said the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act were a planned “roadblock” to “India’s rise in the world.” He whipped out his own dogwhistle: “Their ancestors broke this country apart,” he said. “How is India still rising, they think. Their ancestors played around with the pride and self-respect of this country.” He employed the biryani trope too, and claimed the AAP was in cahoots with Pakistan.
The polarisation this caused was unmistakable. I was at Adityanath’s rally in Harkesh Nagar, Okhla, on February 2. It was held just a few kilometres from the Shaheen Bagh protest site. Adityanath obsessed over biryani and Pakistan here as well. But once he left, Hindu and Muslim attendees I spoke with offered diametrically opposite views on his utterings: Hindus approved of them, Muslims absolutely did not.
Adityanath’s rally in Harkesh Nagar, Okhla, on February 2, 2020.
“It is confirmed that Kejriwal is involved with Pakistan,” said Sonu Kumar, a resident of Okhla. “Most people in Jamia Nagar are from Afghanistan. This is why they are opposing it. No Indian Muslim is protesting, only outsiders are.” Chandan Kumar Singh, another resident, told me the media and the Shaheen Bagh protesters were together trying to spread falsehoods about the CAA. “I’ll vote for nationalism,” he said.
“I don’t think any issue he raised was legitimate. You can come and ask for votes but why do they yelp about Hindu and Muslim?” said Meena, a local shopkeeper, referring to Adityanath. Another woman, Ashma, said the UP chief minister’s statements were “provocative,” adding: “A politician’s job is to give his report card, not climb on a stage and raise religious slogans.”
The polarisation that Adityanath and Shah left in their wake had calamitous consequences in North East Delhi less than a month later. In this part of the city, neighbourhoods dominated by Hindus are across the road from those dominated by Muslims. As per the 2011 census, Karawal Nagar is 89 percent Hindu while neighbouring Mustafabad is 78 percent Muslim. Similarly, Jaffrabad is 70 percent Muslim while nearby Gokulpuri is 78 percent Hindu.
Yet, there is rarely any homogeneity. A few Muslim homes stand between dozens of Hindus ones, and vice versa. The burden of communal tension and suspicion falls on the shoulders of these residents. Their coexistence, a function of time and necessity, is undone in days by unscrupulous elected leaders who double up as ideological crusaders.
Ahead of the Lok Sabha election last year, a BJP leader in Bhopal told me his party’s Hindutva card was likely to succeed in places with significant Muslim populations. His theory applies in Delhi. and , where the BJP flopped, have eight percent and six percent Muslim populations, respectively. In , this figure climbs to about 30 percent.
Despite giving ample attention to West and North West Delhi, the BJP’s electoral gains actually came from the North East. Here, the party won Karawal Nagar, Rohtas Nagar, Ghonda. It also won Gandhi Nagar in the vicinity.
Delhiities, however, no longer remember these constituencies for the election result, but for the communal bloodbath that followed hardly two weeks later, after the BJP’s Kapil Mishra threatened to take the law into his own hands.
Mishra has received volleys of blame from many quarters so far, but he only played the cards in a game set up dexterously by Shah and Adityanath. The question is: why should they be let off?
With inputs from Vasudha Bachchan.