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India's religious violence: What's behind raging clashes?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
August 10, 2023

Hindu marches followed by clashes with Muslims have become a growing concern for nominally secular India. Analysts say Hindu nationalists, including the ruling BJP, are partially to blame.

A worker removes broken glass from a window of a restaurant which was partially vandalized
Recent violence in a majority Muslim town left a path of devastationImage: Altaf Qadri/AP/picture alliance

The northern state of Haryana — bordering on the Indian capital, New Delhi — has become the latest hot spot for religious violence in  Indiaafter a hard-line Hindu group marched through the Muslim-dominated Nuh district in late July.

Clashes in the state, which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), resulted in the death of six people and left more than 50 injured.

Government responds to religious violence

The violence then spread to the city of Gurugram, where a mob set fire to a mosque and killed one of its leading imams. The rioters also torched shops and vehicles in a mostly Muslim working-class part of the city.

The authorities responded as they have done in other BJP-ruled states by pulling down shops and makeshift structures owned by Muslims which they claimed had been built illegally.

The authorities demolished 94 houses and 212 other structures, taking the total number of buildings razed by the authorities to more than 750 over the past four days. The operation was only suspended this week, when the state's high court ordered a pause.

A bulldozer is retreated after officials stopped a demolition drive in New Delhi in 2022
Last year, a similar demolition drive in New Delhi was brought to an end by a court orderImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

The state government has been accused of targeting Muslims with its response, even though they were also targets of the violence.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a lawmaker and chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen political party, slammed the BJP government, saying they had let the perpetrators go free.

"It is unilateral action. Those who commit violence are walking freely. Hundreds of poor Muslims have become homeless as targeted demolitions have predominantly affected them," Owaisi told DW.

This type of government response "happens especially after religious violence or protests," he added.

BJP puts blame elsewhere

Many Muslims said they had not been warned of the demolitions, while others claimed they were not even in their houses at the time of the riots.

The BJP, for its part, said there was a larger conspiracy behind the clashes between the two communities and that they were investigating what had happened.

"If both the communities had arms with them, then it is a matter of inquiry as to how they got those arms and why they created such an atmosphere. The Haryana government will conduct an inquiry," Rao Inderjit Singh, a BJP minister, told the press.

Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director for the Asia region with Human Rights Watch, said incidents like those in Haryana and other parts of the country are the unfortunate and the obvious outcome of the BJP government's Hindu-nationalist politics.

"It is extremely distressing that Indian authorities are blatantly biased in their response to communal violence, failing to prosecute those inciting violence against minorities but summarily and collective punishing minority communities if they are provoked to protest," Ganguly told DW.

India's 'vegetarian nationalism' targets Muslims

India backsliding on secular values: critics

Over the past year, Hindu religious processions have frequently descended into violence and chaos across India. Many are now concerned with the rising polarization.

Dozens of Muslim properties have been demolished in "anti-encroachment" drives as BJP governments in New Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat deployed bulldozers.

While officials have said the demolitions only targeted illegal buildings, rights groups and critics say they are an attempt to harass and marginalize Muslims, pointing to a wave of rising religious tensions under Modi's rule.

Opponents have said that under his right-wing government, which has been in office since 2014, India has been backsliding on its secular values.

"The violence in Nuh is a result of the politics of polarization. This is a strategy of the BJP. They want it to spread to Rajasthan," said Jairam Ramesh, the Congress party's communications chief.

Assembly elections to the big states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are due later this year, ahead of the general election next year when Modi is expected to seek a third term as prime minister.

Hindu devotees hold the idol of Lord Ram while take part during Ram Navami rally
Violence broke out in the eastern city of Howrah following a Hindu Ram Navami religious rallyImage: Biswarup Ganguly/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

A similar outbreak of communal violence was witnessed earlier this year in the states of Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar.

Most have been limited to throwing stones, arson and damage to shops and establishments, but the frequency of these small clashes has begun to cause concern.

Hindu nationalists to blame for violence: report

Earlier this year, a detailed report by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative detailed a recurring pattern by hard-line Hindu organizations aimed at provoking and terrorizing Muslims to create a polarization during Hindu festivals.

Titled "Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions," the 174-page report said such Hindu processions themselves were the primary catalyst for the violence, in a multitude of ways.

"The processions used offensive slogans and music that openly called for violence against non-Hindus and particularly the Muslim community," it said.

"What are being attempted to be passed off as 'simply religious slogans' have in fact direct political messaging; they are calls that have accompanied mob lynchings and pogroms."

BJP's Hindutva ideology promotes Hindu nationalist agenda

Muslims have felt under threat ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, but hostility toward the community has now grown even more overt.

India's Manipur conflict fuels demands for separate state

Hindus make up the overwhelming majority of India's 1.4 billion people, and there have been growing calls in recent years from religious right-wing groups to declare India a Hindu nation and enshrine Hindu supremacy in law.

The demands, coupled with the BJP's pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda, have alienated religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Critics have warned of a marked increase in hate speech and violence targeting the nation's 210 million Muslims in recent years.

The defining credo of the BJP since 1989 has been "Hindutva," a political ideology that promotes the "values" of the Hindu religion as being the cornerstone of Indian society and culture.

"State power is now an accessory to Hindutva as its ideology expresses its expansionist intent. And in that lies great danger for the constitutional order," Sukumar Muralidharan, a researcher and independent writer told DW.

Edited by: Alex Berry

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11