By Ram Puniyani
Ram Navami (the day celebrated as Lord Ram’s birthday) 2023 saw acts of violence in many places, the majority of which were in Howrah, Chatrapati Sambhaji Nagar (called Aurangabad earlier), some Mumbai suburbs, Delhi and places in Bihar among others. Last few years these have become a regular part of social phenomenon, with ever increasing intensity. The large section of media has presented the story of these Ram Navami processions being stoned and so the consequent violence, the nature of aggressive slogans, the well armed participants, the provocative acts in front of mosques are generally underplayed or missing from these narratives. Last year also there were such incidents of which the one in Khargone drew attention. In this case on the pretext of stone throwing 51 households of the minority community were bulldozed by the state with the BJP Government in power.
The nature of celebration of Ram Navami has seen a drastic change during the last few years. The processions are taken out with youth waving the naked swords, this year one was spotted with a pistol. There is loud music and slogans abusive to Muslims are shouted in gay abundance. The route of the processions is another interesting part of the tragic tale; they generally ensure to pass through the Muslim majority area, irrespective of whether there is permission for that or not. Attempts to throw Gulal on the mosques are the minimum, the attempt to climb the mosque and hoist saffron flag on the mosque is fairly mandatory.
In West Bengal, where the mayhem was created by the processions, while BJP leadership is blaming Mamata for going soft on Muslims CM Mamata Bannerjee stated, “Religion never condones unrest, religion speaks of peace… This was BJP’s plan to create riots. Yesterday, the BJP did it in about 100 places in the country. The Howrah incident is very unfortunate. We repeatedly said the procession should not take that route. However, criminals entered with guns, petrol bombs, bulldozers and various other things, and attacked where minorities live… This was done by BJP, Hindu Mahasangh, Bajrang Dal… and the different names that they have. They attacked directly and intentionally,…”
Earlier also the country has witnessed the violence in the context of processions. During the British period, the Muslim Communalists competed with equal vehemence using Ganpati immersion, Shiv Jayanti processions, Ram Navami processions; Muharram etc. Post Independence the prevalent biases among large sections of society and police in particular have turned a blind eye to the processions which insist on going through the areas not permitted by the administration. At one level this happens regularly as the organizers and participants of these know that they have protection from the state.
Their plea is that how dare anyone prevent them from going to any area? We know that giving provocative slogans is a crime, carrying weapons is also a crime then how come these processions flaunt these basic norms? Here comes in the role of communalized administration irrespective of the Government in power.
While the media focuses on the stone throwing, it totally remains silent on provocative slogans, open display of arms. Post Independence there have been Judicial inquiries in cases of violence provoked by processions. Advocate Chander Uday Singh in his prologue to the detailed report by the ‘Citizens and Lawyers Initiative’, which looks into the sharp spike in events leading to communal violence during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022 gives an account of major processions and the violence which followed the processions. Report confirms that the processions involve targeting Muslim places of worship or Muslim-majority localities. Few major examples will give us the deeper dynamics of these processions.
In Bhagalpur violence the route was one of the major issues, “A commission of enquiry consisting of Justice Ram Nandan Prasad, Justice Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha, and Justice S. Shamsul Hasan, retired judges of the Patna High Court, found that though tension over Ramshila processions had already been building up in Bhagalpur for at least a year prior to 1989, yet the Administration and Police had turned a blind eye to it. The Commission noted that there was no application to route the 1989 procession through Tatarpur, and that the license issued to the procession’s organizers did not mention Tatarpur (para 578).
Commission of inquiry in Kota 1989, came to similar conclusions. Justice S. N. Bharava of the commission concluded, … “Taking an overall view of the evidence on record, I am of the view that it was the precisionists 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.”
In Bhivandi-Jalgaon riots, Justice Madon concluded that “the immediate or proximate cause of the Bhiwandi disturbances was the deliberate misbehavior of the processionists in the Shiv Jayanti procession, which was taken out in Bhiwandi on May 7, 1970, in order to provoke the Muslims and … the processionists from the villages, had participated in the procession carrying lathis to which Bhagwa flags and banners were tied in order to circumvent the ban under section 37(1) of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, prohibiting the carrying of weapons,…”.
While the role of those who get provoked and throw the first stone cannot be undermined, the point is the clever manipulation of such festivals/procession to create a situation in which communal violence is the outcome. This in turn leads to the polarization and an increase in the strength of the communal party. To quote the Yale University research finding yet again, “riots produce ethnic polarization that benefits ethno-religious parties at the expense of the Congress… Analyzing the effect of riots on the vote share of “Hindu nationalist parties”, the paper notes that “the BJS/BJP saw a 0.8 percentage point increase in their vote share following a riot in the year prior to an election”.
The increasing intensity of this phenomenon can clearly be correlated to the attempt by communal parties to further polarize the society to get electoral politics in times to come. The reports that bulldozers are being roped into these processions should be a matter of serious concern for our society.