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India’s dangerous new pattern of municipal tensions

KHARGONE, India – Authorities sent bulldozers to the small town in central India within 24 hours of clashes between Hindus and Muslims, which escalated into a mob-run riot.

The Hindus said that stones had been thrown from the direction of the mosque, where Muslims broke the fast during Ramadan. The Muslims said that the Hindu procession had moved towards them with provocative shouts.

Before any official inquiry or court decision, it appeared that the state interior minister, Madhya Pradesh, blamed the Muslims and ordered demolition – the same swift, unilateral punishments imposed in two other states during the recent clashes. “The houses from which the stones were thrown, we will turn these houses into stone piles,” said Narottam Mishra, the interior minister.

The municipal tensions in Khargone, New Delhi and Gujarat – and the demolition that followed in each – are part of a worrying new pattern, according to analysts, activists and former officials.

In the past, such clashes, although often fatal, were usually triggered by a local problem and would remain confined to a single area. The trigger for the Gujarat riots in 2002, which left more than 1,000 dead, was a train fire that killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims.

The most recent violence, the most widespread municipal tensions in recent years, unfolded across several states, several clashes with the same characteristics and unilateral punishments. And they are rooted in the rhetoric of right-wing groups at the national level targeting Muslims through provocation, a campaign encouraged by the silence of the country’s top leaders.

The concern, analysts, activists and former officials say, is that the clashes will become more frequent and push the nation into a cycle of violence and instability.

The nationwide provocations of right-wing activists, which are spreading rapidly through social media, inspire local groups that are increasingly turning religious events into political events that promote a Hindu vision of India, referring minorities to second-class citizens. As the latest tensions erupted into violence last month, authorities rushed to the places to hand out punishments that fell disproportionately towards Muslims and in ways that bypassed the legal process.

After clashes in New Delhi, the demolition continued, mainly of Muslim-run shops and kiosks, for almost two hours after India’s Supreme Court judge issued an order to stop. Bulldozers set up tea stalls and tore out stairs, leaving a family stranded with no way down. They destroyed the walls of a mosque before stopping at a nearby Hindu temple.

Officials in the three states justified the rage, saying they were going after illegal intervention. But the timing, along with speeches by local politicians calling for the demolition, suggested a link to the clashes, activists and analysts say.

“I fear we are in the stage of eternal violence,” said Asim Ali, a researcher who has studied the rise of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva.

“Social media and 24/7 news channels mean that Hindutva groups, who are now very technologically savvy, are grafting into the local context any hot-button municipal issue that is taking place anywhere in the country,” he said.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, more than a hundred retired senior officials called for an end to hatred and “vigilante violence”, which they said had “embedded deep in the depths of structures, institutions and government processes.”

“The administration of justice, instead of being an instrument for maintaining peace and harmony, has become the means by which minorities can be kept in a state of eternal fear,” they said.

Another group of retired officials received with one letter in support of Mr Modi, who calls the concerns “empty virtue signaling.”

“What do you mean by provocation?” said Vinod Bansal, a spokesman for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing group behind some of the recent processions.

“These are false allegations made by the perpetrators to save their skins and hide their sins,” he added. “Hindus are actually victims in all such cases.”

Khargone, a city of about 200,000 inhabitants in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the worst part of the municipal violence took place on April 10, has a history of small tensions. About three-quarters of the population are Hindus; in many neighborhoods, Hindus and Muslims share the same streets.

Like other recent clashes, the Khargone violence centered on the birthday celebration of a Hindu god who overlapped with Ramadan this year.

A procession ended peacefully. Authorities approved a second on a designated route to avoid the mosque at its busiest time when Muslims gather to break their fast in Ramadan. But the parade, which included hundreds of participants, took place later, at the peak time.

Among the repeated shouts was one that was also heard in other states: “If you are to live in this country, you have to pay tribute to Lord Ram.”

Anil Gupta, an organizer, said the delay was unintentional, caused by the late arrival of the participants. “We did not play any provocative music or songs,” he said. “Taking the name Lord Ram is not a crime.”

The violence broke out. The mob ravaged most of the night and destroyed property from both communities. A total of 73 people, including the region’s top police officer, were injured.

Police returned the body of a Muslim man to his family days later without a slight explanation as to how he died. After about a week, police said they had arrested several Hindu men in connection with his death.

An investigation by a group of opposition parties claimed that the police had initially withheld the victim’s identity to justify the government’s harsh response to Muslims.

In the past, officials and religious leaders introduced measures to prevent the flare-up, such as appointing members to guard sensitive areas. Such steps collapsed in Khargone.

Madan Lokur, a retired judge at India’s Supreme Court, said police typically tried to prevent violence by gathering intelligence on potential problems. Not doing so, he said, “will only encourage the aggressors.”

“I see these events as a disturbing pattern that will ultimately lead to injustice and further destroy the atmosphere that prevails in some parts of the country and ignite fire and retaliation,” Lokur said.

Concerns about whether India’s law enforcement is fair in dealing with municipal tensions have intensified in recent years.

An Amnesty International report showed that after months of peaceful protests against a citizenship law seen as discriminatory against Muslims became violent in 2020, New Delhi police arrested “Muslims en masse immediately after the riots, even though the minority community bore the bulk of the violence” and accused officers of “torturing people.”

“If you try to defend yourself, the police will come after you with all their might,” said Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer who represented several Muslims accused in the 2020 riots.

The Delhi High Court in a recent hearing raised questions as to why police had not stopped a procession from a right-wing group that had led to the clashes in April. Instead, the court said police “accompanied the said illegal procession.”

Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for New Delhi police, dismissed the allegations surrounding the 2020 riots and dismissed concerns about the April clashes.

“The rhetoric and narrative against the police is created by interested groups who want to slander the police,” she said.

In the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Khargone is, political leaders have taken a hard line on issues covered by Hindu nationalist campaigns. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Prime Minister of the State, has supported cow protection and condemned interfaith matters.

“If anyone sees the wrong path towards a mother, sister and daughter, I will not only send you to jail but will ruin your life, your house, your shop – nothing will be left,” he said in a recent speech.

Officials have followed in his footsteps. Following a complaint last month from relatives of a Hindu woman claiming that a Muslim man had “kidnapped” her, a senior district official retweeted Mr Chouhan’s speech. The official then tweeted pictures of bulldozers demolishing a store and a house of the man “accused of kidnapping a girl student.”

A local court later ordered the couple’s protection, describing them as “living together according to their own free will.”

In the days following the clashes in Khargone, nearly 150 people were arrested. Riyajuddin Sheikh, a local Muslim social worker, said community leaders had compiled lists showing that about 125 of those arrested were Muslims. Among the dozens of homes and shops destroyed by bulldozers, the majority belonged to Muslims.

Anugraha P., the district judge in Khargone, denied that the authorities had unfairly attacked Muslims or that the police had done too little to prevent the clashes. “We need to ensure neutrality and give a message to the people that hatred and fear should not be there,” she said.

Hasina Fakhroo, a 56-year-old widow and mother of six whose house was razed, said authorities “took their anger out” through collective punishment. She said no stones had been thrown from her home or the immediate area.

She provided documents to The New York Times showing that she was paying property taxes and that the construction of her home was partly funded by a plan that the prime minister had opposed. But Ms Fakhroo said she had received notifications that the house was on illegally occupied land.

“I shouted ‘Allow me to die here, drive the bulldozer over me, where am I going? I’m a widow,’ ‘Mrs Fakhroo recalled of the demolition.

The tensions are causing some to leave the area.

“My in-laws are pushing me to leave this place,” said Rakesh Kale, a Hindu who has painted a “For Sale” sign on his wall.

“How can we live here?” he asked “Violence took place in 2012, 2015, 2018 and now in 2022.”

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