Worshipping Lord Ram and Divisive Political Goals
Image Courtesy: Special Arrangement
Ram Navami—Lord Ram’s birthday—saw acts of violence in many places in 2023, the major ones being in Howrah, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar [earlier Aurangabad], the suburbs of Mumbai, and Delhi and Bihar. It has become a regular social phenomenon in recent years, and is rising in intensity. A large section of the media has presented the story of these Ram Navami processions being stoned and the consequent violence, while the aggressive nature of the crowds, the armed participants in them, and their provocative speeches and acts in front of mosques are generally underplayed or missing.
There were such incidents last year too. The violence in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, drew plenty of attention. In this case, on the pretext of stone-pelting, several dozen households of the minority community were bulldozed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led State government.
The nature of Ram Navami celebrations has drastically changed in recent years. The processions have the youth waving naked swords—one was even spotted with a pistol this year. Abusive slogans aimed at Muslims are raised with gay abundance, along with loud, often toxic, musical themes as a usual fixture. The route of the processions is another part of the tragic tale: they generally ensure they pass through Muslim-majority areas, with or without permission.
In West Bengal—where the processions created mayhem last week—while the BJP leadership blames the Mamata Banerjee government for going soft on Muslims, the Chief Minister said, “Religion never condones unrest. Religion speaks of peace. The BJP planned to create riots….in about 100 places in the country. The Howrah incident is unfortunate, we repeatedly said the procession should not take that route. However, criminals entered with guns, petrol bombs, and bulldozers, and attacked where minorities live. The BJP, Hindu Mahasangh, Bajrang Dal, and their different names did this. They attacked directly and intentionally.”
The country witnessed violence in the context of processions earlier as well. During the British period, Muslim communalists competed with equal vehemence during Ganpati immersion and other processions, including on Ram Navami, Moharram, etc. Post-Independence, thanks to the prevalent biases among large sections of society, the police have turned a blind eye to the processions that insist on passing through areas not permitted for their movement by the administration.
We know that giving provocative slogans is a crime, and carrying weapons is also a crime. Then how can these processions flaunt these basic norms? Here comes the role of communalised administration irrespective of which government is in power.
While the media focuses on the stone-pelting, it remains silent on abusive slogans and open display of arms. Advocate Chander Uday Singh, in the prologue to a new detailed report prepared by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative, looks at the sharp spike in events leading to communal violence during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022. It gives an account of the major processions and the violence which followed them. The report confirms that the processions involve targeting Muslim places of worship or Muslim-majority localities.
One example would give us an idea of the deeper dynamic of these processions. In the violence in Bhagalpur, in previous years, the route that religious processions would take had been one of the issues of contention. A commission of enquiry consisting of Justice Ram Nandan Prasad, Justice Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha, and Justice S Shamsul Hasan found that tensions over the Ramshila processions had been building up at in this town in Bihar for at least a year before the 1989 violence. Yet, the administration and police turned a blind eye to the warning signals. The commission also noted the absence of an application to allow the 1989 procession to pass through Tatarpur, and that the license issued to the procession’s organisers did not mention it.
Another commission of enquiry (for violence that erupted in Kota, Rajasthan, in September 1989), came to similar conclusions. Justice SN Bhargava of the commission concluded, “Taking an overall view of the evidence on record, I am of the view that it was the processionists who had started shouting objectionable and provocative slogans and it was only on account of the provocation by these objectionable slogans that the Muslim community also reciprocated the same.”
While the role of those who get provoked and throw the first stone cannot be undermined, the clever manipulation of such festivals or processions creates a situation whose outcome can only be communal conflict, even violence. The way they are conducted leads to polarisation, which only increases the strength of communalist parties.
The rising intensity of this phenomenon can correlate to the attempt by communal parties to polarise society and succeed in their electoral goals. The reports that bulldozers are being roped into these processions should be an even greater matter of concern.
The author is a human rights activist and taught at IIT Bombay. The views are personal.
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