Partition of India and Communal Riots
Memory Leaks: Drips and Traces
The Memory Leaks anti-memorial investigates the periodic eruptions of communal riots that seem to happen with uncanny regularity in India since the Partition of 1947, and the Liberation War of Bangladesh of 1971. My hypothesis is that the trace memories of the intense and brutal partition violence continues to drip into the present day through the recurring communal riots.
Gujarat Pogrom, 2002
In 2002, in the state of Gujarat in India, a brutal and planned pogrom was conducted against the Muslim minority by the Hindu right, which left over 2000 people dead and several thousand injured. Sexual violence against Muslim women was widely used as a method of subjugating and humiliating the Muslim community. The Gujarat Pogrom, as it came to be called stunned the nation because it was very deliberate and planned, and extremely brutal. Incidentally, it occurred right after the tenth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992. For many Indians, including me, the Gujarat Pogrom of 2002 was a tipping point.
Communal Riots post-1947
It seemed like the Hindu Right was baying for the blood of the Muslim minority community. The scale and extreme brutality of the Gujarat Pogrom clearly harked back to the Partition violence of 1947, and again in the Liberation War of 1971. In researching the link between the partitions and communal riots, I stumbled upon Asghar Ali Engineer’s book – “Communal Riots after Independence: A Comprehensive Account.” In this extensive book published in 2004, Engineer has presented tabulated data on almost all the communal riots that have occurred in India from 1947 to 2002 (Engineer 2004).
Institutionalized Riot Systems (IRS)
In further research, I found Paul Brass’s book, “The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India,” published in 2003. In this book, Brass coins the phrase, “Institutionalized Riot Systems (IRS)” to explain the dramatic production of riots on a regular basis in India, which Brass has divided into three phases: preparation, activation, and explanation (Brass 2003).
I was deeply impacted by these texts and came to the conclusion that I, as a Hindu, owed it to the Muslim minority in India, to reveal this complex and callous socio-political system, through my artwork. The common lay person in India is not likely to read these academic books, important as they are. As an artist, I can disseminate this academic information in an accessible way through my experiential anti-memorials. That is how I came to create the “Memory Leaks” anti-memorial.
“Memory Leaks” Anti-Memorial
An anti-memorial is a way of commemorating an event in which the goal is to highlight the subaltern’s narrative, by creating objects or performing rituals that go against the grain of the nationalist or dominant agenda (Young, 1997). The “Memory Leaks” anti-memorial is comprised of ritual copper vessels used in Hindu temples for cleansing through water and fire. Dharapatras, which are copper pots with a spouted bottom, are used in Hindu temples to drip water or milk on deities. Havans are copper containers used in Hindu temples to light the holy fire and make offerings to the fire. Seventeen dharapatras have been etched with details of as many communal riots. Each dharapatrais etched with unending tally marks and the location of a significant Hindu-Muslim riot, and the year in which it occurred. They are presented as a durational installation with water dripping out of the bottom of the vessels into the havans below. Each of the havans contain partially burnt books written in Urdu, the language spoken by Muslims in India and Pakistan. Also included is a red prayer mat on the floor with a Quran book stand, holding a burnt Quran with burnt newspapers in Urdu, by its side.
Jingoism Against Muslims
Each riot was accompanied by a certain set of rhetorical claims by the majoritarian Hindu actors, such as these outlined below-
The riot happened spontaneously because of a trigger event.
The trigger event involved a Muslim man who committed a deliberate act of offending Hindu religious sensibilities, like killing a cow, or stealing a Hindu idol, or attacking a Hindu man, or violating a Hindu woman.
The Muslim man then gathered other Muslims of the area and this group of aggressive Muslims attacked Hindus in the area.
The Hindus of the area responded righteously to defend their religious sentiments, and fought back the aggressive Muslims, in noble and fair ways.
The deaths and destruction of properties were equal on both Hindu and Muslim sides, or more on the Hindu side.
Gangs of armed Muslim men prowled Hindu neighborhoods, to loot and kill Hindu people, and rape Hindu women.
All of these are jingoistic claims aimed at rationalizing and justifying the communal violence and the engineered riots that occur with regularity. Most of the time, the riots are engineered in time for a political event such as elections, to galvanize the Hindu electoral base of the local politicians. Asgar Ali Engineer and Paul R. Brass, both demonstrate with fully tabulated data as well as verifiable historical reconstructions of events leading up to the various riots, that each of these claims is patently falsely and politically motivated.
Counter-Memories of Communal Riots
Counter-Memories are the subjugated narratives of a traumatic geopolitical event and contest the dominant historical narrative (Foucault 1977). “Memory Leaks” combats the above jingoistic claims of the Hindu Right by excavating the following counter-memories from these communal riots – Firstly, the numbers of casualties on Hindu and Muslim sides are not even close to equal. The Muslim deaths are usually 6-10 times more than Hindu casualties. But data about the number of deaths are usually not revealed by the State so as not to inflame the situation further. Hence, the unending tally marks on the dharapatras alert the viewers that the official numbers are false and should be questioned and investigated independently.
Secondly, the destruction of property is not at all equal on both sides. The Hindu rioters come prepared with addresses of Muslim shops and houses, and selectively burn and damage only the Muslim properties.
Thirdly, the verified existence of Institutionalized Riot Systems (IRSs) in several Hindu-majority cities and towns of India, ensures that the initiators and aggressors of communal riots are the Hindu right workers and politicians, not the Muslim minority population. Fourthly, the riots did not just occur spontaneously but were engineered by the Hindu IRSs, not by volatile Muslim men. Fifth, it is the Hindu men that systematically use rape and sexual violence on Muslim women in the most brutal of ways, to subjugate and humiliate the Muslim community.
Lastly, the Muslim minority population is not the aggressor in these riots, instead, it is almost always on the defensive, due to their lesser numbers and lesser resources. They are on the back foot, trying desperately to defend their communities because the local police and politicians are Hindus and backing the Hindu IRS machinery.
Organized pogroms targeting Muslims are hailed as “cleansing” the Indian land of the impure Muslims by the Hindu right. Frequently, the Muslims are killed and burnt, and their houses and shops razed to the ground. The smouldering books in the Memory Leaks anti-memorial are a metaphor for the decimation of Islamic culture in these acts of violence.
Specters of the Partition
My hypothesis in this anti-memorial is that the IRS's hail the Partition violence as a way to galvanize their Hindu right base into participating in the riots. So, the memory of the Partition violence is continually being harnessed in the present day, to instill fear-based aggression in the minds of Hindus and to demonize the Muslim minority populations. The narrative of the Partition violence is similarly polarized in India and Pakistan to paint the other community as the aggressor and violent one, and the home community as the noble and righteous victim.
Memory leaks out in drips and traces
The memory of the Partition is continually “leaking” into the present to recreate the same emotional reactions of fear, violence, and blame. I believe this is a key component to understanding the continuing cycles of communal riots in India.
Performing memorialization I invite viewers to participate by pouring water into the dharapatras because it is symbolic of a shradhanjali in Hindu religious rituals. Hindus pay homage to gods and goddesses by pouring water on the idols, and also to the dead by sprinkling water on the corpse. As a ritual, it is a powerful and symbolic way to memorialize the scores of Muslims who have perished in these riots. Also, the action of pouring water continuously animates the memories of the riots as the water leaks out drop-by-drop into the havans below.
Havans are traditionally used in Hindu rituals to light the holy fire and often Hindu rioters use the holy fire from the local temple to set fire to Muslim houses and shops in a symbolic way of cleansing the land of the impure Muslims. In the context of the riots, these fires are acts of arson. Water is used to douse these fires and the viewer is thus helping to douse the fire that has burnt the Muslim neighborhoods. The half-burnt Urdu texts in the havans are symbols of the Muslim culture and properties being burnt. I am appropriating the dharapatras and havans as objects loaded with ritual significance and reinscribing them as containers of history that tenaciously hold and incessantly leak the memories of the Partition violence into the communal strife of the present day.
The viewers need to be up close to the dharapatras to pour water into them. Hence, they are looking at the tally marks up close and reading the details of the particular riot inscribed on each dharapatra, its location, and the year in which it happened. The goal is to educate, involve, and engage the viewer in the empathetic action of paying homage and memorializing the Muslims that have suffered in all these riots.
Additionally, by memorializing the Muslims that have died in the communal riots in India, the art installation functions as an anti-memorial as it contests the jingoistic rhetoric of the Hindu right about these communal riots.
Communal Riots Memorialized
The communal riots memorialized in this installation are listed below. This is by no means a comprehensive record of each and every communal riot that has occurred in India since 1947. And unfortunately, I don't think this anti-memorial is finished yet. I'll keep adding dharapatras and havans to this anti-memorial. This installation is an attempt to create a visual and experiential archive that alludes to the frequency and regularity of communal riots in India.
Aligarh, Meerut riots October 3-8, 1961 The city of Aligarh is known for its Muslim population and the Aligarh Muslim University. Just before India’s 1962 General Elections, AMU hosted student union elections in which Hindus were excluded from competing against Muslim peers, which caused Hindu groups to protest against the university and the Muslim community. The rumors sparked the Meerut riots, which fueled a larger Hindu anti-Muslim sentiment that killed 14 people, mostly Muslims, (Graf 2013).
Rourkela, Calcutta, Jamshedpur riots March 16, 1964 In Rourkela, riots erupted on March 16, 1964, when a Hindu refugee train was attacked upon arrival. The incident propagated across villages and towns. It spread throughout the country as thousands of Hindus continued to arrive in the area. The theft of a religious relic, a hair of Prophet Mohammed in Srinagar caused brutal violence in Calcutta and Jamshedpur. This led to a chain of protests and violence where 134 people were killed in Calcutta, Rourkela, and Jamshedpur. Still, the actual death toll was in the thousands, (Graf 2013).
Hatia, Ranchi riots August 22-29, 1967 Hindus believed that Muslim politicians marginalized them by using Urdu more often than Hindi during meetings with minorities. This sparked anti-Urdu agitation and Hindu-Muslim tensions flared in Hatia and Ranchi, and spread across much of India, resulting in communal violence. Around 184 people were killed, including 164 Muslims and 19 Hindus in Ranchi, and in Hatia, 26 people died including 25 Muslims and one Hindu, (Graf 2013).
Bhiwandi-Jalgaon Maharashtra riots May 7-8, 1970 Terrible tension in Bhiwandi started when Hindu leaders received anonymous letters of threatening revenge for the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad. Disputes arose during religious festivals from which the Muslim community was excluded. On May 7, 1970, a procession passed through a Muslim neighborhood, shouting anti-Muslim slogans that attracted 3,000 to 4,000 people armed with sticks. A riot broke out when some Muslims threw stones at those marching in the procession. In all, the violence claimed 164 lives — 142 of them Muslim and 20 Hindu, (Graf 2013).
Moradabad riots August 13-14, 1980
The rising Muslim wealth in the brassware industry had enraged Hindu middlemen — particularly those who had fled to East Pakistan. This Muslim-majority town experienced a gruesome riot on August 13, 1980, as tensions increased due to the kidnapping of a young Dalit girl and the disruption of a prayer ceremony. The police did nothing in response to these incidents, which prompted Muslims to burn and attack a police station. This resulted in the deaths of 400 people, most of them Muslim, (Graf 2013).
Biharsharif riots April 30 to May 5, 1981 In the beginning of 1981, tensions between the Muslims and Yadavs started rising due to a dispute where Yadavs attempted to claim land in a Muslim cemetery for themselves. A dispute between drunken Hindu and Muslim youths in the Muslim neighborhood of Gangandiwan sparked a riot. Fake rumors spread that the Muslims had massacred Gangandiwan’s Hindu families, a crowd armed with weapons and bombs attacked Ali Nagar, killing an estimated 80-200 people.
The actual death toll remains unknown. Official accounts reported 52 deaths, but other estimates put the figure at from 80 to 150–200 deaths, (Graf 2013).
Baroda riots October 23 to November 3, 1982 Violence erupted in Gujarat's communally resilient city of Baroda in late October and lasted until early November. A significant clash eventually broke out when nine people were killed in a small riot. Conflicts between Muslims and Kahars involved in the illegal liquor trade sparked riots — in which a teen was stabbed to death. At the same time, Hindu criminal elements from the liquor industry ransacked Muslim stores, resulting in seven deaths and 55 injuries, (Graf 2013).
Nellie, Assam riots February 18, 1983 Assam is a poor and densely populated state with increasing Muslim migration. With Partition in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh (in 1971) - a poor and heavily populated state-Muslim migration to Assam intensified. Fear of becoming a minority in their land fueled anti-foreigner sentiment. The Bangladeshi Muslim migrants tried to participate in the state assembly elections. On February 17, the Bangladeshis were prevented from voting. On February 18, they were attacked by a Hindu mob. Official accounts reported 1,383 deaths. Other reports put the death toll at 5,000 or higher, mostly Muslim deaths (Graf 2013).
Anti-Sikh Pogrom November 1 to 4, 1984 The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, precipitated the Anti-Sikh Pogrom. The Khalistan Sikh separatist movement had come to a head in June 1984 with Operation Blue Star (Khalistan Movement, 1984). The Anti-Sikh Pogrom was engineered by the ruling Indian Congress Party, and took place in various parts of New Delhi Punjab, and other cities in India. Offici alestimates project 2,800 Sikhs killed in Delhi and 3,350 nationwide, whilst independent sources estimate the number of deaths at about 8,000–17,000, (Graf 2013).
Kashmir Insurgency December 8, 1989 to present 0n December 8, 1989, members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front kidnapped Dr. Rubiya Sayeed, the daughter of then Indian Minister of Home Affairs, as she left a government hospital in Srinagar. The kidnappers refused to release her until several incarcerated members of their outlawed group were released. Following hasty negotiations over the next several days, the government in New Delhi agreed to meet the abductors' demands. Since December 1989, dozens of insurgent groups emerged and have killed government officials, security personnel, and innocent bystanders, professing opposition to Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir. More than 200,000 Hindus (known as Pandits) fled the Kashmir Valley, and nearly 400,000 Indian Army and paramilitary troops have been deployed in the state, (Ganguly, 1996).
The conflict between the militants and the Indian armed forces has led to an estimated 100,000 deaths as per official sources, however the actual numbers far exceed that amount, (Kashmir Insurgency 1989).
Bhagalpur, Bihar riots October 22 to 28, 1989 in 1989, the Hindu-Muslims tensions in Bhagalpur escalated during the Muharram and Bisheri Puja festivities in August. As part of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, which aimed to construct a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in place of the Babri mosque. The processions passed through several Mulim towns and villages, shouting incendiary anti-Muslim slogans. Incidents of communal violence started on October 22nd and escalated on October 24th. On October 25th and 27th, an 8,000-strong mob looted and destroyed several Muslim-dominated villages.
The total dead numbered around 1000, of which around 900 were Muslims, (Bhagalpur riots 1989).
Advani Rath Yatra September 25 to October 30, 1990 The Ram Rath Yatra was a political and religious rally that lasted from September to October 1990. It was organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist affiliates. The purpose of the yatra was to build a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Mosque. The rath yatra, or "chariot journey" across the country to Ayodhya led by L. K. Advani, caused an outpouring of both religious and militant sentiments among Hindus.
The yatra triggered religious violence in its wake, with 166 communal riots in cities across North India, in which 564 people were killed, most of them Muslim, (Advani Rath Yatra Riots 2021).
Bhopal riots December 6 to 15, 1992 The Babri mosque was illegally demolished on December 6, 1992 by the Hindutva fundamentalists, who led a victory procession through the old city of Bhopal which is predominantly Muslim. The BBC reported that the demolition inflamed communal insecurities even more. In the old town, groups of enraged Muslim youths attacked government buildings and Hindu residents. The spread of exaggerated rumors sparked widespread communal rioting. The violence resulted in the displacement of 4,000 families and the deaths of 142 people (Bhopal Riots 1992).
Babri Mosque Riots, Bombay December 6, 1992 - January 20, 1993
On December 6, 1992, 1,000 mob Hindu militants stormed the Babri Mosque and demolished it with sledgehammers and their bare hands. Four Hindus were killed, and at least 100 were injured as a result of debris. Several riots followed all over India. In Bombay, There were two phases to the riots - The first was mainly a Muslim instigation as a result of the Babri Masjid demolition in the week immediately succeeding 7 December 1992 led by political leaders representing Hindutva in the city of Ayodhya.
The second phase was a Hindu backlash occurring as a result of the killings of Hindu Mathadi Kamgar (workers) by Muslim fanatics in Dongri (an area of South Bombay), stabbing of Hindus in Muslim majority areas and burning of six Hindus, including a disabled girl in Radhabai Chawl. This phase occurred in January 1993, with most incidents reported between 6 and 20 January. An estimated 575 Muslims and 275 Hindus were killed at the end of the riots. Prime Minister N. Rao stated that "the grave threat posed to our republic's constitutional structure is a matter of great shame and concern for all Indians." Officially, 1,200 people were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots within a few days after the mosque was destroyed, (Bombay Riots 1993).
Hyderabad riots December 8 to 10, 1990
Gruesome violence occurred in Hyderabad in December of 1990. The atmosphere in the city was tense after two Hindus killed a Muslim man named Sardar. This event sparked clashes in various parts of town, resulting in 11 deaths due to communal violence and the formation of mafia gangs in the city, (Graff and Galonnier 2013). Two versions of these heinous events exist, where many are burned alive and stoned to death. An estimated 200 to 300 people were killed, and another 300 were injured in these riots, (Hyderbad Riots 1990).
Godhara riots, Gujarat Pogrom
February 27, 2002, February 28, 2002 The Godhra train burning was an incident that occurred on the morning of 27 February 2002, in which 59 Hindu pilgrims and karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, were killed in a fire inside the Sabarmati Express train near the Godhra railway station in the Indian state of Gujarat. The causes of the fire are frequently disputed. The event is widely perceived as the trigger for the Gujarat Pogrom that followed on February 28, 2002, the day after the Godhara train fire. Many brutal killings of Muslim men, women, and children, and rapes were reported, as well as widespread looting and destruction of Muslim property.
There were further outbreaks of violence in Ahmedabad for three months and statewide, there were further outbreaks of violence against the minority Muslim population of Gujarat for the next one year. According to official figures, the riots ended with 1,044 dead, 223 missing, and 2,500 injured. Of the dead, 790 were Muslim and 254 Hindu, The Concerned Citizens Tribunal Report, estimated that as many as 1,926 may have been killed. Other sources estimated death tolls in excess of 2,000, (Godhra Train Burning 2002).
Anti-Christian Pogrom December 24, 2007 to August 28, 2008
Tensions rose following violent incidents over Christmas in 2007, which resulted in the burning of over 100 churches, institutions, hostels, convents, and over 700 houses. In August 2008, after the murder of a Hindu monk, Hindutva organizations allegedly incited widespread violence against Christians in the Kandhamal district of Orissa (“The Indian government,” 2007). According to the reports, violence resulted in at least 39 Christian deaths, 3,906 destroyed Christian homes, and more than 395 burnt down churches.
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