The Darker Side of India: Religious Violence

The history of modern India has several incidents of religious violence. In the 1947 Partition when both India and Pakistan achieved their independence from the British Raj there took place one of the greatest migrations in history when Muslims left India for Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan for India. It is estimated that between 10 and 12 million people crossed the border between India and Pakistan in 1947.[1] In the ensuing violence between the Muslims and Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs between 1.5 to 2 million lost their lives.[2]

Since independence hundreds of religious riots have been recorded in Indian which thousands have been killed, mostly Muslims Minorities in India, especially Sikhs, Muslims and Christians, are being persecuted by Hindu nationalists belonging to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This has been widely reported in the media and by international watch dog organizations. There has also been a rise in communal and sectarian violence in India. For instance, a Muslim has been beaten to death in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand after reportedly asking a group to stop playing loud music on New Year’s Day. Earlier this year, a Muslim man was reportedly killed by a mob who accused him of transporting beef in his car. On January 26, 2018, Hindu youth clashed with Muslims in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh in which one person was killed. This led to riots in the town for a couple of days.

Vigilante cow protection groups harassed and attacked people in states including Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka in the name of upholding laws prohibiting the killing of cows.

Earlier, the bodies of two Muslim cattle traders were found hanging from a tree in Jharkhand. In June, members of a cow protection group in Haryana forced two Muslim men, who they suspected were beef transporters, to eat cow dung. A woman in Haryana said that she and her 14-year-old cousin were gang-raped by men who accused them of eating beef. A team formed to reinvestigate closed cases related to the 1984 Sikh massacre identified 77 cases for further investigation and invited people to testify. The functioning of the team continued to lack transparency.

Ananya Bhattarya claimed in his article published in Quartz, April 14, 2017that India is the fourth-worst country in the world for religious violence.[3]

According to civil rights groups there is an extensive list of brutalities in the name of religion in India. For instance, the killing of at least 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in2002. Since independence in 1947, the Muslim community has been subject to and engaged in sectarian violence in Gujarat state. In 2002,Hindu extremists carried out acts of violence against the Muslim minority population. The starting point for the incident was the Godhra train burning which was allegedly done by Muslims. During the incident, young girls were sexually assaulted, burned or hacked to death. These rapes were condoned by the ruling BJP, whose refusal to intervene lead to the displacement of 200,000. Death toll figures range from the official estimate of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus killed, to 2,000 Muslims killed. Then Chief Minister Narendra Modi has also been accused of initiating and condoning the violence, as have the police and government officials who took part, as they directed the rioters and gave lists of Muslim-owned properties to the extremists. In 2007,Tehelka magazine released The Truth: Gujarat 2002 which was a report based on a six-month-long investigation and involving video sting operations. It  stated that the violence was made possible by the support of the state police and the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi for the perpetrators. The report and the reactions to it were widely covered in Indian and international media. The recordings were authenticated by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation There was great media interest in the report’s description of Narendra Modi’s role in the riots, based, for example, on video footage of a senior Bajrang Dal leader saying that at a public meeting on the day of the fire, “he had given us three days to do whatever we could. He said he would not give us time after that, he said this openly.”[4]

The only conclusion from the available evidence points to a methodical pogrom, which was carried out with exceptional brutality and was highly coordinated.

According to Human Rights Watch, the violence in Gujarat in 2002 was pre-planned, and the police and state government participated in the violence. In 2012, Modi was cleared of complicity in the violence by a Special Investigation Team appointed by the Supreme Court. As expected, the Muslim community was very angered by the development and viewed it as a betrayal of trust.

On 6 December 1992, riots took place between Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai in which at least 11 people were killed in various incidents in the city. The riots changed the demographics of Mumbai greatly, as Muslims moved to Muslim-majority areas and Hindus moved to Hindu-majority areas.[5]

The 2002 Godhra train burning incident in which Hindus were burned alive allegedly by Muslims led to the Gujarat riots in which mostly Muslims were killed. According to the death toll given to the parliament on 11 May 2005 by the United Progressive Alliance government, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, and another 2,548 injured. Some 223 people are missing. According to one advocacy group, the death tolls were up to 2000.[6] According to the Congressional Research Service, up to 2000 people were killed in the violence.[7]

Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes because of the violence. According to New York Times report, witnesses were dismayed by the lack of intervention from local police, who often watched the events taking place and took no action against the attacks on Muslims and their property.[8]

Sangh leaders as well as the Gujarat government maintain that the violence was spontaneous and uncontrollable reaction to the burning. However, the Government of India has implemented almost all the recommendations of the Sachar Committee to help Muslims.[9]

In its annual human rights reports for 1999, the United States Department of State criticized India for “increasing societal violence against Christians.” The report listed over 90 incidents of anti-Christian violence, ranging from damage of religious property to violence against Christian pilgrims.[10]

In Madhya Pradesh, unidentified persons set two Statues inside St Peter and Paul Church in Jabalpur on fire. In Karnataka, religious violence was targeted against Christians in 2008.[11]

A 1999 Human Rights Watch report states increasing levels of religious violence on Christians in India, perpetrated by Hindu organizations. In 2000, acts of religious violence against Christians included forcible reconversion of converted Christians to Hinduism, distribution of threatening literature and destruction of Christian cemeteries.[12]

In 2007 and 2008 there occurred a massacre of more than 100 Christians and torching of thousands of homes in Orissa and Karnataka.

Undoubtedly, religious intolerance is very high in India. A Pew Research Center analysis of 198 countries has ranked India as fourth worst in the world for religious intolerance. [13]Tensions between religious communities, especially Hindus and Muslims, has long divided India. However, the rifts have intensified lately.  Muslims in India at times experience attacks by Hindus because of alleged cow slaughter. In addition, there are multiple incidents of rioting and mob violence involving the two communities. Officials of the BJP have made declarations that India should be exclusively Hindu.  Minority communities, including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, complained of numerous incidents of harassment by Hindu nationalist groups. There is a government ban on buying cows for slaughter in animal markets. Also, there is the promotion of Hindi, and there are the appointments of Hindutva sympathizers to top posts in educational and cultural organizations.

In Gujarat state anti-conversion laws do not allow people to adopt a religion without permission from the district magistrate, also hampering religious autonomy. In Haryana state the Hindu holy text, the Bhagwad Gita, has been included in the school curriculum. The Hindu nationalist wing of the governing BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has organizes mass ghar wapsi (return to Hinduism) ceremonies, which are also viewed as an attempt to dismantle minority religions.

Most troubling is the role of the BJP in religious violence in the country. The party has been complicit in many incidents of religious violence, especially against Muslims. The historical development of the BJP is intrinsically tied to its minorities, especially Muslim, populist bashing catering to its Hindu nationalist base. The development of the party took place because of this stance against minorities, especially Muslim. In 1983, right-wing Hindu zealots from the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal destroyed the 16th Century Babri mosque, declaring, without any proof. that it was built on the site of a temple destroyed by Muslim rulers.

Many political analysts trace the rise of the Party BJP since that event. It is believed that the demolition of the mosque was indeed the most blatant act of defiance of law in India and a watershed for Indian nationhood. Then the BJP had hoped that the demolition of the mosque would consolidate Hindu votes in its favor, but the party failed in coming into power until 1999.

Later, a 2010 Allahabad court ruled that the site was indeed a Hindu monument before the mosque was built there, based on evidence submitted by the Archaeological Survey of India. This action had caused great humiliation to the Muslim community. The resulting religious riots caused at least 1200 deaths.[14] The Government of India then blocked off the disputed site and the matter lingers on in the court.

Much later, the BJP achieved its first absolute majority in parliament in 2014 and Narendra Modi became prime minister. Since then he has actively promoted Hindu nationalism and has started to implement the BJP’s Hindutva agenda.

Human Rights Watch, an influential global human rights watchdog organization, in is latest World Report 2018 states:[15]

Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government—often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—became an increasing threat in India in 2017. The government failed to promptly or credibly investigate the attacks, while many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence. Dissent was labeled anti-national, and activists, journalists, and academics were targeted for their views, chilling free expression. Foreign funding regulations were used to target nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) critical of government actions or policies. Lack of accountability for past abuses committed by security forces persisted even as there were new allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, including in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Jammu and Kashmir…. Mob attacks by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling BJP against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef. Instead of taking prompt legal action against the attackers, police frequently filed complaints against the victims under laws banning cow slaughter. As of November, there had been 38 such attacks, and 10 people killed during the year. In July, even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally condemned such violence, an affiliate organization of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), announced plans to recruit 5,000 “religious soldiers” to “control cow smuggling and love jihad.” So-called love jihad, according to Hindu groups, is a conspiracy among Muslim men to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.[16]

The Indian media acknowledges that hate crimes are taking place in India. Lynching of Muslims suspected of consuming beef, a taboo for Hindus, have become commonplace. Paranoid extremist Hindus accuse Muslim men of engaging in “love jihad” or converting Hindu women by seducing them into marriage.  Christians also face the same sort of allegations. Today, it is common that Hindu extremists beat up a Hindu-Muslim couple in India. Recently, a court annulled a marriage between a Muslim man and a 25-year-old Hindu woman in medical school.

Although Modi constantly proclaims his aim is to develop India for all Indians, Muslims are barely represented in BJP governments in the center and in the states. The chief minister Modi has selected to govern Uttar Pradesh, is renowned for his hostility to Muslims. The state is the most important one in India because of its population and political significance. Meanwhile, the voices of the country’s vulnerable Muslim minority are being stifled, as never in history. These incidents of religious persecution aren’t new in India. In the past, the country has witnessed numerous incidents of religious violence, mostly against religious minorities. Often religious tensions are a product of narratives that seek to justify violence based on certain myths.

Although, the country’s constitution provides for religious freedom, India does not always practice it. Indeed, it is a tragedy that India, under Modi and the BJP, has turned more intolerant of religious minorities who continue to suffer under the Hindu nationalists rule. Given India’s success in economic development, it is tragic indeed that religious violence is tearing the country’s social fabric and thereby hurting the country’s overall development as a global power. We wish it was not so.


[1] India: Partition, Mass Atrocity Endings, https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/india-partition/, accessed January 31, 2018

[2] India: Partition, Mass Atrocity Endings, https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/india-partition/, accessed January 31, 2018; and Murder, Mass Atrocity Endingsrape and shattered families: 1947 Partition Archive effort underway, Dawn, March 13, 2015, accessed January 31, 2018

[3] Ananya Bhattarya, “India is the fourth-worst country in the world for religious violence”, Quartz, April 14, 2017

https://qz.com/959802/india-is-the-fourth-worst-country-in-the-world-for-religious-violence/, accessed January 31, 2018

[4] The Truth: Gujarat 2002 , The Tehelka Report, Revolvy, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/The%20Truth:%20Gujarat%202002%20–%20Tehelka%20report, accessed January 31, 2018

[5] Religious violence in India, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_violence_in_India, accessed January 31, 2018

[6] Religious violence in India, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_violence_in_India, accessed January 31, 2018

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[14] Religious violence in India, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_violence_in_India, accessed January 31, 2018

[15]  Human Rights Watch, World Report 2018, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/india, accessed January 31, 2018

[16] Religious violence in India, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_violence_in_India, accessed January 31, 2018

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