A history of India’s riots shows how the Hindu right used religious processions to foment disorder

In the mid-80s, a spate of communal riots sparked off by religious processions led to a public debate on whether such processions should be banned. An entire generation of Indians has grown up since, and we are still seeing processions taken out in the name of religion ending in communal violence.

Madhya Pradesh saw violence in the last week of December, when processions were taken out by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad to collect funds for the Ayodhya temple.

The pattern of violence in Madhya Pradesh follows a formula perfected by the Sangh Parivar since the late 60s, when the first post-Independence riots took place. The formula: organise a procession as a show of strength; mark out a route that passes through a Muslim mohalla; linger in front of the mosque, play loud music especially if it’s namaz time, throw gulaal on the mosque, and shout incendiary slogans. Do this till Muslims are provoked into throwing stones at the processionists, then go on the rampage against them, knowing the police will support you.

The big riots of the 70s and 80s almost all had this trigger, sometimes resulting in both communities competing to put on a bigger show of strength. Certain occasions came to be associated with riots: the Ganeshotsav procession in Hyderabad; Muharram in Lucknow (Shia-Sunni riots); Shivaji Jayanti in Maharashtra, Jagannath Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad. If these occasions passed off peacefully, editorials would be written.

In the 80s, such processions were patented as "yatras’’ by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The 1981 Meenakshipuram conversions of 150 Dalit families to Islam made the VHP take out "ekatmata yajna yatras’’ in 1983, aimed at uniting Hindus across caste over the twin symbols of Ganga Jal and Bharat Mata riding a tiger. In 1985 came l’affaire Shah Bano and the Ayodhya campaign. VHP yatras became routine: Ram-Janakirathyatras; shilapujan yatras,and the biggest of them all, LK Advani’s Rath Yatra. These yatras sparked off riot after riot.

On 6 December, 1992, the first stone thrown in the 92-93 Mumbai riots came from a victory procession celebrating the demolition of the Babri Masjid, that passed by a mosque in a narrow lane in Dharavi. The rally was led by local Sena leaders but Congress members participated too. The slogans shouted were so abusive that they could not be read out in open court during the hearings of the BN Srikrishna Commission set up to investigate the riots.

It was again slogans and speeches at a procession that resulted in the first-ever conviction of a senior Sena leader for hate speech. The procession to install an idol in a templewas led soon after the December phase of the 92-93 riots by two-term MP Madhukar Sarpotdar, who was convicted along with Shiv Sainiks Jaywant Parab and Ashok Shinde, under Sec 153 A (promoting communal enmity).

The specious argument now being made by BJP supporters that in MP, the VHP was just taking out religious processions and Muslims had no business objecting to this, is an old one.

The same was said by no less than the Mumbai Police Commissioner to the Srikrishna Commission. Advani’s Rath Yatra was not the cause of riots, said Shrikant Bapat, Mumbai’s police chief during the 92-93 riots.It was the opposition to it by Muslims through unconstitutional means that generated communal tension, he said.

Does the aggressive display of religiosity in such processions that insist on passing through Muslim areas, have anything to do with devotion? As Justice Srikrishna put it in his report: "Though ostensibly religious, the (VHP’s) Ram Paduka processions (taken out in Mumbai after July 1992) had less of religion and more of politics.’’

Previously, processionists would shout "Jai Shivaji Jai Bhawani’’ and "Har Har Mahadev’’. The Ayodhya movement replaced these with "Jai Sri Ram’’. The lynchings of Muslims that marked the January 1993 phase of the Mumbai riots, and that have become a hallmark of the last six years, have also been accompanied by slogans of "Jai Sri Ram’’. Can it still be called a religious slogan?

So why is it that with all this experience of the last six decades, we are still seeing lives and properties endangered by religious processions?

A ban on religious processions has often been suggested. Muharram processions in Lucknow were banned for 10 years after 1977, and in Srinagar, a similar ban has not been lifted since 1970. After a Shiv Jayanti procession in 1970 sparked off the Bhiwandi-Jalgaon-Mahad riots, all religious processions were banned in Bhiwandi. In 1984, however, the Vasantdada Patil government gave in to the Shiv Sena-BJP and lifted the ban for ShivajiJayanti. But though the police made sure the procession passed off without incident (stipulating the route and the slogans), a fortnight later, the township burst into flames which spread to Thane and Mumbai.

However, the very next year, the same procession passed off peacefully. The Sena-BJP were too busy preparing for municipal elections that were being held after a gap of 14 years. The Janata Party leaders who took over the Shiv Jayanti committee ensured the participation of prominent Muslims on it, and told the police to act against anyone who deviated from the stipulated route and slogans. The same strategy: cooperation between both communities and the police have allowed Muharram and Ganpati processions to be held simultaneously without any violence in Mumbai.

But when the intent of the procession is to display a community’s domination or defiance, is a ban the only way out? Such a ban can be successfully challenged in court, as happened in West Bengal in 2017, when the chief minister banned Durga Puja immersion processions on Muharram. Is a ban practical, given the religious fervor that still prevails among most Indians, and the fact that for many, such processions have more to do with tradition and culture?

There are easier means. Justice Srikrishna suggested that organisers be made to pay for the police deployment required for such processions, and to deposit Rs 5,000 (a huge amount 23 years back when his report was written), which would be forfeited if violence takes place.

If governments decided to hold the police officers in charge of the bandobast responsible for any violence that breaks out, and punish them, the latter would think twice before permitting a procession to take a controversial route, or permitting it at all in a tense situation. As things stand, the police make no arrests even when a procession is taken out in defiance of their orders, though they escort it. In Indore, then BJP MLA Kailash Vijayvargiya even persuaded a sub-inspector escorting a Ram yatra in 1990, to join it and sing a bhajan, after removing his cap and belt! No action was taken against the cop – a BJP government was in power.

But it was a Congress government that refused to ban maha aartis in January 1993, during the second phase of the Mumbai riots, despite the police telling chief minister Sudhakar Naik that these could trigger anti-Muslim violence – which they did. But Naik maintained that these were religious activities and could not be banned.

Governments can ensure that religious processions do not end in violence. For that though, the lives of innocent citizens, especially minorities, should matter to them.

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