Re-Imagining Political Contestation and Death (pp 116-120)
Political assembly and protest are also performances of citizenship status and claims. While enactment of violence by protesting publics with non-Muslim identity markers are considered routine and normalised, an assembly of protesting Muslims is potentially just another site of their fatal targeting. Another important example that effectively illustrates the preceding analysis is the case of the ‘Sealing Drive’ in Delhi in 2006.
The importance of this instance in the recent history of Delhi unveils complex dynamics of the political economy of built environments, the material logic of segregation, contestations, and negotiations of elite circuits with the unorganized sector in claiming their vision of the city, and biopolitics of the state.
The case exemplifies a tussle between big capital and elite networks represented by RWAs on the one hand, and traders and small manufacturers on the other. Elite RWAs insisted in getting this case filed at the High Court of Delhi that their sense of security, peace of mind, tranquillity, and aesthetic sensibilities were being off ended by business establishments within residential areas (Ghertner 2011; Bhuwania 2016). An appeal for preventing mixed land use was in line with the vision of the Delhi Master Plan, and on the agenda of previous Delhi state governments headed by the BJP and the Congress. The judge presiding over the case, Justice Sabharwal showing keen interest in the case passed a verdict which effectively read as a mass eviction notice to lakhs of establishments which were ‘illegal’ (Mehra 2012).
Allegations of misconduct on the part of Justice Sabharwal came to light later, illuminating the nexus between big capital and the judiciary (Roy 2007, Mid-day 2006). Justice Sabharwal’s son owned a real estate firm that gained substantially from an instance of demolitions as a result of the implementation of the court order by civic bodies.
The traders in Delhi have mainly been Punjabi Hindu–Sikh but many small traders and small manufacturers belong to various diverse social backgrounds too. Diya Mehra (2012) points out that the movement run by the traders’ association employed Partition rhetoric profusely. While on the other hand, they used the daily wage workers associated with their businesses to pitch up the protest against a judicial order which was anti-poor, anti-worker, and anti-unorganized sector.
During protracted protests, in which the traders associations were reluctant to go to the Supreme Court because it could have also given a judgement adversarial to their interest, the traders’ associations continuously negotiated with the state and Central Governments, the municipal corporation, as well as the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Violence and rioting was also used strategically as a final device of pressurizing the state and elite networks. There were many incidents of rioting and damage to public property such as state transport buses. Eventually the government informed the court of its inability to implement the order as it would give rise to a law and order situation.
Ovais Sultan Khan, a participant of this study gave me an account of the occurrences that led to the shooting. This foretold law and order problem took place when the police opened fire at a protesting crowd in Seelampur on September 20, 2006.
(OSK) I was in the twelfth standard then. Like many other boys in the neighbourhood, I went out to see what would transpire. The call for demonstration against sealing was given by Mr Masood Ali Khan, who has contested municipality elections twice, but lost… But soon there was a crowd over which neither Mr Masood nor anyone else had any control.
Most of them were labourers and even rickshaw pullers. There were no traders… nobody whose business actually faced any threat of sealing.
(GJ) So… What precipitated the situation?
(OSK) It is impossible to say with any certainty. But apparently someone threw a stone at the policemen… at the DCP’s car. The police commenced lathi charge and immediately started using tear-gas also on the crowd… After that there was confusion… total chaos… then the DCP ordered to open fire. Official figure is three but five people died. I was there… I saw it happen. Police did not even let the family members of the dead bring the bodies to Seelampur, citing further violence.
(GJ) Are you sure about that? Because I read in a news article that police requested but the families did not agree…
(OSK) Hundred per cent sure… They were buried in Bihari Colony graveyard near Shahdara under police bandobast. No one from Seelampur even went for the janaza (funeral).
(GJ) Then what happened?
(OSK) Nothing… I wrote a representation to the President of India and led a delegation to give him the memorandum. Abdul Kalam was the President then… He heard me silently and did not say anything… nothing at all… We did not even get any reassurance from his office. We came back empty handed. Nothing happened. At least in the Batla House encounter, there have been demands for judicial enquiry…
Delhi traders and the BJP used the Seelampur shootings to bolster their protest, but not once did they, or for that matter anyone else, demand a judicial enquiry into the incident. While the traders’ association and the government used the deaths to further their argument that the issue could escalate into large-scale violence, the traders were also quick to dissociate themselves from alleged ‘Mohammedan’ violence. Mehra (2012) marks the death of Muslim men as the final turning point in settling the deal with the state. The government passed a bill in Parliament conceding to the demands of overturning the High Court judgement, and the Delhi Master Plan 2021 came into force allowing mixed land use in certain areas of Delhi. According to her, the traders’ association leaders were relieved that ‘somebody had finally died’ (Mehra 2012: 87). She says,
In Seelampur, local retailers-cum-manufacturers reacted by stone pelting to what they saw as yet another attempt at their closure, having already experienced eviction in the case of small-scale industries. After relentless closure and sealing, it appeared that both the small Muslim manufacturer–trader and the large wholesale Baniya trader seemed to know, despite their vast sociological and physical distance, that what was required was a politics of irrational excess or urban violence. (2012: 87) (emphasis mine).
At the end even Mehra, who effectively established the frequent recourse that the traders’ movements took to Hindutva rhetoric succumbs to the stereotype of the irrational, violent Muslim and fails to recognize why the spectre of the final violent turning point in the culmination and success of the movement would be located in Seelampur. This is the only logical explanation to why when violence and rioting had happened elsewhere too in the city by protestors, firing and killings took place only in Seelampur. The logic from within the mainstream discourses makes it seem but natural that the irrational excess or urban violence would take place in a space that was already and conveniently stigmatized for the same. Even though the issue at hand, around which the crowd had been mobilized, had no connection with the ‘Muslimness’ of the protestors, eventually, imageries employed by the police to open fire were that of ‘Muslim’ violence.
In the neoliberal India, where citizenship is increasingly a function of the capacity of a people to collectively make claims, Muslims find that their capacity to claim equal normative standing as citizens of this country is severely limited by their effective normative status of non-citizen, homines sacri . Every act of criticism of the state can potentially attract the refurbishing of the ‘anti-national’ allegation, and consequent stigma. The only form of public voice that was still available to them collectively could be put to use only to claim that their sentiments and sensibilities as Muslims had been hurt by some act, or speech, or text, because this was the only claim that fitted their image of irrational, infantile, backward people. Thus, their critical speech and their right to protest also stood forfeited de facto.
Published with permission from OUP
 Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Bill 2006
About the book:
This work explores the processes of creation, expression and articulation of social identities of Muslims in Delhi, their spatial components of identification like residential segregation and ‘community cohesion’, the interaction of urban Muslims with urban public spaces and institutions; and the socio-political positionality of Muslims in the urban social fabric. It, presents an account of a marginalised people whose sense of belonging with each other is a complex feeling that is subject to the forces of regional, linguistic and class identities and not subject to their ubiquitous ‘Muslimness’. For them, being on the margins of the city is less about one’s undeviating and subservient status in the city and more a process of experiencing continuous progression of events and processes such as globalisation, liberalisation, communal violence, and stereotyping of the Muslim identity. These experiences, the author argues need to be continually reviewed and evaluated afresh to expand the opportunities and choices available to a marginalized population.
Ghazala Jamil is Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University