Under Hindu Nationalist Leaders, Sectarian Violence Flares in India

by Pelican Press
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In the early hours of Monday, on a train bound for Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, a police officer took up his service rifle, fatally shot his superior and then killed three unarmed passengers. All three of the passengers were Muslim men, according to Indian news reports.

Audio from cellphone videos of the incident filmed inside the train is muffled, but it sounds as if the officer, Chetan Singh, says in Hindi: “If you want to live in Hindustan, you must vote for Modi and Yogi.” Using an antiquated name for part of South Asia, he appeared to be advocating support for India’s foremost Hindu politicians: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the leader of India’s most populous state.

The violence occurred on the same day as a march led by a Hindu nationalist organization in one of the few northern Indian districts in which Muslims are a majority. The rally, which a Hindu vigilante wanted in the murders of several Muslims had promised to join, dissolved into street fighting, which then gave way to a full-blown riot that spread toward Delhi. As shops, vehicles and a mosque were set ablaze, at least five people were killed, including the mosque’s junior imam, the police said.

These scenes — uncoordinated and unrelated, but hardly uncommon in India under Mr. Modi’s tenure — have emerged at an awkward time for the country as it prepares to host the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi in September. Mr. Modi has been promoting an economy-focused “India growth story” around the world and has received leadership accolades in Paris and Washington — a notable achievement given that in 2005 the State Department denied him a visa for nearly a decade over “severe violations of religious freedom” in the wake of massacres in his home state.

Far away from Monday’s violence, ethnic hatred has also been erupting in the northeastern state of Manipur since May. Although religious identity has played a lesser role in the fighting there, the government’s inability to keep the peace between warring groups — in part because it is not seen as an impartial party — has been just as disturbing.

Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Adityanath, and indeed the whole nationalist movement led by Mr. Modi, are widely understood to stand on the same side of any conflict that pits India’s Hindus — who make up almost 80 percent of the country’s population of 1.4 billion — against its Muslims, who make up its largest minority, at roughly 14 percent.

Mr. Adityanath speaks for “law and order” but also talks about “feeding bullets, not biryani” to Muslim troublemakers. And although Mr. Modi tends to be much subtler, on the campaign trail he has said of violent rioters that “we can identify them by their clothes” — meaning the salwar kameez favored by South Asia’s Muslims — and will punish them accordingly.

After national forces were sent in to put out the fires in the aftermath of Monday’s Hindu nationalist march — some of which had been set just a dozen miles from New Delhi — the police shut down the internet across much of the affected region, along with schools and public events. By midday Tuesday, the authorities had announced that the rioting was over, with 25 or 30 people arrested. But further skirmishes and fires were reported later into the evening.

“Somebody has poisoned the society,” the state’s home minister told an Indian wire service, implying that Muslims were behind the violence. “Somebody engineered the situation,” he said. The local elected representative, Chaudhary Aftab Ahmed, who is Muslim, disagreed, attributing the riots to “administrative and police failure.”

Mr. Modi, a popular leader across most of India, has been affiliated with the country’s Hindu-nationalist movement since he first stepped into public life. His leadership of Gujarat State during ethnically driven massacres in 2002, which killed more than 1,000 mostly Muslim people, was a defining role, both to his critics and his devotees.

In 2017, as prime minister, Mr. Modi elevated Mr. Adityanath, a Hindu monk known for his dog-whistle abuse of Muslims, to the leadership of Uttar Pradesh, which is home to about 45 million Muslims.

As in Manipur, where resentful members of a Hindu majority have raged against a non-Hindu minority, so in the case of this week’s episodes between Hindus and Muslims has it been clear that the government stands closer to one side than the other.

Mr. Adityanath, who has often been touted as a potential successor to Mr. Modi, dons the saffron robes of a Hindu monk as he leads India’s most populous state. And his deputies frequently commission helicopters to shower rose petals on Hindu religious processions.

On Tuesday, in the same state where Mr. Singh killed the Muslim passengers in the prime minister’s name, Mr. Modi took part in an elaborate Hindu ceremony — and said nothing about the murders.

The Hindu nationalist group that led Monday’s march, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has also spearheaded a campaign to replace a medieval mosque with a temple to the Hindu deity Ram. It is expected to celebrate the temple’s unveiling before the conclusion of Mr. Modi’s re-election campaign next year. On Monday, in a podcast interview with an Indian news agency, Mr. Adityanath threw his support for an effort to demolish another famous mosque to clear the way for building a Hindu temple.

Just how much Mr. Modi has reconfigured India’s style of government, such that it can openly embrace a Hindu identity while demonizing and restricting expressions of other faiths, was evident in Mr. Adityanath’s comments in the podcast interview, which made plain his view of the place for India’s two biggest religions.

“The country will be governed by constitution and not by sect or religion,” he said, in comments aimed at Muslims. “Your sect, your religion may be your way — but inside your home, inside your mosque and your place of worship, and not for demonstrating on the road.”

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

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