Disturbing Upward Increase: Communal Violence Under Modi Regime

Written by Anubhav Jaiswal | Published on: July 6, 2017
The sharp upward rise in incidents of communal violence, between 2011 and 2016: 580 (2011), 640 (2012), 823 (2013), 644 (2014), 751 (2015) and 703 (2016) are concentrated in eight states  with the highest being in Uttar Pradesh. Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, in the north, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west; and Karnataka and Kerala in the south remain acutely affected. Together they accounted for 2,512 incidents, over 85 per cent of recorded communal violence cases between 2013-2016, the years for which data disaggregated by state is available.

Communal Violence

According to a report prepared by the Minority Rights Group (MRG) the high levels of incidents in 2013 is in large part attributable to the outbreak of communal riots in Uttar Pradesh in the second half of that year, amid intense political campaigning ahead of the 2014 general elections. The number of deaths resulting from communal violence has mapped alongside these figures; however, numbers of injuries have slightly diverged, with 2016 registering the highest number at 2,321. This reflects the broader finding that since 2014 India has seen a rise in lower-intensity incidents of communal violence, resulting in fewer deaths, but rising numbers of injuries, even according to MHA data which does not reflect the wider range of violations noted above. Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of communal incidents and most deaths between 2013 and 2016 according to the state breakdown provided by the MHA and as detailed in the interactive map.

According to data from the MHA, this included 247 separate incidents documented in which 77 people were killed and 360 injured in 2013, the pre-election year which also saw high levels of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. In 2014, there were 133 communal violence incidents in UP, 26 deaths, and 374 injuries; in 2015 incidents rose to 155, there were 22 deaths and 419 injuries; and, finally, in 2016 this increased once again to 162 incidents, 29 deaths and 488 injuries. Although not covered within the state period, Uttar Pradesh has also seen high levels of communal violence preceding and following state elections which took place from February-March 2017.

An analysis of 62 incidents of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims during 2016 covered in mainstream media outlets found that Muslims appeared to have been most affected. Out of four incidents which resulted in deaths where disaggregated data was included, 7 out of 8 reported deaths were Muslim. Out of five incidents where disaggregated data was available, 46 Muslims were injured compared to 11 Hindus. And in the three incidents where disaggregated data was available for attacks on houses, 67 Muslim homes had been attacked compared to one Hindu home. However, in apparent contradiction to these figures, of the 12 incidents where disaggregated data was available, 178 Muslims and 75 Hindus were arrested – meaning that, despite appearing to number disproportionately among the victims, Muslims were also primarily targeted by law enforcement agencies. While these selected incidents include only a fraction of India’s recent communal violence, they point to the need for a more comprehensive data set. At present, the evidence suggests that communal violence, while affecting all communities, still mostly affects the Muslim community in India.

Communal violence, long an issue in India, has remained at consistently high levels in the past five years. Official data shows more than 700 outbreaks of communal violence in 2016 alone, with 86 killed and 2,321 injured. However, the actual figures are likely to be considerably higher as many incidents go unreported. Religious minorities are especially vulnerable to the threat of communal violence. Muslims, in particular, while making up less than 15 per cent of the population, have typically made up the large majority of victims.

Recommendations
  • The government must send the message that religious violence would not be tolerated and should hold account of public officials involved in perpetrating or inciting religious violence. 
  • Proper legal assistance and other support to the survivors of communal violence in forms of reparation must be given and government should address undue delays which obstructs the efforts to secure justice. 
  • Prompt and effective legal action must be taken against the vigilantes responsible for perpetrating violence against the minorities, as well as those who are facing allegations of complicity. Also strong measures to curb the activities of self proclaimed units such as Gow-rakshaks, Anti-love jihad unit should be taken. 
  • Revive the process to adopt the Prevention of Communal Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill 2013, or similar legislation. This should contain effective remedy and reparation in line with international standards for victims of mass communal violence, including provisions to address gender-based violence. 
  • Repeal or reform legislation and policies which infringe upon fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, and fuels violence against religious minorities. Anti-conversion law and recent measures which lacked due process such as anti-cow slaughter must be reformed. 
  • Adopt measures to address long-standing economic, social and cultural discrimination against religious minorities, including discrimination within state institutions. This includes measures to fully implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee findings (2006) with a view to advancing the rights of Muslims in India; extend recognition of Scheduled Caste status to Dalits of all faiths, including Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims; and recognize Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism as distinct religions within the Constitution. 
  • Particular attention must be paid to the violence, threats and harassment faced by religious minority women. Police and prosecutors must be adequately trained in treating minority women victims in an appropriate, respectful and confidential manner and always enabling victims to be assisted by women officers. 
  • Take steps to address the broader climate of intolerance, which has particularly impacted religious minorities and human rights defenders. 
  • To improve efforts to address communal violence, more comprehensive documentation of incidents is needed, many of which go unreported. The government should regularly release disaggregated data regarding communal violence, and address disparities between official sources. Government and civil society staff should be trained in culturally and gender-sensitive data collection, ensuring that religious minority women victims can report instances confidentially.




Since the 2014 election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Narendra Modi, there has been a climate of rising Hindu nationalism. This has in turn seen the promotion of an increasingly exclusionary environment, reflected in the advancement of policies and legislation – such as more stringent anti-cow slaughter laws – that discriminate against religious minorities. Furthermore, this has been accompanied by an apparent escalation of rhetoric against minorities by many senior officials.

In this environment, right-wing groups have been emboldened to escalate attacks against religious minorities. In many cases, these abuses mirror the country’s political developments and include forced conversions, the dissemination of hate speech through social media and vigilante attacks on those suspected of transporting or consuming beef. The perpetrators have been further aided by the continued problem of official indifference and even complicity in these attacks.

Cow Vigilantism and Anti-Cow Slaughter Legislation
Anti-cow slaughter legislation and vigilantism have become an increasingly common feature of communal violence since the election of the BJP government in 2014. The slaughter of cows, regarded by some sections of Hindus as sacred, has long been a source of tension, as well as mobilization for right-wing groups promoting Hindu nationalism. While it is not only Muslims that consume beef – indeed, many lower-caste and poor Hindus rely on beef as an affordable food source for their survival – they have been the key target of Hindu extremists, who act in vigilante groups popularly referred to as ‘gau rakshaks’.

Cow slaughter is also a criminal offence in many Indian states – the exceptions being states in the Northeast, Kerala, and West Bengal – yet the nature and severity of anti-cow slaughter legislation differs. In Haryana, for instance, cow slaughter and beef consumption carry sentences of up to 10 years, comparable to the punishment meted out for far more serious offenses such as slave trading and culpable homicide, with the burden of proof reportedly falling to the accused – a situation that effectively amounts to a ‘presumption of guilt’. In Gujarat the maximum punishment is life imprisonment and the minimum is ten years! 

The recent escalation of political rhetoric and legislation against cow slaughter, besides impacting the livelihoods of a number of Muslims, has been accompanied by a spate of targeted attacks across the country. In September 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, was stoned to death by a large crowd with bricks following allegations that he was keeping beef in his home. Shortly after the incident in Dadri in 2015, there followed similar acts of aggression. In October, a young Muslim man was attacked in Udhampur, Jammu and Kashmir state, by a group of ‘cow protectors’ who torched his vehicle, resulting in his death from severe burns 10 days later. The same month, one Muslim was killed and four others injured by assailants in Sarahan, Himachal Pradesh, on suspicion of cattle smuggling: the survivors of the attack were subsequently arrested by police for animal cruelty. In November, a Muslim headmaster in Manipur was killed after he was accused of stealing a calf.

Since the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh in 2015, vigilante cow protection groups have been active in harassing individuals, primarily Muslims, most commonly in states including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Harayana, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and elsewhere. While Uttar Pradesh has seen almost a fifth of all incidents of communal violence reported over a six-year period as linked to cows, over a period of a year between mid-2015 and mid-2016, more than 100 instances of assault against cattle.

These incidents highlight that the volatile issue of cow slaughter and its illegality in much of the country has provided right-wing Hindu nationalists with a potent tool to mobilize anti-Muslim sentiment, in a manner increasingly similar to the use of blasphemy laws against minorities in neighbouring Pakistan.78 Muslims then not only face the possibility of arrest and prosecution by local authorities, but also the threat of extrajudicial violence at the hands of ‘cow protectors’, encouraged by the apparent indifference of many policymakers and officials to the plight of the victims. Indeed, in almost all of the cases above, vigilantes have gone unpunished, and assault victims and their families have more frequently faced legal action under anti-cow slaughter legislation. The fact that many of the poorest communities in India, including Muslims but also many Hindus belonging to lower castes, rely especially on beef as an inexpensive food source gives an added class dimension to this violence. In Uttar Pradesh, this situation has been exacerbated by an escalating campaign by the recently appointed and divisive Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath.

Soon after his appointment, Adityanath introduced a crackdown on illegal slaughter houses in the state, closing shops without due process, and contributing to a broader climate of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Muslims continue to be disproportionately affected
While communal violence has claimed both Hindu and Muslim victims, as well as smaller numbers of Christians and Sikhs, Muslims continue to be disproportionately affected. . Government data released in 2013, for example, estimated that between January and mid-September that year there had been 479 separate incidents of communal violence, resulting in the deaths of 66 Muslims and 41 Hindus. In addition, 1,647 people were injured, including 794 Hindu and 703 Muslim civilians, the remainder being police. It should be noted that this period overlapped with large-scale communal violence targeting Muslims in Uttar Pradesh in September 2013, which points to the need for disaggregated data for a longer period to allow for a more complete analysis. Nevertheless, given that recent major outbreaks of communal riots have disproportionately targeted Muslims who comprise less than 15 per cent of the national population, these figures are striking.

Key elements of recent Communal Violence-

Festivals, processions, and places of worship continue to have a key role in a number of instances of communal violence – whether in terms of timing or location, or in terms of symbolic meaning - which can easily be politicized. Some of the most volatile moments in India’s recent history have centred around the construction or destruction of places of worship (most notably the Babri Masjid), communal activities such as processions and vandalism.

In October 2016, the overlapping of two religious festivals – Durga Puja, celebrated by Hindus, and Muharram, celebrated by Muslims – was exploited to provoke communal tensions. Amongst these were incidents in three districts of West Bengal – a state which has seen rising communal tensions – including one which saw a low-intensity bomb target a Muharram procession, followed by violence against Hindus and Muslims.

Earlier, in July 2016, in Deoband Uttar Pradesh, a Muslim with mental disability vandalized Hindu statues, and was subsequently beaten before being handed over to the police. Though the gates of a mosque were subsequently damaged that night, the police took swift action to repair the damage and in doing so helped prevent further violence.

In March 2017 when a group of men celebrating the victory of the BJP in a village in Uttar Pradesh attempted to plant a flag on top of a mosque in the area. In other cases, the presence of minority places of worship have been politicized: for example, members of the Sangh in March 2017 when a group of men celebrating the victory of the BJP in a village in Uttar Pradesh attempted to plant a flag on top of a mosque in the area.

Religious conversion continues to play a prominent role in anti-minority sentiment, and has been used as a cover for discriminatory legislation and violence against religious minorities. These issues date back to Partition and the period of British colonial rule, when fears of a relative demographic decline among Hindus and a growing Muslim population provoked, simultaneously, demands for greater restrictions on conversion of Hindus to other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity, alongside calls for ‘Hindu first’ policies within the country. Though freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, with Article 25 stating that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’, since independence a significant number of states have passed ‘anti-conversion laws’, with the stated aim of preventing coercive or fraudulent conversions. These include Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, alongside Arunachal Pradesh (where an anti-conversion law exists but has yet to be enforced) and Rajasthan (with a bill that has yet to be formalized into law). In states such as Gujarat where permission is required from the district authority prior to conversion, the process has been criticized as ‘unduly onerous’, and state records have revealed that a large proportion of those who apply have not yet received approvals.

While these specifically prohibit conversions where fraud, force or inducement are involved, in practice the legislation has been used by Hindu extremists to discourage or prevent conversion from Hinduism to other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity – a situation that particularly disadvantages lower castes such as Dalits, who have on occasions used conversion as a means to protest injustice or seek greater inclusion in another religion, but with presence of these draconian laws which ultimately is going against the constitutional right which had been given to the public at large to profess and propagate the religion of their own choice is not giving sanctions and is hindering one from actually practising their right from enjoying that means law makers are affecting the basic structure of the constitution which in itself is not allowed.

Allegations of forced conversions have frequently been levelled against Christians and often accompany targeted attacks against them, which have been on the rise in recent years. In April 2017, for example, police in Uttar Pradesh halted a prayer meeting at a church upon receiving reports of alleged forced conversions from the right-wing Hindu Yuva Vahini.

Gender-based issues have been a salient feature in communal violence over the reporting period, both in terms of targeted violence against women during communal riots as well as the growth of campaigns by right-wing groups with specific gendered dimensions. Strongly identified as ‘symbolic bearers of national identity’, women in India are frequently ‘literal and figurative battlegrounds’ during social instability and violence, often with particularly severe implications for minority women. This is highlighted by the presence of communal mobilization around questions of ‘honour’ and sexual violence at Partition, and more recently during communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 which saw the systematic targeting of Muslim women, as well as Hindu women with associations to Muslims.

The case of communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in 2013 is particularly instructive. Calls to ‘protect women’s honour’ helped trigger communal riots, including allegations of a Muslim man harassing a Hindu (Jat) woman from a village nearby – evidence of which has been questioned, but a narrative which continues to be perpetuated, including by politicians linked to the BJP. Although the Criminal Amendment Act 2013 provides greater scope to seek justice for sexual violence during communal violence, the seven victims of gang rape who have pursued cases have faced numerous obstacles, such as threats and intimidation, lack of adequate reparations, and excessive delays with no convictions having yet been secured. These challenges are exacerbated by the fact that each of these women are from working class, Muslim minority backgrounds, while the accused – all men belonging to the Jat community – are more influential, reportedly with better links to the state machinery.

Hindu nationalist groups, in particular the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), have recently launched counter-campaigns against what they refer to as ‘love jihad’. Appearing first around 2009 in southern states including Kerala and Karnataka, ‘love jihad’ is a strategy that right-wing groups claim to be deployed by Muslim men, in an effort to seduce and convert Hindu women to Islam. This formulation, while originating in the early twentieth century, combines contemporary anxieties around loss of identity and conversion with stereotypes linking Muslims with terrorism and extremism.

Framed as ‘rescue operations’, to counter ‘love jihad’, Hindu nationalist groups have forcibly separated couples, and reportedly deployed right-wing lawyers to identify and share registered cases of inter-religious marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women. These groups have acknowledged levelling false accusations of rape and kidnapping against Muslim men, and have benefitted from legal and political patronage, with strong links to the police and certain political actors. The BJP campaign drew on references to ‘love jihad’ during the 2017 state elections in Uttar Pradesh and, in March 2017, following their electoral success, so-called ‘anti-Romeo squads’ were formed by the police.
 
 
India’ background on religious minorities
India is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. While official statistics put the Hindu majority at 79.8 per cent, it also has a large Muslim minority (14.2 per cent) and a variety of other religions including Christians (2.3 per cent), Sikhs (1.7 per cent), Buddhists (0.7 per cent) and Jains (0.37 per cent). Not included in these figures are many other smaller communities including Bahá’i, Jews, Zoroastrians (mostly Parsi) and a range of animist faiths practised by different ethnic and indigenous groups across India. Given the country’s large overall population size of over 1.25 billion, India has the third largest Muslim population in the world at an estimated 172.2 million, behind Indonesia and Pakistan.

Constituting the largest religious minority, India’s Muslim population is dispersed throughout the country, with the majority living in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala, as well as Jammu and Kashmir. Where Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state, is home to over 22 per cent of India’s Muslim population, who make up over 19 per cent of the overall state population.

Alongside ongoing social and cultural discrimination, such as obstacles to buying or renting property, or representations of Muslims as ‘terrorists’ or unpatriotic in the media or educational materials. Muslims and other minorities in India also face institutional discrimination, including in relation to law enforcement. According to 2015 statistics from the NCRB, more than 67 per cent of those in India’s jails are defendants under trials, and 55 per cent of this population is made up of Muslims, Dalits and adivasis – together.

In June 2014, more than 50 villages in Chhattisgarh implemented bans on non-Hindu religious practices, ostensibly to prevent missionary activities. Anticonversion laws, explored in greater detail below, also have a particularly negative impact on Christians. This is both on account of their discriminatory content and by providing a level of legitimacy to allegations that Christians are performing forced conversions. Despite little evidence to support such claims, they have been invoked by right-wing groups to garner support for attacks against India’s Christian minority. Many Christians are also Adivasis, which contributes to the socio-economic, political, and cultural discrimination they face. Dalit Christians and Muslims similarly face high levels of intersectional discrimination. This is exacerbated by their lack of official recognition as ‘scheduled castes’ according to the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950, which prevents them from accessing reservations, including certain protections and benefits, available to Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. While the exact numbers of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in India is not known, the impact of this is far reaching, with some estimates putting the figure of Dalit Muslims at close to 100 million. Issues surrounding recognition have also impacted India’s Sikh population: specifically, the Indian Constitution groups Sikhs, along with Buddhists and Jains, with Hinduism, and therefore they are not legally recognized as distinct religions. Along with Christians and Muslims, Sikhs have also been a target of communal violence, although less frequently. Most notably, this includes the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi for which perpetrators have never been brought to justice constituting only a combined 39 per cent of the country’s total population.

In the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, in particular the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, Muslims have increasingly been targeted by police through profiling, staged encounters and incarceration on false accusations of terrorism under the cover of anti-terror laws, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Although the majority of communal violence in India targets Muslims, Christians have increasingly been under attack since the 1990s. Violence against Christians reached particularly high levels in 2008 and 2009, and once again in 2015. Christians form a majority in four states in the Northeast – Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh – yet in actual terms, the states with the largest Christians populations are Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Recent violence against Christians has reportedly been concentrated in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, all states in which Christians form a small state-level minority. Along with Christians and Muslims, Sikhs have also been a target of communal violence, although less frequently. Most notably, this includes the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi for which perpetrators have never been brought to justice.

 
Anti-conversion and cow slaughter legislation
In addition to these safeguards, there are also constitutional provisions and laws that provide a cloak of legitimacy to violence and discrimination against religious minorities. Article 48 of the Constitution titled ‘Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry’ mandates India’s states to ‘take steps for…prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle’. As part of India’s Directives Principles, Article 48 is not itself enforceable in court, but it is in reference to this article that the majority of India’s states have in place restrictions on cow slaughter. These laws, and calls to widen and tighten them through introducing a nationwide ban and more severe punishments, have been championed by Hindu nationalists, including the BJP and its affiliates such as the RSS.

In late May 2017, India’s Environment Ministry issued new rules regarding the Regulation of Livestock Markets under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. These rules require all buyers and settlers at animal markets across the country to issue an undertaking confirming that any cattle traded will be used solely for agricultural purposes. This has been criticized as a ‘backdoor’ national ban by effectively making it illegal for cattle to be sold for slaughter, and some have raised questions regarding the legality of these measures, highlighting the lack of jurisdiction the central government has over animal markets. As detailed later in this briefing, these measures are frequently linked to anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit sentiments, and have provided justification for vigilante violence in the name of cow protection.

India’s Freedom of Religion Acts, commonly known as ‘anti-conversion laws’, have similarly been invoked in the context of violence against religious minorities, in particular Christians. Although there have been efforts by the ruling BJP to introduce country-wide anti-conversion laws, at present only seven Indian states have these laws in place: Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. As expanded upon later in this briefing, in addition to emboldening Hindu nationalists engaging in violence against minorities, the content and implementation of these laws ‘infringe upon the individual’s right to convert, favor Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to Indian secularism’.