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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Riots in India: History, causes & trends

On one hand, Muslims are victimized over cow slaughter. On the other hand, India is one of the biggest exporters of beef. If they kill Muslims who eat cow meat why do they slaughter cows and export it?

Recent Delhi violence left 36 persons dead. In the past also, India witnessed riots. By studying them we could identify a pattern, if any. In its ordinary sense, a `riot’ is conceived to be a disturbance of peace in a locality, using non-lethal means like brickbats, by a crowd of three or more persons. In the historical context of Indian riots, this meaning has undergone a metamorphosis. Transformed meaning of a `riot’ in terms of recent experiences is `attacks by organized incensed majority groups against a targeted minority through all available means, lethal and non-lethal’.

Narendra Modi, then Gujarat Chief Minister demanded a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter (Hindu, November 21, 2005). His demand was bolstered by India’s Supreme Court’s judgment (October 26, 2005). It reversed a 36-year-old ruling and upheld the constitutional validity of the Gujarat law imposing the ban on slaughtering of bulls, and bullocks. 

Islam is the second-largest religion in India, with 14.2% of the country’s population which is approx. 172 million Muslims (2011 census). It makes India the country with the largest Muslim population outside Muslim-majority countries. The Muslim is divided into ashraf (Muslims of foreign lineage) and ajlaf (local converts). The ashraf is regarded as the superior group and are mainly endogamous, while the ajlaf are considered to be inferior. Some scholars use another category, arzal, to denote the Muslim who converted from the lowest strata of society, that is bhangidoomchoora (sweeper).

To ameliorate the lot of the downtrodden Muslim (arzal or ajlaf), there should be a caste-based census to identify those deserving `reservation’ in scheduled caste.

Read more: Modi’s India: Govt bans TV channels covering Delhi riots, then backtracks

Divided into several ethnolinguistic groups, the Indian Muslims are generally poor, mostly small peasants, landless labourers and artisans in the villages. Only in some cities, they constitute middle and lower middle class. Some Muslims are exceptionally rich, but they are few in the ocean of Hindu nouveau riches. India’s home minister Amit Shah called them `termites’.

History of riots

Anti-Muslim riots are not a new phenomenon in India. There used to be such riots in pre-partition days also on flimsy issues. There were anti-Muslim riots in 1707 after the death of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

In 1714, anti-Muslim riots on issues of cow slaughter took place. Alleged attack on religious processions or other excuses triggered anti-Muslim riots in Kashmir (1719), Delhi (1729), and Bombay (1786). In Benares (1809), bloody anti-Muslim riots were due to a mosque allegedly having been built by Aurangzeb atop a temple (quasi-Babri-Masjid issue). When the Muslim functionaries were unfairly downgraded, riots took place at different places in Uttar Pradesh (Koil 1820, Moradabad 1833, Shahjahanpur 1837, and Allahabad 1837-52).

The riots in the 1990s were due to Advani’s Rath Yatra (chariot procession), resulting in the death of over 200 people mostly Muslims. In January 1993, over 3000 Muslims were killed in Bombay by Shiv Sena in collusion with the police.



Efforts have been made in the past to ferret out causes of communal riots in India. Past inquiry reports into major riots (Delhi 1984, Bhagalpur 1989 and Ayodhya 1992) lament poor governance in preventing or controlling the riots, and prosecuting the rioters. Those having academic interest in details may refer to an analysis by V. N. Rai, N. C. Saxena, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch/Asia, besides reports of the Commissions of Inquiry into Disturbance at Bhiwandi (1970), Tellicherry (1971), and Jamshedpur (1979).

For further insights, one may look into reports of seminars, titled “State Protected Lawlessness from Ayodhya to Bombay” and Communal Riots and the Role of Law Enforcement Agencies”, convened at Bombay by Iqbal A. Ansari and Dr Asghar Ali (founder secretary general of Minorities’ Council of India).

Read more: US, Turkey, Pak & others slam India over Delhi riots

It appears that the past studies are post-mortem reports. They do not try to determine statistical correlation between cause (economic, political or communal), issues and places of riots to formulate a testable hypothesis about probable causes and venues of riots in future. Lack of futuristic orientation or reliable data may have been fetters to the researchers’ feet.

In the past, fanatic Hindus have started riots to snatch or destroy well-to-do Muslims’ properties. The economic motive behind starting the riots is the foremost in Hindus’ minds. Let us look into the past trend of riots, and the issues on which they were started.


Hindutva: Anti-Muslim violence in India has risen pari passu with the upsurge in Hindutva. The leading politicians side with the Hindu extremists for myopic electoral gains. Even Congress leaders have been distributing tridents (trishul) on the plea that their party’s policy placed no bar on it.

In 1991, BJP’s LK Advani, later home minister, undertook Rath Yatra (chariot journey) from a Hindu temple in Gujarat to Ram Janam Bhoomi (birthplace of Hindu god Ram). That symbolic journey engendered Hindutva upsurge, which destroyed Babri Masjid in 1992. Subsequently, the BJP, then a marginal group with only two seats in Indian parliament witnessed the party’s cataclysmic rise into a ruling party, as of now.

Hindutva influence has permeated not only into the bureaucracy but also the armed forces, security agencies and the judiciary. Hindutva influence on Indian armed forces was manifested in the national elections of 1991 when India’s top 25 former military officers joined the BJP. Stephen P Cohen in “The Indian Army” says that India’s three wars with Pakistan contributed to the communalisation of its armed forces, as exemplified by an Indian general’s characterisation of Indo-Pakistan wars as ‘communal riots with armour’. 

To preclude police brutality who acts in unison with mobsters, Khushwant Singh suggested in 1969 drafting a substantial number of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians and Parsis into the Indian police forces. Police force of Punjab and Haryana should be non-Sikh, and that of Kashmir being non-Muslim, so on.

Battle cries used in the army are Ha Har Maahadev (Shivaji’s slogan), Bajrang Bali ki Jai, Bol Javala Man ki Jai. Hindu mobs attacking the Muslims also use the same slogans. How could the army jawans control the mob chanting the same slogans?

The Ayodhya case judges ordered the excavation of the site in disregard of res judicata principles. Possession is nine-point ownership. Existence of Babri Masjid for centuries debarred the Hindus from invoking their right to ownership of the site under Limitation Act, enshrining the principle `equity helps the vigilant, not the indolent’.

Read more: Indian politician gets life over 1984 anti-Sikh riots

Professor M. Mohanty of Delhi University is of the view that `Increasing intolerance among the Hindu fundamentalist organisations, which pose a grave threat to democracy, is an indication of the rise of fascist forces in India. Professor Kanti Bajpai of Jawaharlal Nehru University agreed, `The rise of right-wing politics in India is far more advanced and violent than in Austria’.

The Economist

World in 2003 (page 77) states, ‘The coming year will witness a war between Hindu nationalists and secular modernists for the soul. It is a battle that should command the world’s attention. On the one hand, are hundreds of millions of Indians who thrill to an extremist version of Hindu nationalism: nothing so pleases as burning of a few Muslims, the prospects of war with Pakistan and revenge for Muslim invasion of India many centuries ago. On the other Indian secular modernists…The first battleground will be the state of Gujarat…’ (The secularists have lost the battle there).

Gujarat state has lifted the ban on government employees’ becoming members of RSS. Uttar Pradesh state’s legislature has placed restrictions on building and use of places of worship. After approval of the parliamentary committee, Savarkar’s portrait has been hung in the Indian parliament. Savarkar thus stands resurrected as a hero of the freedom movement. Savarkar wanted India for the Hindus only.

Economic gains

The riots in the 1990s in India (e.g. destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992) are markedly different from those in the pre-1990s period (e.g., 1948 Hyderabad riots against the takeover by India). The pre-1990s pogroms affected mainly slum-dwelling poor Muslims. But, the riots in the 1990s hit poor and rich Muslims alike. The stimulating motive was to pauperize the affluent Muslims by looting away their life-long earnings. The affluent and influential Hindus no longer tried to play the role of mediators (unlike the case of previous riots in some industrial cities).

In the Hyderabad riots of 1990, Indian cricketer Azharuddin was attacked in his hometown. During January 1993, Mrs Rahi Masum Raza, wife of script-writer of TV-series Mahabharata fled uptown Bombay for refuge in Bhendi Bazar. In 1991, Muslim professors of Delhi University ran away from their houses to seek safety elsewhere. There are countless other instances of harassment of Muslim prodigies like Dilip Kumar, Saira Bano, Shabana Azmi, Farah Khan, and Ali Sardar Jaafri (poet with Padma Shri award) who was asked by the police to prove his nationality.

From the recent trends, it is obvious that future riots are more likely to take place in localities where the Muslims are economically competitive and affluent. Muslim-owned industrial and business establishments will be the targets.

Nehru had foreseen this changing pattern of riots, as reflected in his letter September 1954 to a chief minister (Nehru’s letters to Chief Ministers, Vol. IV, edited by G Parthasarthy, New Delhi Oxford University Press, Delhi). He wrote: “There is also a new motive which previous to the partition was not present. This is the lure of property. In the pre-partition days, whatever communal trouble took place, no one ever thought of driving out the other party from their houses or shops. No one ever thought of profiting by any such action. Now, this element has come in and is thought that if the Muslims in a particular area are frightened and made to leave, that property would naturally come to the Hindus”.

Read more: Why US plans to blacklist India?

Nehru’s observation is borne by Jabalpur riots in 1961 which aimed at hounding out the Muslim bidi magnate from the local market. Bhiwandi (Maharashtra) riots of 1970 and 1984 were aimed at dispossessing the Muslim of their control of power loom industry. Moradabad riots of 1980 were the outcome of jealousy against the prosperity of Muslim brassware artisans. Riots of 1984 in Andhra Pradesh destroyed $ 10000 worth of Muslim businesses.

Riots usually take place in urban areas of India, particularly in industrial cities, like Bombay, Bhewandi, Baroda, Surat, Kanpur, Moradabad, Meerut, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Bhopal. Refugee or Bengali migrants dominated areas are particularly riot prone.

They occur usually at places where Muslims are numerically and economically competitive and do not reconcile with an inferior status. No riots take place in areas with thin downtrodden Muslim population, resigned to subjugated fate because of perceived vulnerability, e.g. in coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh, or the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh.

Anti-Christian Violence

The Hindutva has engulfed the Christians also. The New Delhi based United Christian Forum for Human Rights has documented more than 120 attacks against Christian individuals, churches or schools by Hindu fundamentalists in the past year. Half of these incidents occurred in Gujarat.

Anti-Conversion Bills passed by Tamil Nadu and Gujarat legislatures, and house-to-house surveys of Christian dwellings in certain states indicate that the Christians also are an uncongenial minority. Christianity is India’s third-largest religion after Hinduism and Islam, with approximately 28 million followers, constituting 2.3 per cent of India’s population (2011 census).

In Orissa, Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines (1941 – 23 January 1999), along with his two sons, Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), was burnt to death by a gang of a Hindu fundamentalist group named Bajrang Dal, led by serial killer Dara Singh. To add insult to injury, the state government passed an amendment in Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, in November 2002, prohibiting conversion without permission of local police and a district magistrate!

Issues Triggering Riots

Cow slaughter (actually, if not politicized, it is a non-issue). Yet, several Muslims including Tabriz Ansari were either lynched alive or set ablaze on this non-issue. It is eerie that India’s Dua Corporation is itself the biggest exporter of beef, sometimes surpassed by Brazil.

Read more: Pakistani Hindu community cancels Holi celebrations to protest Delhi riots

Hindu extremists desire to enforce a uniform civil code ostensible under Articles 44 and 48 of the Indian Constitution, but actually in violation of Articles 14 (no religious discrimination), 16 (equal opportunities for minorities), 26 to 28 (minorities freedom to manage their religious affairs), 30 (maintaining minorities educational institutions), 345, 347, 350, 350-A (rights of linguistic minorities). Loud music and Bhajan singing before mosques. Non-traditional routes of processions. Reservation of jobs, and seats in educational institutions. Elopement of Hindu girls with Muslim boys. Characterisation of one by the other community as Malichh and Kafir. Routes of Religious processions. Conversions from one religion to another. Singing or playing Vande Matram aloud before mosques. The de facto status of Urdu especially in Uttar Pradesh. Muslim Personal Law and Uniform Civil Code. Suspicions about Muslims loyalty to India.


In light of the aforementioned trends, the Indian Muslims should, through cooperative action, continue to improve their education, economic potential, their association with their brethren in foreign countries, particularly in the Middle East. They could visualise from the past trends where the future riots would take place, and on what issues.

Violence against Muslim protesters in North East Delhi is an upshot of police apathy to the accumulation of arms and BJP’s connivance. Military training in private and public schools by retired and serving soldiers engenders serious concern for Muslim safety. It caricatures Modi 2.0’s slogan sab ka vishwas (everybody’s trust).

Read more: PM Imran Khan urges world to stop ‘Delhi riots’, violence against Muslims

Muslims should emulate the Christian minority to withstand persecution. Today, Christians live all across particularly in South India and the southern shore, the Konkan Coast, and Northeast India. Through sheer hard work, Indian Christians developed niches in all walks of Indian national life. They include former and current chief ministers, governors and chief election commissioners. To ruling Bharatiya Janata party’s chagrin, Christians are the second most educated religious group in India after Jains. Christian women outnumber men among the various religious communities.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved is an editor to The Consul. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, et. al.). He is author of seven e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.