Is Violence During Ram Navami the New Normal?
On March 30, Ram Navami day and the day after were marked by violent clashes in at least 12 places across six states: Aurangabad, Malad, Jalgaon (Maharashtra); Howrah, Dalkhola (West Bengal); Vadodara (Gujarat); Hassan (Karnataka); Lucknow, Gorakhpur, Mathura (UP); and Munger, Biharsharif Sasaram (Bihar). At least two persons were killed and scores injured, apart from damage to property.
All the incidents occurred during ‘shobha yatras’ (processions) taken out by various organisations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and even the day after. Many of the processions were reportedly attended by people carrying arms, like swords. Religious slogans and songs were playing on high decibel amplifiers. Arguments, scuffles, stone-pelting and stabbings resulted after these processions allegedly turned into Muslim- dominated localities. In most cases, there is evidence of provocative slogans or actions by the saffron clad processionists.
This is eerily similar to what happened last year. On April 10, 2022, communal violence was reported in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. On April 16, further violence was seen in Delhi, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. There was violence in Maharashtra on April 17. The occasion was the same – Ram Navami followed by Hanuman Jayanti. The processions were similar in garb and spirit, and perhaps in intention too. The results were similar – hatred spilling over into violent clashes.
In fact, tensions during religious festivals have now become the new normal. On Muslim festivals, you may see tension due to Hindu activists objecting to namaaz being offered by the Muslim devout in public places. Recently, there was a fracas in a residential society near Delhi when Muslim residents offered prayers in the compound.
But on Hindu festivals, there are large processions of the nature described above. The conclusion is inescapable that there is an intent of provoking the minority community. Playing loud religious music in front of mosques, insisting on taking the yatra through minority localities, even some cases of attempts to scale the walls of the mosque (as in Mathura).
What happens after this, depends on the local police and administration. And on the approach of the Muslim community. In Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, the scene of tension last year, this year the procession was taken out despite initial refusal by the police to give permission, to be followed by a ‘compromise’ that it would travel only 100 meters. Finally, a full procession with flags and slogans went around a much longer distance although thankfully there was no eruption of violence.
In West Bengal, the incidents in Howrah are a clear case of police carelessness and again, the insistence of the crowd led by a ultra-Hindu organisation to pass through a Muslim locality. As reported by Newsclick, in several parts of the state processions included leaders of both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Trinamool Congress.
Freedom to Take out Processions
Many leaders of BJP and other associated organisations, as well as their mouthpieces in the media, have stridently argued that this is a free country and don’t Hindus have a right to take out processions through whatever route they want?
This is, in effect, a clear challenge to the rule of law and the Constitution itself. The law does provide for the right to observe any religion without discrimination. But it also provides limits to this right – one can’t practice one’s religion by intentionally insulting or violating somebody else’s religious beliefs. Only recently, the Supreme Court, too, had come down heavily on the government for not doing enough to curb hate speech. So, insisting that armed processionists can go anywhere and shout toxic slogans directed against another citizen’s religion should definitely not be allowed. This categorically falls outside the ambit of the constitutional right to observe one’s religious beliefs.
Blaming the Muslims
Another narrative that has surfaced with equal stridency is an indignant and angry reaction – “just a shobha yatra was going on but the Muslims attacked it”. In fact, this is the almost universal interpretation being put out by RSS/BJP supporters through their media and social media.
Going by whatever little details are available in the media of the actual incidents, it is clear that the provocations arose from the side of the processionists. It is quite possible that in the face of this provocation, members of the Muslim community may have reacted aggressively. But how do you judge this? In an incendiary situation like the one that prevails at such times, even the smallest misstep may lead to quick and uncontrolled violence. The only way to avoid this is to ensure that there is no provocative action or words. Undoubtedly, there are elements in the Muslim community, too, that belong to the fundamentalist school of thought. They are the counterparts of the fanatic Hindus. Both these forces feed into each other’s ambitions and tactics.
But, in most cases, it is clear that provocation was the intent of the processionists – or at least the organisers of these events. It is the police and administration that bear the blame for not preventing this – can a procession of armed people be allowed to proceed, permission or no permission?
Why this toxic turn?
Although religious processions by Hindutva votaries have long been used to provoke violence, this concerted countrywide phenomenon is of recent origin. The Ram Mandir issue is no longer there since the Supreme Court allowed the Hindu side to proceed with the construction at Ayodhya. It is scheduled to be inaugurated next year, perhaps to time it with the General Elections.
So, it appears, that the focus of the Sangh Parivar has shifted to utilising the name of Lord Ram directly to further a related agenda – that of terrorising and vilifying the Muslim community. There is no doubt there are a large number of devotees of Ram in the country, primarily in the Northern states but elsewhere too. This was evident in the long-drawn Ram Mandir agitation. The BJP has reaped that harvest fully by building up its support by utilising the religious beliefs of common people.
To sustain and maintain this after the construction of the temple is a challenge. But it would be an error to think that this is all there is to it – electoral tactics. The larger and much more dire goal is to establish a Hindu Rashtra, the definition of which has been amply spelt out by RSS ideologues of the past. It includes, among other things, the subjugation of non-Hindus to second class status wherein they accept Hindu superiority in all aspects of life, from personal habits and customs to social, political issues. This is a dangerous ambition and violence is interwoven into its warp and woof. Ram Navami processions of the kind seen recently is just one of the pieces in this grand design.
Incidentally, it needs to be always remembered that the RSS/BJP is as much wedded to a pro-rich anti-working people policy, as it is to the Hindu Rashtra. In fact, the Hindu Rashtra is imagined as a kind of free enterprise paradise. Workers or farmers’ rights, freedom from exploitation, end of caste oppression and other modern aspirations are antithetical to this dark vision. So, it is not surprising that the turn to aggressive fanaticism by the Hindutva forces comes at a time when unrest against the Narendra Modi government is gathering steam. In only a few days, on April 5, a massive rally of working people – workers, farmers, agricultural labourers, employees, etc. – is going to take place in Delhi. It has been preceded by a massive countrywide campaign against the policies of the Modi government. The campaign and the rally will also declare its resolve to fight back precisely the kind of poisonous communalism that was exhibited during the Ram Navami processions.
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