The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Religious clashes across India spark fears of further violence

The country has been shaken by escalating confrontations between Hindus and Muslims

A security officer speaks with locals after clashes broke out during a Hindu religious procession in New Delhi on April 17. (Rajat Gupta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

NEW DELHI — For hours on Saturday, revelers celebrating the Hindu god Hanuman had wound their way through the dense slums of Jahangirpuri in north Delhi without incident. But around sundown, the trouble began.

A group of young men, clad in the saffron scarves of Hindu nationalist groups and waving swords and pistols in the air, massed in front of a mosque that was holding evening prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The men shouted abusive slogans, blared music from loudspeakers and refused to leave.

As the night wore on, locals — possibly angry Muslims in the mixed-faith neighborhood, according to witnesses and police — began hurling rocks. That set off a massive street fight that was subdued only when riot police flooded the neighborhood.

Hindus and Muslims clashed April 16 in a massive street fight that was only subdued when riot police flooded the New Delhi neighborhood. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Hanuman procession takes place every year in the district, “so why did they stop in front of the mosque this year and force us to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’?” wondered Sheikh Babloo, a Muslim shopkeeper and neighborhood leader, referring to a chant of “Glory to Lord Ram” raised by Hindu nationalists that day. “They’ve gone further and further to provoke us,” he said.

The incident was just the latest in a string of clashes between Hindus and Muslims that have shaken India in recent weeks. They have happened on different days, in different parts of the country, but there is a pattern to them: Groups of young Hindu nationalists join peaceful celebrations during religious holidays, then lead rowdy processions into Muslim neighborhoods, sparking violent confrontations.

While the country, which has a nearly 80 percent Hindu majority and 14 percent Muslim minority, has experienced far bloodier spasms of religious violence in its history, the scope and intensity of the clashes this month have alarmed observers.

“Riots are not a new phenomenon,” said Saba Naqvi, the author of “Shades of Saffron,” a contemporary history of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “But I’ve never seen so many of these incidents at once. It feels like people are ready to kill each other.”

On April 10, a day of celebration marking the Hindu god Ram’s birthday, large-scale clashes between Hindus and Muslims were reported in six states: Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Goa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. In several cases, videos posted on social media showed scenes similar to those that played out in Delhi: crowds of men, many waving weapons, whipped into a fervor by chants hailing Lord Ram. While news of the Delhi melee dominated national headlines Saturday, rioters that night also set fire to vehicles in a separate incident in Uttarakhand. Hundreds have been injured nationwide this month, while a handful of deaths were reported in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district.

Adding to the sense of foreboding, observers say, are a rash of incendiary speeches over the past year by right-wing leaders, including a priest’s appeal to fellow Hindus in December to pick up weapons and “conduct a cleanliness drive” that would kill off Muslims. The cleric, Yati Narsinghanand, was accused of hate speech and arrested. While out on bail, he made another appearance this month in north Delhi, near Jahangirpuri, where he warned the audience that nearly half of India’s Hindus would be killed if the country elected a Muslim prime minister.

Naqvi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP, which has links to the Hindu nationalist groups involved in the clashes, have not tried to defuse tensions, giving mobs a sense of impunity. “In India, if there is administrative will, communal riots stop,” said Naqvi, who noted that other political parties, including the Indian National Congress, have abetted religious violence in the past.

This week, 13 opposition parties signed a statement urging Modi to make a national appeal for calm. The Indian leader stayed silent, but the BJP’s president, J.P. Nadda, responded with an open letter to the people of India arguing that similar violence broke out repeatedly under past administrations.

Other BJP leaders have taken a harder line, with many arguing that Muslims have been the ones attacking Hindu religious processions and must be brought to heel. In Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, which saw some of the worst rioting this month, officials bulldozed the homes of Muslims accused of throwing rocks. “The homes from where stones came will be reduced to stones themselves,” the Madhya Pradesh home minister, Narottam Mishra, said in a video posted on YouTube last week.

As of Tuesday, Delhi police said they had arrested a total of 25 people involved in Saturday’s clashes. Seventeen were identified as Muslims and six were Hindus, including members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing organization affiliated with the BJP that led the procession toward the mosque.

Vinod Bansal, the VHP’s spokesman, vowed to sue local police officials for arresting his group’s members and said they would not be deterred. The VHP and its offshoots will continue holding rallies in the coming months and have the right to march into Muslim neighborhoods if they wish, he said, adding that the swords and guns members brandished that day were purely ceremonial.

“We believe the country is one and everybody is free to go to any area. You cannot stop us by saying this is a Muslim-majority or sensitive area,” he said. “I can show many instances of Muslims flouting rules and creating a ruckus on [Islamic holidays] and Hindus never pelt stones, but when we take out a procession, these jihadis from mosques and madrassas get violent.”

Bansal gave voice to a sentiment that resonates powerfully among many on India’s Hindu right who say they say are the victims of a Muslim conspiracy. Days after the melee broke out in north Delhi, with trash and riot police still blanketing the streets, Hindu residents insisted they were under siege.

Ashok Kumar, a mattress dealer who watched some of the street fighting unfold Saturday evening from his upstairs window, claimed his neighborhood was being ruined by an influx of migrants from the Indian state of West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh, a common anti-Muslim talking point on the far right.

“Their agenda is to stoke trouble,” Kumar said of the clashes across India. “It’s all connected. The idea is to attack Hindus and not let Hindus live in peace.”

In a tight alley a block away, in his shop that he runs on the premises of an old Hindu temple dedicated to the poet Valmiki, Babloo, the Muslim vendor, also spoke of change. He moved from West Bengal and enjoyed 40 years of peace in Delhi. His Hindu neighbors’ sons called him “father,” he said, pointing to a young Hindu beside him who nodded in agreement, and he distributed sweets on Diwali.

Today, his neighborhood is filled with hatred and mistrust.

“I think they’re emboldened,” he said, referring to Hindu nationalist groups. “Things can get much worse.”