Anatomy of a riot

The recent riots in Nuh show a clear pattern of targeting Muslim minorities

August 10, 2023 12:40 am | Updated 12:41 am IST

‘Nuh is a poor district but its economic backwardness should not be seen as the main reason behind this violence’

‘Nuh is a poor district but its economic backwardness should not be seen as the main reason behind this violence’ | Photo Credit: PTI

Though Hindu-Muslim violence is not new in India, the one that erupted in Nuh district and Gurgaon in Haryana recently has perhaps opened a new chapter in terms of its nature, character and consequences on Indian polity. Located in the Mewat region, Nuh is a poor district but its economic backwardness should not be seen as the main reason behind this violence. Based on reports, this violence — it could be argued — is a result of competitive assertion of identities in a highly polarised polity which offers varied forms of patronage to non-state actors. Given the state response, it looks like the Muslim minority may end up paying a disproportionately greater price, as has often been the case in riots even in the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) days of India’s governance. Scholars might find it tempting to go back to Paul Brass’s formulation of an institutionalised riot system (IRS), based on his study of riots in Aligarh and Meerut, to make sense of the spontaneity, and scale of this violence.

In my view, there is more to it than Brass’s formulation. The political context of the sustained penetration of Hindu majoritarianism in various domains of state and society need to be factored in as well, particularly with regard to state indifference or complicity. The Haryana and Punjab Court’s observation on Monday, describing bulldozer justice as “an exercise of ethnic cleansing is being conducted by the State,” reveals a lot about the ideological intent of state response.

Everyday communalism

In 1992, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid when Narasimha Rao’s government dismissed the governments of four-BJP ruled States, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh, some questioned the fairness by highlighting the riot-free regimes the BJP had given in these States till then. The claim that the Hindu Right regimes have a better record of riot-free governance continues to be made even today. The Haryana violence proves it wrong. In April this year, U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath made such a claim of no riots in the State since 2017. But National Crime Records Bureau data reports 5,302 cases of rioting in 2021.

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During the Karnataka election campaign, also in April, Home Minister Amit Shah remarked at a rally in Belagavi that if the Congress came to power, there would be riots, implying that there were no riots under BJP rule.

There have been several incidents of riots in Maharashtra since April 2023 (Kolhapur, Mumbai, Sambhajinagar, Jalgaon, Akola and Ahmednagar), under the watch of the BJP coalition government. In most cases, there is a pattern which factors in a procession, a temple or mosque, and a social media post establishing the circle of reason for the violence. The Nuh violence also presents a similar pattern. According to Paul Brass, there are at least three phases: preparation/rehearsal, activation/enactment and then explanation/interpretation. Given the ideological spin accorded to interpretation of riots, it seems the truth about the anatomy of riot will elude many.

Row over Friday prayers

But how does one explain the speed with which the Nuh violence spread to Gurgaon leading to mob attacks on a mosque, killing its 26-year-old Imam? A Muslim group had won the case in the Supreme Court to refurbish and expand this mosque only two months ago. Therefore, the Gurgaon namaz controversy that had rocked the city in 2018 may have constituted a background to this attack. Muslims used to have 116 designated public spaces to offer Friday prayers which has been reduced to six, owing to sustained protests by Hindu Right groups.

To connect the dots, what is the Friday namaz controversy? That Friday congregations at public spaces, even if it is for a couple of hours, may have caused public inconvenience has some truth. However, immersion processions (of Ganesh or Durga) or the Kanwar yatras also have a similar impact on regular lives.

Mutual accommodation and respect are the ways these inconveniences have been addressed in the past. The present demand against Friday namaz is clearly driven by a Hindu supremacist ideology to show Muslims their place in this country — and public inconvenience is just a ruse.

But why do Muslims offer Friday prayers in public? According to Islamic practice, the Friday namaz is a unique mass prayer which requires a congregation, like during Eid or Bakra-Eid. For any newspaper reader in India, it is familiar to see photos of Muslims offering prayers on the roads during Eid. This is because a mosque does not have enough space to accommodate a large gathering. Given that there are not enough mosques to accommodate growing Muslim populations in Gurgaon, Muslims chose to offer prayers in an open space designated by the local administration.

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In a way, it reflects the community’s poor economic condition too. In this particular controversy, Muslim groups have conducted themselves with tremendous dignity, but their efforts to look for alternative arrangements for prayers have not borne fruit, owing to various bureaucratic bottlenecks, particularly with regard to available waqf lands and interest group politics connected with it.

To conclude, non-resolution of the namaz controversy, either by persuasive means or by state interventions, has created a supportive background to this retaliatory attack on a masjid in Gurgaon and the violence that followed. As long as there are no sincere secular interventions, the risk for violence will remain.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims

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