From 30 March to 1 April, around the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, Muslim residents across West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand witnessed a wave of communal violence. In the district of Howrah in West Bengal, men paraded through the city setting vehicles ablaze, ransacking shops, throwing bricks and glass bottles filled with petrol. In two cities in Bihar, Bihar Sharif and Sasaram, even a graveyard wasn’t spared from fire. Petrol bombs were thrown inside the Murarpur mosque and the 110-year-old Azizia library was burnt down, with over 4000 Islamic books reportedly destroyed. In Vadodara, Gujarat, there were incidents of stone-throwing, damage to the Dhuldoyawad Masjid and threats to “repeat 2002” – a reference to the infamous anti-Muslim riots in the state that year. In Aurangabad, around 500 people set fire to at least 13 vehicles, while throwing stones and petrol bombs. At least two people were reported dead, with several reportedly injured.
Weeks later, residents in these areas are still recovering. Such violence around Ram Navami, they say, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In April 2022, India saw communal violence across nine states, and incidents of “provocation and low grade violence” in three others, resulting in 100 people injured and at least three deaths, according to a report by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative. The flashpoint was the same – religious processions marking Ram Navami, as well as Hanuman Jayanti. As the report notes, India has seen religious processions followed by communal riots since as far back as the 1920s. But recently, Ram Navami processions have more and more been taken over by “militant Hindutva organisations” because Ram is an essential figure in the political imagination of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the main force behind Hindutva. The report also noted “eerie patterns” in the communal violence of April 2022 – all the incidents involved large groups of “saffron-clad” men armed with swords, guns and tridents, deliberately taking routes through largely Muslim neighbourhoods, and often chanting slogans about a Hindu nation.
“My parents used to talk about the 1947 riots”
Residents that this reporter interviewed in Howrah, Bardhaman and at the Presidency University in Kolkata said they believed that the violence they witnessed was organised or backed by political parties. They also pointed to instances of compassion and interfaith solidarity that unfolded within communities even during the riots.
Months before the violence around Ram Navami, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a petition from the non-profit Citizens for Justice and Peace that called for guidelines for regulating religious processions.
In the neighbourhood of Shibpur in Howrah, Rabia Khatun’s youngest son, who had recently decided to try his luck selling clothes, was standing beside his new thela (cart) heaped with jeans and T-shirts. He was about to join his family for iftar, to break the daily Ramzan fast, when he heard loud noises – the sound of glass breaking, people shouting and throwing stones. Within a few minutes, he saw a mob carrying petrol bombs, setting auto-rickshaws and vans on fire. He rushed back home while behind him the mob vandalised his thela. Khatun recalled, “Our house is on the main road. We had shut ourselves in our homes but could see everything from the windows. We could feel our death approaching. When I was a kid, my parents used to talk about the 1947 riots – about how people were killed or left to starve. I guess, that day, I felt the same horror that my parents would have felt back in 1947.”
Since Khatun’s house is located on the main road, many people took refuge nearby. When Khatun peeked out of her house, she saw a few people crying for help, saying ‘‘Chachi, aap humein bacha lo. Humko ye log maar denge.”(Aunty, please save us. These people will kill us.) Among them was a teenager who was sobbing hard. He had lost his parents in a stampede sparked by the violence.
Khatun said, “When I saw those people crying, the first thought that came to my mind was – What if my kids were stuck in such a situation? I saw my children in them and I called them in. I didn’t ask anyone’s name or which religion they belonged to. There was no need to ask that.”
However, the reaction of some of the people seeking shelter was telling, Khatun recounts. ‘They saw a photo of Mecca on the wall … they started panicking. When we asked them what happened, they said – ‘Hum Muslim ke ghar mein aa gaye. Aap hamein maar dalenge. Kaat dalenge.’” (We have come to a Muslim’s house. You will kill us.) Khatun and her family comforted them and offered them fruit to eat. For a while, they stared at their plates and didn’t eat anything, but after some time, they began to open up and eventually called their families over the phone.
“With violence, everyone is at a loss. Riots never burn just a house. They burn the entire village,” Rehman said.
At around 10 pm, after the situation had calmed down somewhat, Khatun asked one of her sons, who drives an electric rickshaw, to drop them home. Despite hearing news of police brutality on the streets, Khatun says she urged her son to prioritise the safety of the passengers, even if it meant getting beaten himself. Unfortunately, her fears were realised when the police beat him with batons, as reported in the Telegraph. Khatun said her son broke his hand, and smashed his e-rickshaw while he was returning after dropping the passengers. On the same day, she said her grandchildren suffered the effects of tear gas, with the youngest, a five-month-old, gasping for breath and requiring oxygen support.
Khatun was adamant that the violence between Hindus and Muslims was “completely manufactured by political parties”. And news reports from some of the impacted areas seem to corroborate her version of events.
In Bihar, NDTV reported that Kundan Kumar, the convener in Nalanda district of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindutva youth outfit, had organised the violence over WhatsApp. Kumar was subsequently arrested for not getting the proper permissions to hold the festival celebration, according to police, while Kumar blamed the local administration for not making proper arrangements. In Vadodara, Gujarat, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader threatened police in order to prevent any VHP members from being arrested – videos of his inflammatory speech went viral on social media and he was subsequently detained for questioning, while a man was also arrested for sharing “morphed videos” of the VHP leader’s speech. In Bengal, both the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party accused each other of having had a hand in orchestrating violence. On 10 April, the Calcutta High Court drew from state police reports to say that the violence in Howrah and Dalkhola appeared “pre-planned” and suggested that India’s central government, under the BJP, might be better positioned to investigate events.
Love each other, patriots
Like Khatun, Iftekhar Ahmad believes the violence during Ram Navami was planned. At the time, in the locality of Mehdi Bagan in Bardhaman, West Bengal, Ahmad and his team performed a nukkad natak (street play) with four actors dressed in saffron, four wearing skull caps and keffiyeh and another four dressed in turbans. All of them, while holding sticks in their hands, were circling around an actor wearing the tricolour of the Indian flag, meant to depict India. At times, the groups began fighting and the man playing India would beg them to stop while a song played in the background: Aapas mein prem karo, Desh Premiyon (Love each other, patriots).
About 85 kilometres away, the city of Rishra was blazing with communal hatred – saffron-clad men were torching vehicles, vandalising shops, hurling glass bottles, crude bombs and bricks, and raising provocative slogans outside masjids. In Mehdi Bagan, the watching audience applauded the play, some waving tricolours. After the street play, there was to be a procession winding through Tetultala Bazar, Curzon Gate and then returning to Mehdi Bagan. On the way, near BB Ghosh Road, when it was time for iftar, the Muslims participating were to break their fast, while the Hindus were to serve the food. Ahmad recounts that the neighbourhood loved the initiative and the police were also supportive. Only one faction did not approve. ‘Those from the Bajrang Dal and RSS were against us,” he said. “Whenever they came across us, they would shout ‘Jai Shree Ram’ in an attempt to threaten and taunt us.”
“When I was a kid, my parents used to talk about the 1947 riots – about how people were killed or left to starve. I guess, that day, I felt the same horror that my parents would have felt back in 1947.” Khatun said.
This experience is partly why Ahmad believes the violence that broke out in parts of West Bengal was organised by political parties. “The locals are not filled with hatred,” he said. “Bengal has religious processions going on all year round. But we had never heard of any violence before. Why only now?”
For Ahmad, news of the Ram Navami violence brought back painful memories. He says he was around 12 or 13 years old when the Babri Masjid was demolished. “I remember how the atmosphere was filled with communal tensions,” he recalled. “How friends began doubting us. I remember being seen with contempt and suspicion. We used to read about all the violence in the newspapers and our hearts were filled with fear. Everyone would look at us as if we were enemies. Back in those days, several deep cracks had developed in many friendships. And they took forever to heal.” Ahmad said he feels the same pain when he hears about people being lynched – an increasingly common trend in India since the election of the BJP’s Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. While many of the lynchings have targeted Muslims, he points out that even sadhus were beaten to death in Uttar Pradesh.
“Those who lynch are not just against Muslims,” Ahmad said. “They are enemies of humanity. They operate under political support. Without a strong political backing, these things cannot thrive.”
Undeterred by the violence, Ahmad said he and his friends plan to continue putting on plays in the future and would like to expand their performances beyond West Bengal in a bid to combat hate.
“With violence, everyone is at a loss”
Half an hour away, the Muslim residents of the Eden Hindu Hostel of Presidency University, Kolkata, also broke their Ramzan fast together with non-Muslims shortly after Ram Navami on 5 April.
Rajarshi Burman, a third-year student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in political science said that there were a total of 110 students in the hostel who organised the iftar together, expecting around 700 people. “We went to the market, bought fruits and phirni, and prepared sherbet for everyone,” Burman said. “Not just the students and faculty of Presidency University, but people from outside also joined us.”. Rajibul Rehman, another hosteller and a second-year student added that most of the students in the Eden Hindu Hostel were not Muslim, and that most of the preparations had been made by them. He added that the iftar was a potent symbol of equality as everyone, rich or poor, irrespective of caste, religion or gender, sat together to eat. In doing so, the students said, they hoped to show that social and community harmony was possible through acts of inter-communal solidarity. Rehman recounted that students made a similar effort to organise a Saraswati pooja in their hostel on 26 January, as the college administration didn’t allow religious ceremonies on campus.
For Ahmad, news of the Ram Navami violence brought back painful memories. He says he was around 12 or 13 when the Babri Masjid was demolished. “I remember how the atmosphere was filled with communal tensions,” he recalled.
Around 50 kilometres away from Rajibul’s home in Uttar Dinajpur, on the day of Ram Navami, some Hindus had organised a vigil in front of a local masjid. They reportedly shouted provocative slogans and abused Muslims. “They think that killing people from other religions would reward them,” Rehman said. “But with violence, everyone is at a loss. Riots never burn just a house. They burn the entire village.”
Students also recounted how some journalists and members of the BJP had attempted to create tensions around the iftar at Presidency University by tweeting that the administration allowed iftar but not Hindu celebrations like Saraswati pooja. The students noted that this was emphatically not true.
Months before the violence around Ram Navami, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a petition from the non-profit Citizens for Justice and Peace that called for guidelines for regulating religious processions, including prohibitions on participants arming themselves. In affected places, often despite bloody experience from just the past year, local authorities were unable to prevent communal violence from occurring. There have been some attempts to look into whether the state could have done more in this regard. For instance, on 21 August, the National Human Rights Commission sought a report on the violence in West Bengal from the state’s director of police and the chief of the Howrah city police. While these processes unfold, some residents continue to hope that acts of communal solidarity will counteract some of the impact of the violence, and that the same pattern will not be repeated again next year.