There are striking similarities between the killing of Sikhs in 1984 and of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. To name a few:

1. The ruling governments at the time – Congress in Delhi and Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat – had declared both massacres to be “spontaneous” reactions of Hindus to the preceding triggers.

2. In closed-door meetings held immediately after the triggering events, both parties elected to give a free reign to attackers for three days to systematically target minority households, Sikhs in the case of the Congress and Muslims in the case of the BJP.

3. The police in both events acted as “tamashbeens” or spectators watching the carnage, to quote author Khushwant Singh.

4. Crucially, in both events, a common refrain justifying the mass killing was that “perpetrators were taught a lesson”. In one of the earliest investigations of the 1984 attacks on Sikhs, a Hindu officer working for the United Nations in Geneva told the investigators that the orgy of violence was allowed “so that people could let off steam and the (militant) Sikhs in Punjab would be taught a lesson”.

In Gujarat, during an election campaign speech in Mehsana district in September 2002, Narendra Modi, who was chief minister at the time, ensured that his audience viewed the massacre of Muslims as something that that had due coming to them: “those who keep on multiplying the population should be taught a lesson”.

Similarly, a senior policeman I met in Ahmedabad after the 2002 violence calmly told me why they did nothing to stop the violence against Muslims: “A lesson had to be taught … we Hindus are tolerant people and, unlike them [Muslims], believe in the concept of paap and punya [sin and virtue]”.

The “lesson taught” assertion, which Home Minister Amit Shah reminded us of again with his November 25 speech, is textbook parlance of collective violence – a clever mind game that seeks to morally justify mass killings of civilians by the state. Besides Gujarat and Delhi, a state’s casual waiver of its accountability was used, for example, to justify killing 3,000 Tamilians by the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka in 1983 and half a million Tutsis in Rwanda – that they simply needed to be “taught a lesson”.

So even if the killings are wrong from a legal standpoint, portraying them as morally righteous would quell any dissonance in the minds of the public with the mass murders of their own fellow citizens.

Once something is believed as morally right – even if legally wrong – it becomes easy for the state to shirk any accountability towards redress. After all, as the Indian governments have argued time and again, these are “spontaneous” mobs merely giving in to their pent-up anger.

A violent mob on the streets of North East Delhi during the riots in February 2020. Credit: Reuters.

No wonder that in India and places where citizens’ murders are merely seen as righteous killing, the conviction rate of actual perpetrators is abysmal. In blaming an entire community for the acts of a few, the actual categories of aggressor and victim are reversed: those upon whom violence is unleashed are labelled as the perpetrators.

In her analysis of the Sikh violence in 1984, anthropologist Veena Das observes how an all-encompassing “Sikh character” was attributed to the entire community – that a Sikh does not believe in loyalty; is like a snake that will bite the hand that feeds him; is naturally aggressive and attracted to violence, etc.

Such a totalised “character” of the entire community stripped away the variation in individual opinion: just as many Sikhs believed in the actions of the militants many others totally condemned it, yet the entire community was portrayed as aggressive and dangerous. One may simply replace the “Sikh character” with “Muslim character” today. Or with “Tutsi character” or “Tamilian character” as the case may be.

In blaming an entire community for the acts of a few, logic is inverted. As violence becomes morally righteous, the murder of civilians begins to be seen as a form of resistance of a “defenceless” majority against an “aggressive” minority. In the period preceding the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rwandan state had consistently broadcast messages urging the majority Hutus to prepare defence against the inyenzi” (cockroaches), a reference to the minority Tutsis.

As I argue elsewhere, racialised dehumanisation has historically often been a precursor to morally righteous war and genocide of minority groups, for example, the Nazi dehumanisation of the Jews terming them “vermin”, and the recent comparison of Muslims in India with termites.

Shirking legal accountability by giving mass killings a moral spin is antithetical to a civilised society. If today Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj reprimands the United Nations Security Council for their scepticism of India’s democratic values, it is difficult to take her claim seriously.

Raheel Dhattiwala is a sociologist, formerly a research fellow and tutor at Oxford University. She is the author of Keeping the Peace: Spatial Differences in Hindu-Muslim Violence in Gujarat in 2002, Cambridge University Press, 2019.