Religious Processions: Rioting in the Name of God

The findings of a recently released citizens’ report, aptly titled the ‘Routes of Wrath’ and edited by senior advocate Chander Uday Singh, puts the phenomenon in perspective. Edited excerpts:

Religious Processions: Rioting in the Name of God

Chander Uday Singh

In April 2022, India witnessed communal violence breaking out in as many as nine states, along with incidents of provocation and low-grade violence in three others. In all of them, the catalyst for the violence was the same: religious processions celebrating the Hindu festivals of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, followed by targeted attacks on Muslim-owned properties, businesses and places of worship. While this is not the first time India has seen mob violence under the garb of religious festivities, not even the first time for Ram Navami in particular, it took place on a much larger, seemingly coordinated scale than previous years. A breakdown of the rule of law was observed and documented in most of these towns and villages.

The immediate violence associated with Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti processions saw more than a hundred homes and shops destroyed or burned down, vehicles set ablaze in every city, and multiple places of worship damaged or vandalised. This was followed in quick order by state action in some of these cities and towns, which saw further destruction in the form of illegal demolitions of houses and shops, to punish those that the state branded as ‘rioters’ or ‘anti-social’ elements.

Ram Navami processions have been taken over by militant Hindutva organisations over the years, as the figure of Ram is central to the political imagination of the Sangh. A ‘shobha yatra’, which translates to a shining or glorious procession, is different from the traditional rath yatras organised by temples and generally confined to nearby areas. The shobha yatras promoted by the Sangh affiliates are, in contrast, grand processions of pomp and ceremony attempting to cover entire cities, involving ‘cavalcades of vehicles, each carrying dozens of men, shouting slogans and frequently wielding arms’.

Despite the increasingly violent nature of such processions in recent years—Ram Navami processions led to scattered incidents of communal violence in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019—they are portrayed by the Hindu Right and mainstream media as innocuous displays of religiosity, and blame is typically assigned to those who would challenge such displays.

This perspective is institutionally embedded—even in the case of the brutal Mumbai riots of 1992-93, Shrikant Bapat, Mumbai’s police chief said to the Srikrishna Commission that Advani’s rath yatra was not the cause of the riots, it was rather the Muslims’ opposition to it through unconstitutional means that generated the communal tension.

It is important to note not only the nature of the processions and their strategies of inciting violence, but also the fact that the dates chosen for said instigation in 2022 were Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, both of which fell within the month of Ramzan. This was used by rightwing institutions of the state and the media in states like Gujarat to further conspiracy theories projecting Muslims uniformly as the assailants—whereas they have suffered the most losses.

[If] one factor were to be singled out as the most important catalyst for communal riots flowing from religious processions, and equally for the prevention of such riots, it would have to be the route chosen by procession organisers. This appears to have been recognised as early as 1860, when Thomas Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code was enacted. Section 153 prescribed a punishment of six months imprisonment for wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, and one year if the provocation resulted in rioting. Section 188, which made it an offence to disobey an order duly promulgated by a public servant, contained an illustration, which demonstrates at least one form of disobedience that was known to British India:

‘S. 188. Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant:

‘An order is promulgated by a public servant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, directing that a religious procession shall not pass down a certain street. A knowingly disobeys the order, and thereby causes danger of riot. A has committed the offence defined in this section.’

After Independence, India has seen numerous communal riots in different parts of the country, under different political regimes. An overwhelming majority of these have been caused by the deliberate choice of communally sensitive routes and the pusillanimity of the police in dealing with such demands, or even their collusion and connivance in licensing such routes. Some illustrative examples of such riots will make the point:

Sholapur, 1967 The Commission of Inquiry on Communal Disturbance at Sholapur, 17 September 1967, chaired by Justice Raghubar Dayal, former judge of the Supreme Court, observed that communal outbreaks had occurred on the occasions of ‘rath’ processions in 1925 and 1927, in connection with Ganapati immersion processions in 1927 and 1966, and in 1939 when objectionable slogans were raised during a procession by the Arya Samaj. Other mass stabbings took place in August 1947, but those stemmed from the violence of Partition and the refugee crisis.

Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad, 1970 Bhiwandi, a powerloom centre barely 37 km from Mumbai, was the tragic site of largescale communal disturbances and riots on 7 May 1970. A one-man inquiry commission by sitting Bombay High Court judge, Justice D.P. Madon, observed that these riots were the direct consequence of a massive Shiv Jayanti procession which insisted on a route which passed by the Nizampura Jumma Mosque. The Bhiwandi riots led instantly to copycat riots on 8 May 1970 in Jalgaon and Mahad, two cities that had nothing in common with Bhiwandi.

Justice Madon found that it was 1963 when the Hindus started taking out processions which did not stop playing music while passing by a mosque. He found that 1964 was the year when the Shiv Jayanti procession began its practice of stopping in front of mosques, shouting provocative and anti-Muslim slogans, and throwing excessive gulal. Coincidentally, this was also the year when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor to the BJP, established its Bhiwandi branch.

Jamshedpur, 1979 In 1978, the RSS/VHP insisted that the traditional Ram Navami procession should follow a new route that would pass through the congested Muslim area of Sabirnagar. When the authorities did not give in, the RSS/VHP mounted an agitation, and refused to hold the procession for an entire year, to build up pressure on the administration.

Ultimately, the Karpuri Thakur-led Janata Party government (a coalition ruling at the Centre and in Bihar, with the BJP a prominent member in both) caved in, and in 1979 the local administration was persuaded to agree to allow the Ram Navami procession on a route through Sabirnagar.

A ‘deal’ was struck, based on the promise that the main procession would continue on the normal route, while a small ‘symbolic procession’ would pass through Sabirnagar, accompanied by local Muslim elders, and would then rejoin the main procession on the highway.

What actually happened was that once the ‘symbolic procession’ was escorted by Muslim elders and a small police contingent into Sabirnagar, the 15,000-strong main procession broke away from its agreed route and followed the ‘symbolic procession’ through private fields into Sabirnagar; once they reached the Sabirnagar masjid, they were halted by BJP MLA Dinanath Pandey, who refused to allow the procession to move, and insisted that they had a right to remain there while he made provocative and anti-Muslim speeches. A commission of enquiry headed by Justice Jitendra Narain, a retired judge of the Patna High Court, found the RSS and Dinanath Pandey primarily responsible.

Kota, 1989 For a city that had not seen any riots in 1947, nor in the five decades that followed, 1989 proved the potency of targeted processions in fomenting riots. On this occasion, and in this calm oasis of Rajasthan, it was the Anant Chaturdashi procession for the immersion of Lord Ganesh that was used to light the communal fires.

On 14 September 1989 the procession was deliberately taken on a route through a congested Muslim mohalla, and halted in front of the largest mosque. The one-man Commission of Inquiry was 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 retaliated.

The destruction of Kota’s fraternity and amity is best summed up in a verse taught in school:

Atishah ragad karey jo koye

Anal prakat chandan te hoye

(Rub hard enough, and even the coolest wood, sandalwood, will catch fire).

Communal clashes in Bengal’s Howrah district during Ram Navami ‘celebrations’, April 2023
Communal clashes in Bengal’s Howrah district during Ram Navami ‘celebrations’, April 2023

Bhagalpur, 1989 This time it was a Ramshila procession on 24 October 1989 that was diverted from the licensed route and taken through the congested Muslim area known as Tatarpur. Ramshila processions were by their very nature provocative and triumphalist, as these processions carried bricks (shila) consecrated by priests over a holy fire, ostensibly to be used for the construction of a Ram Temple which was proposed to be built after the proposed destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya (the actual demolition of Babri Masjid was not to take place until three years later in 1992).

A commission of enquiry headed by Justice Ram Nandan Prasad noted that there was no application to allow the procession through Tatarpur, and that the permission/licence issued to the procession’s organisers did not mention Tatarpur. Yet the “mob consisting of thousands of miscreants” was permitted by the police to deviate from the licenced route, enter Tatarpur, and wreak havoc.

There are distinct and eerie patterns across the states. The processions consisted of larger-than-usual gatherings of saffron-clad men drawing swords, waving trishuls and even (in some cases) firearms, taking deliberately mapped paths that crossed major mosques and Muslimdominated neighbourhoods, and raising provocative slogans about the coming of a Hindu Rashtra, conditions under which Muslims would be allowed to live in this nation, and even justifying violence against Muslims.

Many of these processions were accompanied by large flatbed trucks with concert-sized, high-decibel amplifiers and mega-speakers, on which DJs blasted hatefilled anti-Muslim music.

While in some states such as in Goa or Maharashtra, the organisers appear to have been satisfied with mere intimidation of members of the minority community, in others—particularly in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand—they used the garb of religious festivities to openly target, attack, and even destroy Muslim shops, handcarts, businesses, livelihoods, and even homes.

States that saw the most violence are also those where Hindutva groups and extremists enjoy the highest levels of political patronage. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its proxies and fellow travellers, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagran Manch, and others have clearly played a direct and proximate role in all such states in spreading communal unrest.

Mainstream media, politicians and commentators from the Hindu Right kept up a stream of invective suggesting that the widespread, pan-India violence in April 2022 was instigated by Muslim communities that threw stones at the processions without provocation. It is clear that news media, and particularly the mainstream television channels, played a leading role in manufacturing fear in the Hindu majority, helping to galvanise public opinion against minority communities.

The nature of instigation

‘Ram Navami’ and ‘Hanuman Jayanti’ processions, coinciding with Ramzan in both 2022 and 2023, concertedly targeted places of worship by gathering in front of mosques and chanting anti-Muslim slogans, either at the same time as when namaz was being offered, or at the breaking of the fast after sunset.

The processions used offensive slogans and music that openly called for violence against non-Hindus and particularly the Muslim community. Incendiary and antiMuslim songs have been reported from every one of these processions.

An investigation by Caravan magazine into the ‘Hindutva pop’ phenomenon and its role in galvanising Hindu youth against the Muslim community, found that in both Roorkee and Karauli, most people who took part in the Ram Navami rallies knew the provocative songs being played by heart.

From young children to middle-aged men, they could all rattle off the names of their favourite songs and artists, which included Sandeep Acharya, Laxmi Dubey, Prem Krishnavanshi and Kanhiya Mittal. Songs by these artists are not only popular online—referring to their millions of views on YouTube—but are also often played at temples, political rallies and cultural functions. They mark a shift within Hindu devotional music towards taking on direct political messaging, with lyrics about cow slaughter, Ram Mandir construction, Krishna Janma-bhoomi, the lack of unity in Hindus. One of Laxmi Dubey’s songs has lyrics that translate to ‘We are hardcore Hindus, we will create a new history / We will enter the homes of enemies, and will cut their heads […] / In every home the saffron flag will be seen, the rule of Ram will return / There is only one slogan, one name, victory to lord Ram, victory to lord Ram.’

Mobilising the majority

The Ram Navami riots reflect the important role played by vigilante outfits and local branches of Hindu nationalist groups in building an ethno-state. These organisations and street gangs, loosely affiliated around religious preachers or local leaders, are perpetuating an atmosphere of constant, everyday terror— sometimes seemingly low-grade violence, and at other times far more destructive attacks. These processions are perhaps the most visible, visceral forms of such assertion.

Another important change has been a rise in economic boycotts since 2018, prior to which communal flares didn’t affect economic ties as strongly. The boycotts started… when these organisations began appealing to developers not to sell houses to Muslims. [Another] change is the nature of the administration’s response with bulldozers used indiscriminately as reprisals for purported obstruction of processions.

April 2022 also saw mass events for distributing swords and tridents organised by Antarashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP) in both Gujarat and Assam, where they also announced further such drives. Calls of mass violence against Muslims, issued at Dharma sansads and Hindu mahapanchayats in Delhi, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, have tacit endorsement from the authorities.

The administrative response

In Khargone and Sendhwa in Madhya Pradesh, Jahangirpuri in Delhi, Himmatnagar and Khambhat in Gujarat, the district administrations and local police [in 2022] carried out demolition drives in the immediate aftermath of the violence, i.e., the day after Ram Navami and the day after Hanuman Jayanti. Their punitive motivations were frankly admitted by either the district officials or state ministers, who made no bones about their motivations.

Widely recognised by lawyers, human rights defenders and experts to be arbitrary and unconstitutional, the demolition drives break the three cardinal principles of the Indian Constitution, i.e., presumption of innocence, rule of law, and separation of powers between the three wings of the government.

The demolitions mark a set of important developments in the ongoing dismantling of rule of law and religious freedom in India. One conspicuous feature has been the largely passive role of the court.

Most worrisome are the long-term implications of the illegality being ascribed to Muslim settlements. [The] loss of housing and livelihood has a cascading effect on all other human rights. [Through] these post-procession demolition drives, the occupation of space by Muslims is being tagged as encroachment, when the major part of Indian urbanisation consists of unauthorised construction.

People settle in unoccupied parts, governments and administrations do nothing for years and most often regularise them. Many of the residents who lost their homes and livelihoods in these drives testified to receiving entitlements such as electricity or water, and many had documents determining the legitimacy of their residence.

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