Ram Navami clashes: How Delhi Muslims navigate overt religiosity in New India

Ram Navami clashes: How Delhi Muslims navigate overt religiosity in New India

The Federal travelled to Muslim-dominated areas of national capital to gain insights

Communal clashes and violence marred this year’s Ram Navami celebrations. The festival has become a flashpoint for communal tensions, with this being the second consecutive year that such violence has dominated the headlines.

On Wednesday (April 5), the Home Ministry issued an advisory to all states and Union territories, urging them to ensure the maintenance of law and order during Hanuman Jayanti on Thursday. They were also directed to keep a close watch on any factor that could potentially disrupt communal harmony in society.

The advisory came after communal violence erupted in at least six states, including West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. The violence was allegedly instigated by different groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) during their Ram Navami processions. Disturbing viral videos circulating on social media showed saffron-clad individuals brandishing swords and guns during the rallies. One particularly alarming video depicted a man carrying a gun during a Ram Navami rally in Howrah.

Also read: Hanuman Jayanti: Wary Centre urges states, UTs to ensure law and order

In the wake of organised communal violence in certain parts of the country last week, The Federal travelled to Muslim-dominated areas of the national capital to gain insights into how the community is perceiving the looming threat. Our aim was to explore the changes that the community has experienced in the face of overt expressions of religiosity by the majority community.

Selective targeting

Mehmood Anwar, a PhD student at Jamia Millia Islamia, shared his experience of the police crackdown on students protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. He vividly recalled the horror of the police brutality that left many injured and the framing of charges against scores of students.

Anwar, who enrolled at Jamia in 2019, witnessed one of the worst attacks on a centre of learning in recent times. The protests were peaceful until the police started using force, tear gas and batons against the students. Anwar stated that the police did not spare anyone, including female students, and even entered the library to beat up students.

For Anwar, the attack on Jamia was not just an attack on a university, but an assault on the very idea of democracy and secularism. As a Muslim student, he feels that the CAA and the police action were part of a larger narrative of marginalizing minorities in India. He strongly believes that nothing can justify such brazen attacks against the minorities and students and hopes that such incidents never happen again in the future.

A crisis averted

On the occasion of Ram Navami, hundreds of people gathered in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area, despite the Delhi police denying permission for a larger procession. Jahangirpuri’s C-Block area had witnessed violence in April last year. The congregation caused anxiety among Muslim residents of the area, who saw it as a reminder of the violence that erupted just a year ago. The police had denied permission for a larger procession to maintain law and order and prevent any untoward incidents from occurring.

Speaking to The Federal, Maqsuda Begum, a resident of Jahangirpuri’s C-Block, expressed her concerns about the increasing fear and mistrust between the two communities following the violence that occurred last year. She explained that whenever large religious processions take place, residents like her fear that something untoward might happen, causing violence and unrest.

Begum emphasized that the residents of the area have the greatest stake in making their neighborhood safe and violence-free. She pointed out that vandalizing properties and creating an atmosphere of mistrust is not in their best interest. Instead, they want to maintain communal harmony and peaceful coexistence.

Reflecting on the incident that occurred last year, Begum described how it began with subtle provocations. Initially, there were overt expressions of religious symbols deliberately placed in front of a mosque to incite an altercation. As religion is a strong unifying factor, people quickly get involved, and these groups wait for a reaction from the Muslim community.

“As soon as we react, violence breaks out,” she said, adding that the police tend to support the majority community in perpetuating violence.

“Authorities have failed to adequately address serious and pervasive instances of ill-treatment of the minorities. The violence is recurring in part because of the lack of an even-handed accountability framework,” said the 40-year-old woman.

Begum elaborated on how Muslims in the area are frequently targeted, pointing out a pattern that seems to be emerging. She explained that certain groups carry out large processions that display overt religiosity, which often leads to serious provocation due to the strong religious sentiments shared by both Hindus and Muslims.

She added that Muslims are usually provoked into protesting, but the protesters are punished, while the perpetrators are rarely held accountable. She noted that these groups operate with impunity and seem to be trying to prove a point. Moreover, the police inaction further emboldens them.

When food becomes a marker of identity

Arbab Ali, a journalist residing in Jamia Nagar, commented on the issue of conformity in relation to Navratri. He pointed out that while it is well-known that some devout Hindus prefer vegetarian food and avoid certain kinds of grains and vegetables such as onions and garlic during Navratri, there has never been an expectation for other communities to adhere to these food prohibitions.

However, Ali highlighted a marked change in recent times, where meat sellers have been forcibly asked to shut their shops during Navratri. He emphasized that for people without means, this becomes a question of economic viability. Ali also observed that the narrative is being built in a way that favours the majority community.

Ali also reflected on the changes in the way Navratri and Iftar parties are perceived today. Until recently, enjoying Navratri dishes was a matter of personal choice, without much consideration given to their religious associations. However, now, these dishes have become a marker of identity.

Similarly, Iftar parties during Ramzan used to be an occasion for people of all communities to come together and enjoy a vast array of special dishes. But now, even these have become an identity marker, and the sense of sharing and celebrating together is diminishing.

Ali also noted that politicians who used to routinely attend these Iftar parties are now staying away due to the heightened polarisation in society. “The sense of sharing, of celebrating together, is diminishing. Politicians who would routinely attend these Iftar parties, now tend to stay away due to this heightened polarisation,” observed Ali.

His observation highlights the importance of preserving the spirit of communal harmony and inclusivity, which has been a hallmark of Indian society for centuries. It is crucial to avoid turning cultural practices into symbols of identity, and to continue celebrating diversity and sharing in each other’s traditions. Political leaders have a significant role to play in promoting social cohesion and unity, and they must strive to transcend the barriers of identity politics and uphold the values of pluralism and secularism.

Normalising surveillance

Ali narrated how surveillance has become normalized in Muslim-dominated areas. According to him, there are two players involved: state and non-state actors. The state actors, with their machinery, constantly keep a watch on areas where Muslims are in large numbers. Even educational spaces like Jamia are not exempt from this, as police personnel are often deployed there. Ali believes that under the guise of providing safety, the state is actually using surveillance as a tool to monitor people, rather than to ensure their safety.

What causes ghettoisation?

With each incident of Hindu-Muslim riots or communal flare-ups, residents tendlook to segregate themselves. Ghettos are not usually formed out of choice, but rather due to prevailing conditions. Dr. Karim Khan, who resides in Delhi’s Mustafabad, recalls having to leave a Hindu-dominated area after the 2020 riots.

“The landlord asked me to vacate his house a few hours after the riots broke out. He said that this was a ‘Hindu area’ and that it was not right for me to live there. I also felt that I would be safer in a space where Muslims are in the majority,” Khan said. Even well-off Muslims tend to stay in Muslim-dominated areas due to safety concerns and the ability to freely practice their religion. These reasons are crucial when considering the issue of ghettoisation, said Khan.

Also read: Bihar riots during Ram Navami: 45 arrested, normalcy restored, say Police

However, he also pointed out that ghettoisation is not always forced upon Muslims. There are enclaves where Muslim families choose to live. “These enclaves are born out of our desire not to mix with others to protect our identity in a process of self-segregation,” said Khan, putting things in perspective.

‘Maintaining public order

A recent report titled ‘The Use and Misuse of Section 144 CrPC’ provides a detailed analysis of how Section 144 is being used in Delhi over a year-long period. The report, authored by advocates Abhinav Sekhri, Natasha Maheshwari, Vrinda Bhandari, and Madhav Aggarwal, analyzed over 5,400 orders that were issued between January 1, 2021, and January 1, 2022, ‘imposing Section 144’.

The study found that 43% of the orders analysed were related to regulating businesses through record and registration requirements. In contrast, only 1.5%, or 81 of the 5,400 orders, imposed a blanket restriction on unlawful assembly. Additionally, the report concluded that in 5 out of 18 districts/ units/subdivisions, orders restricting the right to public assembly were not issued at all.

The authors of the report highlighted the “brazen violation of the time limits inherent to Section 144 despite the repeated affirmation of their importance by constitutional courts.”

Weaponizing religious processions

Another recent report, titled “Routes of Wrath: Weaponizing Religious Processions,” sheds light on the communal violence that took place in various parts of India during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti last year. The report highlights a clear pattern in these violent incidents, from strategically selecting routes for religious processions to using incendiary tools to provoke violence. The report exposes the premeditated nature of these incidents, which appear to be well-planned and executed with precision.

Speaking to The Federal, senior advocate Chander Uday Singh emphasized the significance of the report, which offers a ground-level analysis of the communal violence and the tactics used to incite it. He added that the report — based on secondary research derived from publicly available information, including the work of fact-finding initiatives, and reportage from credible news and information sources — raises serious concerns about the weaponization of religious processions and the potential for further violence.

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