KHARGONE, India – Authorities sent bulldozers to the small town in central India within 24 hours of clashes between Hindus and Muslims that turned into a mob-driven frenzy.
The Hindus said stones had been thrown from the direction of the mosque, where Muslims broke the fast of Ramadan. The Muslims said that the Hindu procession had come to them with provocative chants.
Before an official inquiry or a court ruling, the state’s interior minister, Madhya Pradesh, appeared to blame the Muslims and ordered the destruction — the same swift, unilateral sentences imposed in two other states during recent clashes. “The houses from which the stones were pelted, we will turn those houses into piles of stone,” said Narottam Mishra, the interior minister.
The communal tensions in Khargone, New Delhi and Gujarat – and the destruction that followed – are part of a worrying new pattern, according to analysts, activists and former officials.
In the past, while often deadlier, such collisions were usually caused by a local problem and confined to one area. The 2002 riots in Gujarat, which killed more than 1,000, were caused by a train fire that killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims.
The recent violence, the most widespread inter-community tension in recent years, has taken place in several states, multiple clashes with the same characteristics and unilateral punishments. And they are rooted in the rhetoric of national-level right-wing groups 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 clashes will become more frequent, sending the nation into a cycle of violence and instability.
The nationwide provocations by right-wing activists, which quickly spread through social media, are inspiring local groups, who are increasingly turning religious occasions into political events that promote a Hindu view of India that relegates minorities to second-class citizens. When recent tensions turned into violence last month, authorities in those places rushed to hand out sentences that were disproportionately harsh on Muslims and in ways that circumvent the legal process.
Following clashes in New Delhi, the demolition, mainly of Muslim-run shops and newsstands, continued for nearly two hours after India’s chief justice ordered the stop. Bulldozers shot up tea stalls and tore down stairs, leaving a family stuck with no way out. They destroyed the walls of a mosque before stopping at a nearby Hindu temple.
Officials in the three states justified the screeching ground and said they were looking for illegal trespassing. But the timing, along with speeches from local politicians calling for its demolition, suggested a link to the clashes, activists and analysts say.
“I fear we are at the stage of perpetual violence,” said Asim Ali, a researcher who has studied the rise of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva.
“Social media and 24/7 news outlets allow Hindutva groups, who are now highly technologically savvy, to graft into the local context any hot-button common problem that unfolds across 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” that they said were “deep in the depths of the structures, institutions and processes of governance. †
“The administration of justice, instead of being a tool for preserving peace and harmony, has become the means by which the minorities can be kept in a state of perpetual fear,” they said.
Another group of retired officials responded with a letter in support of Mr Modi, who called the concerns “empty virtue signaling.”
“What do you mean by provoke?” said Vinod Bansal, a spokesman for Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing group behind some of the recent processions.
“These are false accusations by the perpetrators to save their skin and hide their sins,” he added. “Hindus are in fact victims in all such cases.”
Khargone, a city of about 200,000 in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where the worst communal violence took place on April 10, has a history of small-scale tensions. About three quarters of the population is Hindu; in many neighborhoods, Hindus and Muslims share the same streets.
Like other recent clashes, the violence in Khargone has centered on a Hindu god’s birthday celebrations, which coincided with Ramadan this year.
A procession ended peacefully. Authorities approved a second one on a designated route to avoid the mosque at its busiest hour when Muslims gather to break their fast during Ramadan. But that procession, with hundreds of participants, took place later, during rush hour.
Among the repeated chants was also one heard in other states: “If you want to live in this country, you must greet Lord Ram.”
Anil Gupta, an organizer, said the delay was unintentional, caused by the late arrival of participants. “We didn’t play provocative music or songs,” he said. “Taking the name of Lord Ram is not a crime.”
Violence erupted. Gangs raged through most of the night, destroying property belonging to both communities. A total of 73 people were injured, including the region’s highest-ranking police officer.
Police returned the body of a Muslim man to his family days later, with little 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 argued that police initially withheld the victim’s identity to justify the government’s crackdown on Muslims.
In the past, officials and religious leaders have taken measures to prevent flare-ups, such as assigning members to stand guard in sensitive areas. Such steps failed in Khargone.
Madan Lokur, a retired judge at India’s Supreme Court, said police typically tried to prevent violence by gathering information about potential problems. If you don’t, he said, “it will only encourage the aggressors.”
“I see these events as a disturbing pattern that will eventually lead to injustice and further deterioration of the atmosphere in some parts of the country and fueling fires and retaliation,” Mr Lokur said.
In recent years, concerns about the fairness of Indian law enforcement in dealing with the tensions in the communities have grown.
An Amnesty International report shows that after months of peaceful protests against a citizenship law seen as discriminatory against Muslims in 2020 and turned violent in 2020, police in New Delhi immediately following the riots “arrested Muslims on a large scale, although the minority community suffered from the violence’ and accused agents of ‘torturing people’.
“If you try to defend yourself, the police will come and get you with all their might,” said Mehmood Pracha, a lawyer who represented several Muslims accused of the 2020 riots.
The Delhi High Court has raised questions at a recent hearing about why police failed to stop a procession of a right-wing group that led to the clashes in April. Instead, the court said, “the police accompanied the said illegal procession.”
Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for the New Delhi Police, denied the allegations surrounding the 2020 riots and dismissed concerns over the April clashes.
“The rhetoric and narrative against the police has been created by interested groups seeking to defame the police,” she said.
In the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Khargone is located, political leaders have taken a hard line on issues embraced by Hindu nationalist campaigns. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the state’s chief minister, has supported the protection of cows and condemned interfaith relations.
“If someone looks the wrong way at a mother, sister and daughter, I will not only send you to jail, but I will destroy your life, your house, your shop – there will be nothing left,” he said in a statement. recent speech.
Officials have followed suit. Following a complaint last month by relatives of a Hindu woman alleging that a Muslim man had “kidnapped” her, a senior district official retweeted Mr Chouhan’s speech. The official then tweeted photos of bulldozers demolishing a store and the home of the man “accused of kidnapping a student.”
A local court later ordered protection for the couple, 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 compiled lists showing that about 125 of those arrested were Muslim. Of the dozens of homes and shops destroyed by bulldozers, the majority belonged to Muslims.
Anugraha P., the district magistrate in Khargone, denied that the authorities had wrongly attacked Muslims or that the police had done too little to prevent the clashes. “We need to guarantee neutrality and give the people a message that hate and fear should not be there,” she said.
Hasina Fakhroo, a 56-year-old widow and mother of six whose house was razed to the ground, said authorities have “expelled their anger” through collective punishment. She said no rocks were thrown from her home or the immediate area.
She provided documents to DailyExpertNews showing that she paid real estate taxes and that the construction of her home was partially funded by a plan the prime minister had championed. But Ms Fakhroo said she had received reports that the house was on illegally occupied land.
“I yelled, ‘Allow me to die here, let the bulldozer run over me, where do I go? I’m a widow’”, recalls Mrs. Fakhroo of the demolition.
The tensions are forcing some to leave the area.
“My in-laws are pushing me to get out of this place,” said Rakesh Kale, a Hindu resident who painted a “For Sale” sign on his wall.
“How can we live here?” he asked, “Violence happened in 2012, 2015, 2018 and now in 2022.”