religious violence in modern india

There is an alarming increase in the number of religious violence cases across the globe. 

Repressive actions and laws towards religious minorities and even within the ranks of the same religion have become more widespread over the last decade. Street protests scale up to riots, in the name of a “supreme” religion to protect, which horrifyingly result in stacked up bodies on the street and a bloodbath. 

In a study published by Pew Research Center in 2018, they reported that more than a quarter of the countries in the world has experienced hostile incidents “motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes.” We have seen it with the Islamic extremists waging global jihad, the longstanding conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East, the recent Rohingya persecution in Myanmar that caught international headlines, and the ongoing Hindu-Muslim violence. 

Bloody encounters have been recorded in over 50 countries but the most lethal incidents involving religious minorities were concentrated in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, India, and Myanmar. In light of these, countries have also imposed increased restrictions in religion like Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia, and Turkey.

This religious violence has begged the question of how religions who are supposedly champions of peace, love, and harmony are the very roots of intolerance and violent aggression. 

According to Matthew Rowley, a research associate at the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies in the UK, there is a multitude of contributing causes of religious violence; however, he notes that “violence in the name of God is a complex phenomenon and oversimplification further jeopardizes peace because it obscures many of the causal factors.” He also addressed secularism as a solution to the aggravating narrative of religious violence. He said that “secular narratives of religious violence tend to be erroneous or exaggerated due to oversimplification of religious people, their beliefs, thinking in false dichotomies, and ignoring complex secular causes of supposed “religious violence”

Professor of English and Religion at Northwestern University, Regina Schwartz, argues that there is inherent violence attached to monotheistic religions due to an exclusivism that fosters violence against those who are considered outsiders. Moreover, some scholars agree to this notion and added that this violent legacy is actually genocidal in nature. 

William Cavanaugh, an American Roman Catholic theologian, asserts that religious violence is not religious at all but only a perversion of core teachings used to justify one’s violent actions. Religion becomes a mask for the ulterior motives of these acts of violence. 

Definition of Religious Violence and the Statistics of Religious Violence in India 

Violence inspired by religious intolerance arises when the core beliefs which bind and define a group’s identity are fundamentally challenged and some research has referred to this sense of threat among insiders as “xenophobic social anxiety” which when combined with the political and cultural exclusion as well as socio-economic inequality escalates it into extreme physical violence. 

Religious violence in India centers in the ongoing and longstanding conflict between Hindus and Muslims. India is predominantly Hindu and secular in nature as opposed to Pakistan who has claimed themselves as an Islamic state and a democratic republic — two countries that belonged to one before the 1947 partition. Despite the secular and religiously tolerant constitution established in India as well as the active assistance of various organizations concerning human rights and religious minorities, religious violence in India remain rampant and has been a driving force in the country’s politics. 

From 2005 to 2009, an average of 130 people died every year from communal violence while the state of Maharashtra reported the highest total number of fatalities related to religious violence. In 2012, their death toll from various riots related to religious violence reached 97. With the election of Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, in 2014 into office, communal violence increased by 28 percent. His first term has also encouraged many religious hate crimes as much as 90% of the total religious hate crimes were recorded during this time. 

The 2018 Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom “charged Hindu nationalist groups for their campaign to “saffronize” India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus, Dalits (untouchable outcastes), and Adivasis (indigenous tribes and nomads).” Approximately a third of the state governments in India had strictly implemented an anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter (sacred animal in Hinduism) laws against non-Hindus. There were also reports of mob violence against Muslims and Dalit families engaged in the dairy, leather, or beef trades. In data gathered until May 2015, 50 individuals had already been killed and 250 have been injured in cow-related incidents. 

Timeline of Religious Violence in Modern India

Many scholars and experts on the subject have pointed to the Indian Independence Act of 1947 as the major trigger to the large-scale religious violence that resulted in riots and deaths. This Act marked the end of British colonial rule in India and the official dissolution of the British Raj (Crown Rule) in India. This also paved the way for the separation of India into two independent dominion states: the Dominion of India is today the Republic of India while the Dominion of Pakistan is now known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. This partition was considered as the most violent upheaval in the 20th century whose consequences were entirely unexpected. 

Partition of India through the Indian Independence Act of 1947 which led to now Pakistan and India; Photo grabbed from news.stanford.edu

By the end of the 19th century, there were several nationalistic movements that had started in India. The Indian National Congress called for Britain to quit India and in 1943, the Muslim League passed a resolution for them to Divide and Quit. 

During the British rule in India, there was a divide-and-rule policy which had been based on the 1924 Two Nation Theory which is defined as the “ideology that the primary identity and unifying denominator of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent is their religion, rather than their language or ethnicity, and therefore Indian Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations regardless of commonalities.” Additionally, the divide acted as a safe keeper from any potential threat from the Muslims who were the former rulers of the subcontinent for over 300 years under the Mughal Empire. 

The announcement of independence was made in the House of Commons on the 3rd of June 1947 and the partition to follow on the 14th of August of the same year. 

The partition displaced around 10 to 12 million people along all religious lines which created an overwhelming refugee crisis on both newly-established dominions. Since the partition came in after the announcement of Independence, the new governments of Pakistan and India had to keep public order. With having been just established governments, both states failed in the proper population movements and soon enough, there was a complete breakdown of law and order. It was estimated that almost half a million individuals died during the largest population movement in recorded history due to riots, massacre, or simply from the hardships of the journey. This has created a hostile atmosphere between the two dominions which still heavily affect their relationship up to the present. 

The 1960s through the 1980s were marked with riots fracturing relations between the major Hindu-Muslim community and religious minorities.  

1969 Gujarat Riot

This marks the communal violence between Hindus and Muslim which occurred from September until October of 1969 in Gujarat, India. It was the first and deadliest Hindu-Muslim violence since the 1947 partition of India and remained such until the 1989 Bhagalpur violence. It involved large scale massacre, arson, and looting. According to official reports, 660 people (unofficial count claimed two thousand deaths) were killed during the riot while 1,074 were injured and 48,000 lost their properties. The Muslim community suffered the bulk of the blow of these riots. Of the 660 death toll, 430 were Muslims and an estimated 32 million rupee value of property were either lost or damaged. 

Between 1961-1971, the Hindu-Muslim tension had resulted in 685 incidents of communal violence in Gujarat, and 578 of those happened in 1969. 

1984 Anti-Sikh Riots

The 1984 Anti-Sikh riot started as a military operation now known as Operation Blue Star aimed to remove Sikh militants with weapons inside the Golden Temple. This operation was considered the biggest internal security mission undertaken to crush the Khalistan movement, a political SIkh movement advocating for the creation of an independent state for Sikhs. 

The Indian Army used tanks to destroy the Akal Takht, one of the five seats of power of the Sikhs, to gain control of the Harmandir Sahib Complex where it is located. During the operation, it claimed the lives of 83 Indian Army and 49 civilians. Furthermore, Punjab also experienced a blackout during this time and the assault heightened tensions at all Sikh communities all over the world. 

This has resulted to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India who ordered the operation. She was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. Anti-Sikh rioting continued in New Delhi which claimed at least 3,000 lives. Sikh men were beaten and tortured, women and children were raped, and around 50,000 were displaced while tens and thousands of homes and businesses were burned to the ground. 

1989 Bhagalpur Riot

The Bhagalpur Riots in 1989 was the worst Hindu-Muslim violence, topping off the 1969 Gujarat Riots, with at least 1,000 deaths and 50,000 displaced during the course of the two-month-long series of riots. The riots started on October 24, 1989 and the violence affected the whole Bhagalpur city of Bihar, India as well as neighboring villages. 

There had already been a history of communal violence in the area but the tensions escalated during the Muharram and Bishari Puja festivities in August. Prior to the outbreak of riots, there had been provoked brick batting and arson on October 22, 1989 while passing through Fatehpur village in procession as part of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. There were also rumors of Muslims killing Hindu students which also added fuel to the otherwise already burning tension in the city. 

December 6, 1992 Issue featuring the Destruction of Babri Masjid; Photo grabbed from wionews.com

In an article published by Aljazeera on December 6, 2019, it recounted the story of Indian photojournalist Praveen Jain (through journalist Vaibhav Vats) who was witness to the planned destruction of Babri Masjid as a 27th-anniversary tribute to the memory of the once mosque. 

According to Hindu tradition, the city of Ayodhya, India is the birthplace of Rama, the seventh avatar of Hindu god Vishnu, known for his adventures notably the slaying of the demon king Ravana. He is also one of the most widely worshipped Hindu deities. On December 5, 1992, Praveen Jain was invited to the rehearsal of the supposed unveiling of the temple of Lord Ram on the site where Babri Masjid stood. No other media were allowed during that time and this was when he photographed the sole evidence that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a conspiracy and not a product of spontaneous rage. 

The demolition was illegally carried out by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and allied organizations. In the 1980s, the VHP campaigned for the construction of a temple for Lord Rama at the site of the Babri Masjid built by 16th century Muslim Mughal general, Mir Baqi, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its political voice. This site had been a subject of a lengthy socio-political dispute. 

The events that happened on that day had led to riots which resulted in the death of over 2,000 Muslim Indians. 

The next major phase was the election of Narendra Modi into government in 2014. During his time as Prime Minister, communal violence increased by 28% and the unemployment rate in India was at an all-time high of 45% despite being one of the fastest-growing economies with more than 270 million having risen out of poverty in the last decade. 

Modi is a member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist government organization with BJP as its political wing and Bajrang Dal as its foot soldiers. RSS was intended to propagate the Hindutva ideology described as a variant of “right-wing extremism”. According to Marxist economist Prahbat Patnaik, this movement is “almost fascist in the classical sense”. He noted that Hindutva adheres to a disputed concept of homogenized majority and cultural homogeneity. This movement was mainstreamed into Indian politics with the election of Modi as Prime Minister. 

His landslide reelection last May 30, 2019, had brought in more cases of religious violence and one worse than the other. 

The first victim of hate crime upon Narendra Modi swearing oath on his second term of office was 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari whose video of being tied up, bleeding, hands folded, and lynched by a Hindu mob on June 22, 2019, had quickly become viral in social media. He was beaten for hours and forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Hanuman.’ (Glory to Lord Ram and Lord Hanuman.) His family was threatened by police with a similar fate when they begged to get him treated while he was in custody. Ansari just got married months before and now his wife is asking for justice. 

The case of Ansari was not an isolated one but depicted the spittingly brutal image on the streets of India with the continuing tension between the Hindu-Muslim communities. 

One of the most controversial actions that year by the Modi government was the Citizenship Amendment Act. It was an amendment of the 1955 Citizenship Act which provides eligibility for Indian citizenship to illegal migrants of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities who had fled persecution from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan before December 2014. Although the amendment was good news and an act that honored the promises of the BJP, it was heavily criticized for its discrimination against Muslims. 

Earlier this year, in March 2020, the brutal image of riots on the street in Delhi due to the aggravating tension between Hindu and Muslim had been seen in the story of Mohammad Zubair who had been beaten by a mob of 30 Hindu strangers while shouting “maro shaale mulleko” [Kill the bastard Muslim] and “jal sri ram” [Hindu nationalist slogan]. 

Mosques were also set alight, Muslims were burned alive inside their homes while some were dragged out into the streets and were beaten and tortured before disposing of the bodies at the gutters. The police enabled the Hindu mob as they did this horrendous scene of murders and even encouraged and participated in it. 

The mob of 10,000 Hindus that flooded the streets of New Delhi resulted in thousands of injured and 43 killed individuals. 

But the narrative of religious violence in India did not stop at the Hindu-Muslim conflict. In the span of January to June 2020, there were 293 hate crimes against Christians according to the watchdog, Persecution Relief. That is, despite the pandemic that locked down many cities in India. 

In light of the ongoing religious violence in India, Shibu Thomas, founder of Persecution Relief, said,“The frightening and contagious crusade of religious nationalism and intolerance has now peaked at inhuman altitude.” 

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