On May 12, 2023, two days after all exit polls gave the Congress a clear majority in Karnataka, a Cabinet meeting in Uttar Pradesh presided over by Yogi Adityanath passed a proposal to table before the UP Vidhan Sabha the findings of the single-judge enquiry report into the 1980 Moradabad riots.

Briefing the media, Cabinet minister Suresh Khanna said “The report is confidential and it cannot be shared as of now. However, the government will put forward its findings in the Assembly and the truth behind the violence will come out”.

Experts consider this move to bring the notorious Moradabad Riots in the public realm after 40 long years as an attempt to corner the Congress ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. At that time the grand old party was in power both at the Centre and the state. It is expected to further advance the divisive narrative targeting the Congress and making the Muslim community more vulnerable.

The Moradabad Riots, one of the worst in UP, occurred months after Indira Gandhi swept back to power in New Delhi in January 1980. Vishwanath Pratap Singh assumed office as Chief Minister in the state after Congress won 309 of the then 425 seats of UP Assembly.

The riots had started on Eid day of August 13, 1980, inside the Eidgah of Moradabad. It soon snowballed into a direct confrontation between the Muslims and the police and Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC).

The then Chief Minister V. P. Singh had ordered an enquiry by the sitting Allahabad High Court judge Mathura Prasad Saxena. Saxena submitted his report to Singh’s successor Sripati Mishra on November 20, 1983. However, like so many other enquiry reports, the contents of the investigation and recommendations have not been made public.

What provoked the 1980 Moradabad riots was a pig which reportedly strayed into the local Eidgah during the Eid-ul-Fitr prayers. Approximately 50,000 people are believed to be praying inside and outside the Eidgah. When some Muslims asked an on-duty policeman to chase the pig away, he reportedly refused, leading to a heated argument.

Instead of assessing the gravity of the situation the police resorted to lathi-charge which was retaliated by stone pelting in which the SSP and other policemen suffered injuries. The ADM D. P. Singh present on the spot to prevent any untoward incident was also injured and later succumbed to his injuries.

The police responded with indiscriminate firing on an unarmed crowd who had come to offer prayers. Soon the crisp white kurtas of the namazis were drenched in their own blood. Approximately 100 deaths occurred on that day and many went missing. Angry Muslims marched towards the Galshaheed police station and set it ablaze.

Eyewitnesses recall it to be a direct confrontation between the Muslims and the police which was soon given a religious colour as part of a political agenda. The violent incidents quickly spread to rural Moradabad and neighbouring Sambhal, Aligarh, Bareilly and even up to Allahabad. Violence finally subsided only in the early months of 1981.

The total death tally is uncertain. Speaking in the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha the then state Home minister Swarup Kumari Bakshi had admitted 289 deaths and missing. However, compensation was paid for 400 deaths, while the unofficial estimates of loss of life runs as high as 2500.

The riots had greatly affected the city's renowned brassware industry which saw a sharp decline in the production and its export. With rioting continuing for months the brass industry which formed the backbone of the city’s economy was adversely affected as foreign orders could not be fulfilled and were therefore diverted to other countries.

The industry could never regain its old stature as there was no special economic package announced for artisans, mostly Muslims who had been rendered jobless.

In his book ‘Riot after Riot’, M. J. Akbar, then a young journalist, wrote that the incident "was not a Hindu-Muslim riot but a calculated cold-blooded massacre of Muslims by a rabidly communal police force which tried to cover up its genocide by making it out to be a Hindu-Muslim riot.”

Commenting on decision to table the Justice Saxena Report retired IPS officer Vibhuti Narayan Rai said that he would welcome the tabling of the Moradabad riot report if the UP government was fair enough and decided to also table the Justice G. L. Srivastava report ordered into the killing of 72 Muslims in Maliana , Meerut on May 23, 1987. The CM Vir Bahadur Singh had ordered the enquiry and the report had been submitted on July 31, 1989, but has not been made public till now.

Rai, known for his staunch secular credentials has written several books analysing communal violence in Uttar Pradesh including ‘Hashimpura, Curfew in the City’, ‘Combating Communal Conflicts’, ‘Sampradayik Dange Aur Bhartiya Police’, among others.

Rai was then posted as SSP Allahabad where the blaze of the Moradabad riots had eventually reached. Based on his experience as a junior officer during 1980 riots Rai wrote the novel ‘Shaher Mein Curfew’.

He said that the then CM V. P. Singh often met officers for their feedback. During one such meeting he suggested increasing the representation of the minorities, especially Muslims in the PAC, which according to Rai was barely one percent. As affirmative action CM V. P. Singh announced the creation of five battalions of a special unit called the Vishesh Sewa Dal for the protection of minorities.

Ironically, seven years later in 1987 it was the 41st PAC battalion, consisting of these same five battalions of the Vishesh Sewa Dal, ostensibly constituted to protect minorities that was responsible for the Hashimpura massacre!

Citing this systemic failure Rai wants the enquiry report of both these riots of Moradabad and Maliana to be tabled together.

However, experts also point out that since the Moradabad riots there have been several BJP governments in UP. The first was of Kalyan Singh in 1991-92 and then again in 1997-1999, the Ram Prakash Gupta government of 1999-2000 and the Rajnath Singh government of 2000-2002.

Hence, CM Adityanath may not completely succeed in absolving the saffron party’s role of brushing the Moradabad riots report under the carpet.