Riots in India

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Riots in India

Since 2018 there has been a big increase in communal violence in India. Dilnaz Boga writes about the victims of ethnic violence in the 1990s and they explain their fears about India and the future.


Damage from the 2020 Bangalore riots. Credit: Times of India

Ayeshabi Abdul Sattar Nadaf is 50 and sells fish to make some money in Mumbai. ‘When I was married, I was so shy that I could not go to a shop and ask for something,’ she says with a smile. Since then, life has taught Ayeshabi a lot.

On 3 January 1993, her husband, 30-year-old Abdul Sattar was stabbed and burnt to death in Kandivali, a western suburb of the violent city. Abdul was looking for his brother. People said he was killed in the ‘Bombay riots’. 900 died. The communal violence in December 1992 and January 1993, started after the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. It was an attack on Muslims in Mumbai. Two days later, Ayeshabi escaped with her two small daughters and son – all under the age of 10. She never returned home. She went to her father’s house a few suburbs away. ‘I didn’t feel safe; there was no news of my husband,’ she says. ‘Our mosque and two Muslim homes nearby were demolished. There was so much violence around us, I was worried for my children… our lives. A friend told us that rioters asked my husband to chant “Ram, Ram”, a Hindu religious chant, but he refused, so they stabbed him and set him on fire.’ Men from Ayeshabi’s neighbourhood demolished her house. Pappubhai Qureshi worked with NGO Citizens for Peace in Mumbai. He says that during the riots, there were many murders near Ayesha’s home. Rioters burnt between 8 and 10 houses in Kandivali, in east Mumbai. The rioters wanted to destroy people’s lives. ‘The Supreme Court had a list of missing people they thought died in the riots,’ he says.

Many people lost their homes during riots in India. Ayeshabi is only one of them. There are no national figures for this but there are still killings today.

Almost thirty years after the riots, many people are still losing their homes in India. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) is an international agency in Geneva. It says that most of South Asia’s new displacements between 2018 and 2019 were in India. It says that as many as 230,000 girls and women lost their homes because of violence in India.

Religious violence has deep roots. Researchers say it is possible that India’s Partition is one of the most violent examples of ethnic cleansing in recent history and India is the fourth-worst country in the world for religious violence. Over 12 million people lost their homes and had to move.

The stress and shock return

The effects of the violence are very clear. Ayeshabi says that she is worried now because her children grew up without a father and that is even worse than the psychological stress. ‘My daughter Asma loved her father and she felt so bad when she saw other children with their fathers after his murder.’ In recent times, lynchings of Muslims and the riots in Delhi in 2019 on TV have brought back terrible memories for Ayeshabi.

‘These days I cannot sleep well. Delhi reminds me of what we suffered as a family. My children had to leave school. All we could do was survive. There is too much tension here even now, but where can we go? We were born here, and we will die here.’

Not only Muslims have suffered violence. Dalits are another marginalized group. They have suffered attacks from Brahmanical forces because of caste. Kamal Gaikwad is 65 and remembers a two-month long riot in 1974. It forced her family to move. Gaikwad lived in a building in Naigaon, Worli, one of south Mumbai’s best areas.

‘There was a riot between the Shiv Sena and the Dalit Panthers over the murder of Bhagwat Jhadhav. He was a young party member. He was killed when the Dalit Panthers rioted near Worli’s police quarters,’ Kamal says. Her father, a mill worker, decided to move to a shanty in north Mumbai. Her family still regrets losing the property.

In his book Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, Paul Brass says there has been ethnic-based violence in India since independence. Now there is violence because of politics and it divides the public. The anti-Muslim riots in Godhra in 2002 seem to be an example of what Paul Brass calls an ‘institutionalised riot system’. In Gujarat, Hindu mobs murdered over 2,500 and 200,000 families lost their homes. The BJP state government with its chief minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to help. A study at Yale University looked at the effect of riots on the votes of Hindu nationalist parties. It shows that the BJS/BJP saw a 0.8 percent increase in their vote after a riot in the year before an election.

Riot survivors like Sheikh Anwar, 53, blame politicians. ‘You can ask anyone,’ he says, ‘I have always got on well with people from all communities.’ Anwar had a sewing business in Kurar village in Malad, in east Mumbai. He remembers that people he knew and some he did not know attacked his workshop and home. ‘They destroyed all my sewing machines and the orders. I had to leave immediately.’ In 1998, Anwar returned to the village to restart his business with help from Hindu friends but he left a year later because of ‘fights between communities in the area.’ He sold his home of 15 years and moved to Malvani, another suburb in north Mumbai.

Anwar still does not understand why they targeted him in December 1992. ‘I was not involved in politics, and I had a good relationship with everyone. I just do not understand. Our country suffers when poor people lose their way to make a living. Politicians control our lives.’

Dark powers

Losing homes and moving away because of conflict happens a lot, but it can be difficult to find data on it because conflicts are in specific places, and are often linked to identity and ethnicity. But Misbah Rashid is a Research and Documentation Officer at the Centre for Equity Studies. She has a three-year project on riots and she plans to collect information from people affected by riots in India between 1961 and 2013.

While she was collecting information about the Bhiwandi riots, she met a rich business family. They were sheltering workers in the compound of their house, where 32 of them were killed. ‘In 1970 the family moved because of a riot. In 1982 they moved again to Mumbai and in the riots of 1992, they had to move once more.’

54-year-old Javed Ansari’s family moved many times over several generations. ‘Our family was hit by the Uttar Pradesh riots about 150 years ago. My father moved to Kurla, in Mumbai, as a young man. He finished his studies there. We had a big house there. Because of the riots, we moved again to Kalyan.’ Born in 1966, Ansari’s family had moved to Bhiwandi where he is sure he and his siblings lived a perfect life on a farmhouse his father built on 28 acres.

The family even had a good relationship with people from the nearby villages. But, on 17 May 1984, armed mobs attacked the property for two days. ‘People from the slum (including Hindus) close to our farmhouse ran to us for help. My father called the police, but they did not help. 5,000 people surrounded us and chanted slogans. We held out all night.’

The mob, Ansari says, had guns, swords, and explosives. ‘For each person in the farmhouse there were 100 people outside. We had guns but not enough cartridges. Finally, they broke in and the violence was terrible,’ he remembers. The women and children were locked safely in the farmhouse and they survived. But the others did not. The mob poured kerosene on them, and asked them to run. They set them on fire. They killed 32. Three were Hindus. 28 bodies were found, and four bodies were in a well. A police officer called for help. The State Reserve Police Force, with journalists, arrived. ‘Journalists interviewed dying victims and the story was reported internationally,’ he says.

Now Ansari sees a dark future, but he is still hopeful. ‘There is injustice worldwide, so you have to fight for justice… for truth. These dark powers are at their peak. That means their end is near. That is why it is important to stand for what’s right,’ he says.

Police and the riots

Shambuk Sankalpana Uday is a member of All India Students Federation (AISF). He lives close to Bhiwandi, Maharashtra’s power loom centre. It is 31 kilometres from Mumbai. Right-wing people often describe Bhiwandi as ‘mini-Pakistan’ because so many Muslim people live there.

The Bhiwandi riots were in 1984, and Shambuk says that his organization, supported by the Left, ‘helped the community day and night’. They could not find the numbers of people displaced because they were busy with rehabilitation work, he says.

In the past, many people from rural parts of Bhiwandi had to move because of police violence. People ran away from villages with a majority of Muslims, such as Pagda, Borivali, and Mahpauli in rural Bhiwandi. This was because of harassment by the police, Shambuk says.

Asrar Ansari agrees. ‘I was 19 years old when I saw the 7 May 1970 riots here. The police have always supported the rioters here – they shoot the poor and protect the violent. This has been their traditional role. The Justice Madan Commission report said the same.’

Bhiwandi was one of many towns that suffered from violence. Aurangabad, too, 383 kilometres from India’s financial capital Mumbai, suffered violence in 1992, 1996, and 2018. Abhay Taksal lives in Aurangabad. He worked closely with activist Irfan Engineer’s Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. He says that fear was a big part of both Hindus and Muslims losing homes and moving and the ghettoes of his city into the ‘green belt’ and the ‘saffron belt’.

Hindus left Muslim areas, and Muslims left Hindu areas after the riots. In Aurangabad, he says, in the violence on the night of 11 May 2018, the police shot two people, a Hindu and a Muslim. ‘Looting and burning of shops during riots is common. There has been no action against the police who were with the rioters in May. Forget action, there has been no inquiry into these murders,’ says Taksal.

Legal justice is difficult to get. It takes years for trials to begin and end. In fact, people who criticise the state and their support of riots have been targeted. Teesta Setalvad was a journalist and social activist. In Gujarat he wrote about the displacement in the community during and after the riots. Setalvad’s testimony at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom against the state (BJP) government, then headed by Modi, led to the US denying him entry to the country in 2005. This was because of his role in the Gujarat riots from February to May 2002. There were many rapes, 2,000 Muslims were killed, and over 200,000 were displaced.

Shafi Patel helped many victims of the Mumbai and Gujarat riots in his 25 years of service to the marginalized. Patel is from Bharuch in South Gujarat. He says, ‘Firstly, there were people who were displaced because they got no support and had no food, shelter or clothing. Secondly, some relatives helped them. Finally, there were families got help and found better opportunities for themselves.’ Patek also says, ‘Government compensation is a criminal situation. There is bribery and corruption in political organisations that give financial help. People are left to look after themselves.’

Boundary lines

Nachiketa Desai is a journalist in Ahmedabad. He wrote about the Gujarat riots, he says, ‘Muslims were at the receiving end and they became refugees overnight. I remember, around 400 lower-middle-income families moved from eastern Ahmedabad, the old town, to Juhapura, the rich western part of the city in 2002.’ Juhapura is now the largest ‘Muslim ghetto’ in the state, he says with sadness.

Desai suggest that militant Hindu groups targeted Muslim businesses to make a demographic change. Desai remembers, ‘I interviewed Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia. He said that the VHP did a census and land record survey to look at the ownership of property among Hindus and Muslims in over 18,000 villages, towns and cities of the state.’ Togadia said that the survey would provide the VHP leaders with the data to help make short-term and long-term plans to ‘protect’ the interests of the Hindu community in ‘sensitive’ areas. To stop the demographic spread and economic growth of Muslims, Togadia said very clearly that the VHP would draw a ‘boundary line’ in all big towns and cities and Muslims would not be allowed to cross it.

Since then, there have been many communal riots. More recently, vigilante cow protection groups attacked people in states such as Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka in the name of upholding laws prohibiting the killing of cows.

Mostly in four of 28 Indian states, there have been more than 33,000 Hindu‐Muslim riots since 1947. Some of them are the Bhagalpur riots of 1989, Aligarh riots of 1990-1991, the religious violence in Kandhamal district in the western parts of Odisha in January 1999, the Muzaffarnagar district violence in 2013 and 2019.

Now there is a need for a longitudinal study on the survivors, the after-effects (social, economic, psychological) of displacement to understand the real suffering people have had.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)