‘Hatred, bigotry and untruth’: communal violence grips India

The procession had begun peacefully. Marching through the streets of Delhi’s Jahangirpuri district on Saturday, the devotees had gathered to celebrate the Hindu festival of Hanuman Jayanti. But the peace did not last long. As the evening drew in, an unauthorised parade began to gather. This time, men clad in saffron, the signature colour of Hindu nationalism, filled the streets brandishing swords and pistols, and started to shout provocative communal slogans.

Previous agreements between Hindu and Muslim residents for the procession to avoid passing by a local mosque, which was holding evening prayers, were ignored.

“A Hindu mob smashed beer bottles inside the mosque, put up saffron flags there and chanted Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram],” said Tabreez Khan, 39, a witness. “A caretaker of the mosque started resisting them, leading to a brawl. It was only after they started to desecrate the mosque that Muslims got angry and clashes started and stones were thrown.”

Muslim and Hindu witnesses blamed each other for the violence. Rinku Sharma, a Hindu taking part in the procession, said the clashes began “when we entered the mosque area”.

“Most of the people living in this area are Muslims,” said Mohamad Fazal, 35. “This was not a religious rally but an attack on us [Muslims].”

Six police officers were injured in the violence, and more than 20 people arrested, the majority of whom were Muslim. But among those questioned by police was the leader of the local branch of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a notorious rightwing group who had co-organised the evening procession. “There was no instigation, it seemed the attack was planned to create communal tensions,” added Khan.

Delhi Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana denied that a saffron flag had been placed in the mosque and said people from “both communities” were being investigated. “Action will be taken against any person found guilty irrespective of their class, creed, community and religion,” he said.

Saffron flags lie outside a mosque a day after communal clashes in Jahangirpuri, Delhi. Photograph: Rishi Lekhi/AP

The events in Jahangirpuri were far from isolated. Over the weekend, almost 140 people were arrested in connection with incidents of communal violence and rioting between Hindus and Muslims in the states of Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka during celebrations of Hanuman Jayanti.

It had been a similar story in previous weeks. Celebrations of the Hindu festival of Ram Navami in seven states as far flung as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand and West Bengal were marred bay communal violence, mostly against Muslims, who are observing Ramadan. The clashes left one person dead, resulted in dozens of Muslim-owned homes and shops being set alight or demolished, provocative slogans being shouted outside numerous mosques and attempts to install saffron flags inside Muslim places of worship.

The surge in communal violence has sparked concern among many in India who fear the country is becoming more polarised than ever along Hindu-Muslim lines. For many, the blame has been directed at the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi. The BJP is accused of overseeing a religiously divisive agenda and emboldening hostility towards India’s 200m Muslims, relegating them to second-class citizens. Meanwhile, Hindu vigilante groups such as VHP have been allowed to operate freely and have increasingly begun to take the law into their own hands.

A supporter wears a Narendra Modi mask during a roadshow in support of state elections in Allahabad, India. Photograph: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

In the southern state of Telangana, a BJP legislator, T Raja Singh, was among those booked for provocative slogans during a procession.

“There is a strong case to be made that we are passing through the most difficult phase for Muslims in independent India,” said Asim Ali, a political researcher at the Centre for Policy Research thinktank, writing in the Telegraph, an Indian newspaper. “Being in the crosshairs of the dominant party of the country is a bad place to be for a community, and the Hindu nationalist stance towards Muslims seems to be becoming more hostile with time.”

The wave of violence in recent weeks, added Ali, was evidence that “this anti-Muslim mobilisation … has also acquired a momentum of its own”.

In Muzaffarpur, a district of Bihar, Muslims alleged that a saffron flag was hoisted on to the entrance of a mosque during one of the processions. Video footage showed the crowd cheering and brandishing swords and hockey sticks while the flag was raised.

But it was in Khargone, a district of Madhya Pradesh, that some of the worst clashes took place. The violence began when a Ram Navami parade of about 5,000 devotees passed by a mosque. It was alleged that a confrontation broke out between Hindus and Muslims after inflammatory Hindu nationalist slogans and threats began to be shouted by Hindu hardliners and stones thrown in retaliation. Local Muslims say their homes were vandalised and around 10 were set on fire.

“I was in my home with my family preparing to break Ramadan fast when a large mob started attacking our house,” said Farooq Khan, 23. “They were shouting [kill the Muslims].”

Khan said he had to beg the sword-wielding mob, which entered his house and started looting, to let him and his family flee. About 24 people, including a police officer, were injured in the violence.

Muslims in Khargone accused police of refusing to file cases against Hindus involved in the violence and arresting mainly Muslims instead. There was also outcry after the local administration bulldozed at least 16 houses and 29 shops belonging to Muslims accused of throwing stones at the procession.

Nawab Khan, a Muslim whose house was set alight, said he had been beaten by police when he had tried to file a report at the station, showing the wounds on his back he said were caused by officers. “Our properties have been burned, we have been attacked and we are the ones who are being accused of it and punished,” he said.

Supt Shalendra Singh denied Muslims had mainly been targeted and said the police were taking proper action against all communities involved.

Indian security personnel detain Jawaharlal Nehru University students as they protest against hijab (headscarf) restriction in February. Photograph: Raja T Gupta/EPA

Clashes also broke out at the beginning of April in Karauli, Rajasthan, when a Hindu procession was passing through a Muslim area and about 70 shops, mostly belonging to Muslims were set alight. The violence this month even reached one of India’s top universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, after rightwing Hindu activists objected to the cooking of non-vegetarian food at a student hostel.

Over the weekend, the leaders of 13 opposition parties condemned Modi for staying silent over the surge in communal violence. “We are shocked at the silence of the prime minister, who has failed to speak against the words and actions of those who propagate bigotry and those who, by their words and actions, incite and provoke our society,” they said in a statement.

Modi’s minority affairs minister, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, blamed the events of the past few weeks on “fringe elements, who … try to defame India’s inclusive culture and commitment”.

People protest in Delhi against hate speech after a religious assembly of Hindu holy figures in Uttarakhand. Photograph: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Activists and academics have pointed to increasingly violent rhetoric against Muslims seeping into India’s mainstream, stirring up communal tensions to dangerous levels. In December 2021, a religious assembly of Hindu holy figures was held in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, during which the speakers called for a genocide against Muslims. Last week, police arrested Bajrang Muni Das, a Hindu priest accused of threatening mass rape against Muslim women during a speech two weeks ago in presence of officers.

The attacks also come after the passing of state legislation accused of being discriminatory towards Muslims, including a hijab ban in schools in BJP-ruled Karnataka.

Writing in the Indian Express over the weekend, the leader of the opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, said: “an apocalypse of hatred, bigotry, intolerance and untruth is engulfing our country today … We as a people cannot stand by and watch as peace and pluralism are sacrificed at the altar of bogus nationalism.”