India’s powderkeg state

Uttar Pradesh, a giant province that borders Delhi to the east, would be the world’s sixth-largest nationality were it an independent country. Now, a series of anti-Muslim policies enacted by its government is raising the risk of mass unrest in major cities such as Lucknow and Noida, and even the capital itself. 

  • 7 January: U.P. orders mosques to remove loudspeakers, complaining of ‘noise pollution’
  • 3 January: U.P. cuts the number of discretionary days holiday around Muslim festivals in religious schools, but makes it compulsory for them to close on Hindu festivals.
  • 17 December: A Hindu activist group warns Christian schools in the U.P. city of Aligarh not to celebrate Christmas.

The incidents above occurred within the space of a few weeks. They are part of a trend that has been present in U.P. since a Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, became chief minister in March 2017. He is a member of the nationally ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu movement that rejects India’s secular constitution. It instead sees the country as a national homeland for Hindus and practitioners of other South Asian-origin religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, while viewing faiths such as Islam and Christianity as alien to India.

U.P. is the heartland of this ‘Hindutva’ majoritarian movement, but it also hosts the town of Deoband, spiritual headquarters of India’s hardline Deobandi Islamic movement. Of the state’s 200 million-strong population, some 20 per cent are Muslims. This is a volatile mixture that Adityanath’s leadership threatens to ignite.

Hindu-Muslim violence

Until last year U.P. was led by the Samajwadi Party, a left-wing movement closely associated with the marginalised Yadav pastoral castes. Even under its secular rule, U.P. experienced serious violence between Hindus and the Muslim minority. In 2013, fighting between followers of the two religions 50km north of Delhi resulted in the deaths of 62 people in the space of a few weeks, two-thirds of them Muslim. As is usually the case with such mass violence in India, the trigger was at once trivial and hard to predict – in that instance, either a traffic accident or an incident of sexual harassment that pitted one community against the other, depending on reports.

The risks of such violence are rising, given Yogi Adityanath’s hardline positions and the state’s 20 per cent Muslim minority

The risks of such violence are rising, given Yogi Adityanath’s hardline positions and the state’s 20 per cent Muslim minority. The chief minister has given the police carte blanche to conduct extra-judicial killings of gangsters, reported by the press euphemistically as ‘encounters’. Such gangsters are often Muslims, and the 30 police executions since the new government took power are likely to be perceived much less favourably among the state’s Muslim minority than among its Hindu majority.

The chief minister also supports cow vigilantes, groups of Hindu men who harass or beat up anyone suspected of eating beef, considered taboo by hardline Hindus. Again, the victims are often Muslims. In November 2017 the U.P. city of Lucknow hosted India’s first ever convention of cow vigilantes. Adityanath addressed the conference, and boasted of the security his government was providing to cattle.

Dalits are traditionally charged with the disposing of cow carcasses, a function that has also made them a target for cow vigilantes

Muslims are not the only targets of the cow vigilantes. Hinduism is split into four castes, all of which are ‘higher’ than the Dalits, formerly known as outcasts or untouchables. Dalits are traditionally charged with the disposing of cow carcasses, a function that has also made them a target for cow vigilantes. On 11 January, for instance, a group of Hindu activists seized two Dalits they accused of stealing cows, shaved their heads and handed them to police, who arrested them.

Such caste distinctions are encouraged and inflamed by Adityanath’s leadership. In July last year, 31 Dalit activists were arrested in Lucknow during a press conference. They had planned to march on Adityanath’s residence and present him with a large bar of soap. This was a reference to reports that Dalits had been presented with soap and shampoo and ordered to wash themselves before meeting the chief minister.

ANALYSIS

Inter-communal and inter-caste violence has plagued India for decades. Uttar Pradesh’s new government seems intent on alienating Muslims and Dalits in order to satisfy its own upper-caste Hindu voting base, fanning a sense of grievance that is likely to erupt into sudden outbursts of mob violence during 2018. These are most likely to be triggered by small incidents, such as the vandalism of monuments revered by a particular caste, or a violent crime in which the perpetrator and victim are from mutually antagonistic communities.

Such outbreaks are most likely to start in villages and small towns, but given the state’s mounting inter-group animosity this violence could spread rapidly to urban areas of U.P., such as the state capital Lucknow and Noida, an economically important satellite town of the capital Delhi…

Read more

Back