March 30, 2023, a day that could have been a celebration of India’s plurality and religious diversity, was instead marred by communal violence and animosity. With Ram Navami, the Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Lord Ram, taking place this year in the Islamic holy month of Ramzan (Ramadan), violent clashes erupted in at least eight states across the country resulting in deaths, multiple injuries, and immense damage to property. All the incidents of communal clashes had their genesis in the religious processions carried out by organizations affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which passed through neighborhoods inhabited by the Muslim community.
The intensity of religious polarization and violence mirrored the events of 2022, where the violence was even more widespread. The festival of Ram Navami has become an opportunity for the Hindu right-wing to intimidate and assert their dominance over the Muslim community using the excuse of religiosity, which in totality aids their project of nation-building.
A study conducted by Ashutosh Varshney and Bhanu Joshi found that the violence that is taking place during Ram Navami is an emerging trend and is not rooted historically in the social fabric of India. The celebration of Ram Navami was historically restricted to small-scale celebrations in temples and household shrines. The addition of large-scale processions has come with the rise of Hindu nationalism and the taking over of the festival by militant Hindutva organizations. Hindu nationalism rose with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, where the figure of Lord Ram underwent a metamorphosis and was made into a political emblem that symbolizes Hindu power.
The figure of Ram is now central to the political imagination of the Hindu right-wing and is positioned as a contrasting figure of superiority to the religion followed by the Muslim community. This is evident through the use of the Shobha Yatra (Shining or Glorious Procession) that is carried out during Ram Navami. The processions follow routes that pass major mosques and traverse Muslim-dominated neighborhoods. The yatras are instigating and intimidating in nature, with provocative communal slogans being hurled at the Muslim community and loudspeakers playing hateful music, all while those marching the procession wield weapons. The provocative nature of the procession is a form of demarcating who belongs to which community, with participation marking a supporter of the Hindutva nation-building exercise, while those whose neighborhoods the procession passes through are marked as enemies.
Due to the enormous scale of violence that took place on Ram Navami during 2022, a Citizen and Lawyers Initiative researched the incidents and released a report: “Routes of Wrath: Weaponizing Religious Processions.” The findings and insights of the report are also relevant for the incidents that took place in 2023.
The report highlighted patterns in terms of how the processions are organized and carried out. All processions consisted of a large number of men wearing saffron clothing with weapons of different forms, shouting inflammatory communal slogans in Muslim neighborhoods and accompanied by loudspeakers that played hate-filled anti-Muslim music.
Such actions make clear that the processions are designed to engage in the intimidation of the Muslim community. While in many cases intimidation suffices, at other times the procession transforms from a covert attack into an overt one, resulting in the destruction of property and loss of lives.
The government plays a huge role in fostering a communal environment in which violence can take place. The report found that states which saw the most violence were the ones in which militant Hindu right-wing organizations enjoy immense state patronage. States where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power allow immense freedom to the militant organizations affiliated to the RSS to operate and spread hate.
As the “Routes of Wrath” report detailed in its findings, there is a major correlation between who is in power at the state level and how the violent conflicts that arise due to the religious processions are dealt with. In cases when the state is in collusion with those organizing the processions, the police are ordered to be cooperative and allow for the processions to pass through Muslim neighborhoods, which would otherwise not be approved due to the inflammatory nature of the processions. What is worse is the aftermath of the procession. After violence breaks out, people from the Muslim community are labeled as rioters who prevented the passing of a “peaceful religious procession” and are subsequently arrested by the police. Hence, in many states the violence is state sponsored and orchestrated.
If we look at how the cases of violence were covered by the mainstream media, and whom BJP leaders blame for the violence, it is evident that the onus is placed upon those who allegedly “agitate” against the communally charged processions. The instigation and intimidation of the processions are allowed by the state and the police, but any retaliation is construed as a crime.
The access to state power enjoyed by the Hindu right-wing has led to the deterioration of the morality of the state. In previous times, the role of the state in the face of such heinous violence would be to express remorse, set up fair inquiry commissions to hold those responsible for the riots accountable, and exercise justice. However, what we see today is the state denying responsibility and instead championing the cause of those provoking the violence through the use of processions.
Knowing that the strategy of the organizations behind the processions is to incite violence against the Muslim community, the collusion with the police and media helps build the narrative that those belonging to the Muslim community are delinquents and against the Hindu religion. The retaliation to the communal activities that take place during the processions are used to fuel the narrative that the Hindu population is in danger. This narrative further helps in adding numbers to the cause of the Hindutva nation-building project, as more and more Hindus now view Muslims as a threat.
Political groups and militant religious organizations are using a festival that marks the birth of Ram as a day in which religious polarization reaches new heights. The violence and intimidation meted out to Muslims represents the type of social hierarchy that is desired by, and is being articulated through, their nation-building project.
The divide and stratification that occur due to communal conflicts undermine the unique qualities of India. India is a country where local identity has historically mattered more than religious identity – a person from any religious community shares more similarities with people of a different religion belonging to their state, rather than someone from the same religious community but a different state. Alas, as violence and animosity increases, that feeling of fraternity decreases.