Inside the riot machine

A three-part investigation by the Hindustan Times
Communal flaresViolent clashes broke out between two communities over a land dispute in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in July 2014. Communal incidents have become more common in recent years, according to police records from across the state. (Shankar/ Hindustan Times)

Part one

Anatomy of a riot


n the early morning of July 31, 2014, the residents of Jalalabad, in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), awoke to news that the village’s Shiva temple had become a crime scene. Chunks of meat and torn pages from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy text, had been found in the temple’s courtyard.

Locals and Hindus from neighboring villages, curious, anxious or angry about what they had heard, rushed to the spot. The only route to the temple, surrounded by lush sugarcane fields, was through a Muslim neighborhood. “Anything could have happened,” said Pradeep Kumar, the temple’s caretaker. Even a minor altercation could have turned violent. Yet nothing came of it; the villagers eventually returned home.

On the same day, parents of a 22-year-old woman in Kharkhauda, a town in the neighbouring Meerut district, filed a first information report (FIR) accusing a Muslim cleric of kidnapping and attempting to convert her to Islam. Hindu right-wing groups quickly took up the cause, and Meerut was soon teetering on the verge of a riot, which never happened.

Though separated by nearly 100 kilometres, the two seemingly isolated incidents fell within a pattern of low-intensity communal flare-ups across UP. Nine other districts reported “sampradayak ghatna,” or “communal incidents,” that same day.

Neither the nature of the incidents, nor the frequency with which they occurred, is uncommon in UP. There have been over 12,000 such incidents in UP between January 2010 and April 2016 according to a months-long HT investigation of police records from all 75 of the state’s districts.

Allegations of cow slaughter and sexual abuse drive rise in communalism
Reported communal incidents in UP by category, 2010 to April 30, 2016
Source: Police records from all 75 UP districts.
Note: “Religious intolerance” includes illegal construction of holy places and vandalism of graveyards.
* Through April 30, 2016

Communalism in the state, especially in the west, has risen dramatically in that time. The number of incidents tripled from 2011 to 2012, the year the Samajwadi Party (SP) won the state election. And they have been climbing ever since.

Many of the incidents were sparked by mundane arguments that suddenly turned violent. Others were set off by deliberate acts of desecration — of holy books, idols, mosques or temples. Cows were a singular flashpoint. Hardening religious lines served up another category: “love jihad,” a charged term that accused Muslim men of “luring” and “dishonoring” innocent Hindu girls. It included everything from consensual elopement to allegations of stalking and rape.

These incidents, although volatile, almost never led to a riot. But the friction keeps UP simmering, polarising voters, communities and entire villages in the run-up to next year’s state election.

“Small riots sustain communal consciousness over a long period by attracting minimum public scrutiny,” said Badri Narayan, a professor at JNU and an expert on UP politics. “Big riots need long-term preparation and lose their effect after a few days.”

Irshad, 13, and Furqaan, 16, visit their home which was destroyed during rioting in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013. The violence, among the worst in UP in recent times, killed over 60 people and displaced more than 50, 000 Muslims. (Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times)

Narayan is among those experts who believe Hindu nationalism, closely associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spurs communal violence in India. According to this view, Hindu chauvinism and suspicion of Muslims helps consolidate Hindu votes that could otherwise be split along caste or regional lines.

Others, such as Brown University professor Ashutosh Varshney, say both the Hindu and Muslim right “feed off each other.” Other political parties, such as the Congress and the SP, benefit too: blame the right-wing party and court the vulnerable Muslim vote.

When HT contacted them, members of both Congress and SP blamed the BJP for playing “communal politics,” while a BJP representative said the state government’s “vote bank politics” were responsible.

Whatever the cause, Narayan said, low-key communal incidents, repeated day after day, could “sometimes spiral out of control, like we saw in Muzaffarnagar.”

That was UP’s last major riot, in September 2013, which killed over 60 people. Then in July 2014, neighboring Saharanpur witnessed violence after a property dispute between a Muslim member of the state legislative of assembly and the local Sikh community. In August, Meerut was pushed to the edge as right-wing groups took up the cause of the “Meerut Girl” as a textbook example of “love jihad,” demanding swift arrests (The 22-year-old woman later withdrew her complaint, saying she had voluntarily eloped with a Muslim man and was now being threatened by her parents).

Communal incidents, according to HT’s investigation, are the highest in western UP — in these very districts.

More communalism in western Uttar Pradesh
Map of Uttar Pradesh, with districts colored by count of communal incidents
Communal Incidents, 2011-2015
Total | Year-wise
Source: Police records from all 75 UP districts..

Western Uttar Pradesh is also more religiously diverse. Although Hindus are still a majority, there are more Muslims here than in other parts of the state. HT’s investigation shows that the more diverse the district, the higher the number of communal incidents.

The most obvious reason is that a mixed demography produces more opportunities for conflict and politicking. Districts where Hindus are not a substantial majority are, therefore, more complex battlegrounds. This is especially true for the BJP and SP, both of which have benefited from consolidating votes along religious lines.

More religious diversity, more communalism
UP districts by Hindu population share and reported communal incidents per lakh people, 2010 — April, 2016
Reported incidents
Hover over
the chart to explore the data.
Source: Police records from all 75 UP districts. 2011 Census of India, population enumeration data.

“There is no love lost between both communities,” said 22-year-old Chotu Kumar of Kalanpur, a remote village in Amroha in western UP. When HT visited Kalanpur in September, it had the company of the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary, a special team usually deployed to quell unrest. They were posted here after an altercation involving a mosque and a temple.

Historically, Amroha was a peaceful district — even the brutal rioting that engulfed large parts of Moradabad district in 1980 didn’t reach Amroha’s villages. But now it’s among the districts in UP where communal incidents have surged. Most of these surge districts, from Agra to Meerut, are in the west and are more religiously diverse than eastern UP.

In some districts, communalism jumped in 2013 and kept rising
Count of reported communal incidents in each of UP’s districts, 2010-2015
Hover over the chart to explore the data.
Source: Police records from all 75 UP districts.

“In a casteist UP, only religious identity can overwhelm caste identity,” said Asmer Beg, a political scientist who headed the regional surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

“[SP founder] Mulayam Singh is the undisputed leader of Muslims in India,” said Amar Singh, senior party leader and Rajya Sabha MP from SP. “It is preposterous to allege that he needs to play communal politics to win Muslim votes.”

But, Beg said, UP did vote along “communal lines” in the 2014 parliamentary election. Though the SP-led state government was blamed for ineptly handling the riots in Muzaffarnagar, CSDS surveys showed that 60 per cent of Muslims still voted for SP. The most recent pre-poll survey shows a similar trend, added Beg.

Ijaz Malik, who owns a textile shop in Saharanpur, told HT that the district in western UP is yet to recover from a spate of communal violence in 2014. (Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times)

Meanwhile, political leaders from both communities claim they are victims of the other’s aggression. SP leader Azam Khan has said that Muslims are “victims of saffron India,” a reference to the BJP’s Hindu nationalism, and even sought UN intervention after a Muslim man was lynched for allegedly keeping beef in his house. On the other side is Yogi Adityanath, a BJP MP from UP known for his incendiary rhetoric: “There is general lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh and Hindus are the worst sufferers,” he told HT.

As the election scheduled for early next year approaches, there is a palpable fear in UP. Police records from 2016 indicate that communal tension in the state has only increased. In the first four months of this year, there were more than 1,200 communal incidents, surpassing the first four months of any other year for which HT obtained records. “The police response time is what is keeping the riots on hold,” said Sujith Pandey, Inspector General of Police.

Ijaz Malik, who runs a textile shop outside Bhageshwar temple in Saharanpur, witnessed a flare-up over competing loudspeakers days before riots broke out in Saharanpur in 2014. “Things have changed,” he said. “Business is affected. Relationships with Hindu friends have changed. Nothing remains the same.”

Web production by HT News Apps.

Inside the riot machine

A three-part investigation by the Hindustan Times