A Single Factor Is Common to All Communal Riots During Religious Processions in India

No cause of interfaith riots has been as recurrent and widespread as the religious procession. The key factor in causing and preventing such riots has always been the route.

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”
– Milan Kundera

Indian history is rife with instances of religious processions that led to communal strife, riots, inexcusable violence, arson, destruction of property and the tragic deaths of innocent residents of the riot-hit areas. There have been horrific riots and bloodletting caused by other factors too, most prominently the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, but no cause of interfaith riots has been as recurrent and widespread as the religious procession.

This is as true of pre-Independence India as during the 75 years since we became a free nation.

And if one factor were to be singled out as the most important catalyst for communal riots flowing from religious processions, and equally for the prevention of such riots, it would have to be the route chosen by procession organisers.

This appears to have been recognised as early as 1860, when Thomas Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code was enacted. Section 153 prescribed a punishment of six months imprisonment for wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot, and one year if the provocation resulted in rioting.

Section 188, which made it an offence to disobey an order duly promulgated by a public servant, contained an illustration, which demonstrates at least one form of disobedience that was known to British India:

“S. 188. Disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant.
— ……..


An order is promulgated by a public servant lawfully empowered to promulgate such order, directing that a religious procession shall not pass down a certain street. A knowingly disobeys the order, and thereby causes danger of riot. A has committed the offence defined in this section.”

Post-Independence, we have faced numerous communal riots in diverse parts of India, under different political regimes, and the vast majority of these have been caused by the deliberate choice of communally-sensitive routes by processionists, and the pusillanimity of the Police in dealing with such demands, or even their collusion and connivance in licencing such routes. A glance at some illustrative examples of such riots will make the point.

Sholapur, 1967

The city of Sholapur in Southwest Maharashtra presents an interesting, if grim, picture of how certain religious processions have led, not unintendedly, to communal flare-ups, riots, and deaths. As found by the “Commission of Inquiry on Communal Disturbance at Sholapur – September 17, 1967”— chaired by Justice Raghubar Dayal, former judge of the Supreme Court, the Commission included Col. B.H. Zaidi, M.P., and retired bureaucrat Shri M.M. Philip — communal outbreaks had occurred on the occasions of ‘Rath Processions’ in 1925 and 1927, in connection with ‘Ganapati Immersion Processions’ in 1927 and 1966, and 18 cases of stabbing were spurred by the shouting of objectionable slogans during a procession by the Arya Samaj Satyagraha in 19391. Other mass stabbings took place in August, 1947, but those stemmed from the violence of Partition and the refugee crisis.

Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad, 1970

Bhiwandi, a powerloom centre barely 37 km from Mumbai, was the tragic site of large-scale communal disturbances and riots on May 7, 1970, which resulted in the loss of 78 lives, 59 Muslim, 17 Hindu, and two undetermined. As found by the “Commission of Inquiry to Inquire Into the Communal Disturbances at Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad in May 1970”, a one-man Inquiry by sitting Bombay High Court Judge, Justice D.P. Madon, these riots were the direct consequence of a massive Shiv Jayanti Procession comprising about 10,000 processionists armed with lathis, which insisted on a route which passed the Nizampura Jumma Mosque. The Bhiwandi riots led instantly to copycat riots on May 8, 1970 in Jalgaon and Mahad, two cities that had nothing in common with Bhiwandi; 43 died in Jalgaon, 42 Muslim and one Hindu; fortunately, no lives were lost in Mahad.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Justice Madon found that 1963 was an important year in the communal history of Bhiwandi, for that was when the Hindus started taking out processions which did not stop playing music while passing by a mosque. He found that 1964 was the year when the Shiv Jayanti Procession began its practice of stopping in front of mosques, shouting provocative and anti-Muslim slogans, and throwing excessive ‘gulal’. Coincidentally, this was also the year when the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor to the BJP, established its Bhiwandi branch. He found that these provocations were amplified in 1965, when for the very first time a procession other than a purely Muslim one went past the Nizampur Jumma Mosque.  Not surprisingly, the year 1967 witnessed the very first communal riots in Bhiwandi, which took place as the Shiv Jayanti Procession was passing by the Nizampura Jumma Mosque.

In 1969 the multi-faith Shiv Jayanti Utsav Samiti was rendered defunct when 15 Jana Sangh members walked out, along with one Shiv Sena member and three of indeterminate political leanings, and formed the Rashtriya Utsav Mandal (R.U.M.), which set the stage for the 1970 processions. Justice Madon found that “the immediate or proximate cause of the Bhiwandi disturbances was the deliberate misbehaviour of the processionists in the Shiv Jayanti procession, which was taken out in Bhiwandi on May 7, 1970, in order to provoke the Muslims and the fact that at the instance and instigation the Rashtriya Utsav Mandal the majority of processionists, particularly the processionists from the villages, had participated in the procession carrying lathis to which Bhagwa flags and banners were tied in order to circumvent the ban under section 37(1) of the Bombay Police Act, 1951, prohibiting the carrying of weapons, so that the processionists would be armed to meet the contingency of the Muslims starting any trouble either on their own or as a result of the deliberate provoking of the Muslims by the processionists”.

Jamshedpur, 1979

In 1978, the RSS/VHP insisted that the traditional Ram Navami procession should follow a new route that would pass through the congested Muslim area of Sabirnagar. Anticipating communal trouble, the authorities asked them to use a route that bypassed Sabirnagar, but the procession organisers persisted in their demand. They refused every alternate route offered, even though Sabirnagar was not the most direct, nor was it an open or convenient route, as it involved a diversion through a kachha rasta and private fields to use that route. When the authorities did not give in, the RSS/VHP mounted an agitation, and finally refused to hold the procession for an entire year, to build up pressure on the administration.

Ultimately, the Karpuri Thakur-led Janata Party Government (a coalition ruling at the Centre and in Bihar State, with the BJP a prominent member in both) caved in, and in 1979 the local administration was persuaded to agree to allow the Ram Navami procession on a route through Sabirnagar. A “deal” was struck, based on the promise that the main procession would continue on the normal roads and highway, while a small “sample procession” would pass through Sabirnagar, accompanied by local Muslim elders, and would then rejoin the main procession on the highway.

Also read: Gujarat Ram Navami Violence ‘Designed to Display Dominance of Hindus’: Fact-Finding Report

What actually happened was that once the “sample procession” was being escorted by Muslim elders and a small Police contingent into Sabirnagar, the 15,000-strong main procession suddenly broke away from its licenced route and followed the “sample procession” through private fields into Sabirnagar, and once they reached the Sabirnagar Masjid, they were halted by BJP MLA Dinanath Pandey, who refused to allow the procession to move, and insisted that they had a right to remain there while he made provocative and anti-Muslim speeches.

Stone-throwing inevitably ensued, followed by rioting and arson by the 15,000 processionists. This led to a conflagration all over Jamshedpur, culminating in 108 deaths, 79 Muslim, 25 Hindu, and 4 unidentified. Widespread looting, destruction of property and arson accompanied the riots, and since the epicentre was Sabirnagar, the Muslims quite naturally suffered a disproportionate impact of the loss of lives and livelihoods.

A commission of enquiry headed by Justice Jitendra Narain, a retired judge of the Patna High Court, found the RSS and Dinanath Pandey primarily responsible.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Kota, 1989

For a city that had not seen any riots in 1947, nor in the five decades that followed, 1989 proved the potency of targeted processions in fomenting riots. On this occasion, and in this calm oasis of Rajasthan, it was the Anant Chaturdashi procession for the immersion of Lord Ganesh that was used to light the communal fires. On September 14, 1989 the procession was deliberately taken on a route through a congested Muslim mohalla, and halted in front of the largest Mosque, enabling the processionists to shout communal slogans and hurl abuses at the Muslims. Inevitably, this resulted in counter-slogans, and the confrontation then descended into stonethrowing and ultimately assaults with deadly weapons. By the time the day was done, 16 Muslims and 4 Hindus were dead, thousands of Muslim street vendors and traders had had their businesses torched, and widespread arson had destroyed homes and shops in the Muslim area.

The cause of this man-made disaster was pithily summed up by the one-man “Commission of Inquiry on Communal Riots in Kota in 1989”, consisting of sitting Rajasthan High Court Judge Shri S.N. Bhargava (he was Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court when he submitted his Report):

“53. … … In all 20 persons died out of whom 16 were Muslims and 4 were Hindus. … … As is apparent from the evidence on record, the trouble started on account of shouting of objectionable and provocative slogans by the processionists reciprocated by the Muslim community. … … Taking an overall view of the evidence on record, I am of the view that it was the processionists who had started shouting objectionable and provocative slogans and it was only on account of the provocation by these objectionable slogans that the Muslim community also reciprocated the same.”

The destruction of Kota’s fraternity and amity might best be summed up in a verse taught to us in school:

Atishah ragad karey jo koye,
Anal prakat chandan te hoye.

(rub hard enough, and even the coolest wood, sandalwood, will catch fire).

Bhagalpur, 1989

This time it was a Ramshila procession on 24th October, 1989 that was diverted from the licensed route and taken through the congested Muslim area known as Tatarpur. Ramshila processions were by their very nature provocative and triumphalist, as these processions carried bricks (shila) consecrated by priests over a holy fire, ostensibly to be used for the construction of a Ram Temple which was proposed to be built after the proposed destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya (the actual demolition of Babri Masjid was not to take place until three years later in 1992).

A commission of enquiry consisting of Justice Ram Nandan Prasad, Justice Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha, and Justice S. Shamsul Hasan, retired judges of the Patna High Court, found that though tension over Ramshila processions had already been building up in Bhagalpur for at least a year prior to 1989, yet the Administration and Police had turned a blind eye to it. The Commission noted that there was no application to route the 1989 procession through Tatarpur, and that the licence issued to the procession’s organisers did not mention Tatarpur (para 578).

Also read: ‘No Transparency’ In Goa Ram Navami Violence Probe, Report Questions Hindutva Group’s Role

Yet the “mob consisting of thousands of miscreants” was permitted by the Police to deviate from the licenced route, enter Tatarpur, and wreak havoc against the defenseless Muslim populace.

“The Muslims of Bhagalpur and the surrounding areas were inflicted by divine wrath through marauding mobs in close alliance of the district police”, recorded the Commission in para 567 of its Report, and that this “is manifest by over 900 corpses with injuries and also over 900 individuals in handcuffs and manacles”. The Enquiry Commission found that “there were sufficient indications since more than a year before the commission of the riot…The District Administration as we have said, suffered from culpable amnesia, deliberate indifference and patent communal bias, incompetence in not anticipating the riot. Lack of impartiality in the District Administration also compounded the problem” (para 570).

The culpable amnesia highlighted by Justices Prasad, Sinha and Hasan in their Bhagalpur Inquiry Report of 1989 has become a recurring nightmare reminiscent of the movie Ground Hog Day. Year after year since the Bhagalpur riots resulted in the deaths of 900 Muslims more than 33 years ago, religious processions in State after State have been granted licences or permissions to pass through the most congested and sensitive areas. When such permissions are granted at times when Hindu and Muslim festivals or religious observances coincide, the chances of clashes grow exponentially. And when, as was observed during the festivals of Ram Navami and
Hanuman Jayanti in 2022, the processions are allowed to carry exposed weapons and are accompanied by high-decibel concert-level music systems and DJs playing obnoxious and hatespewing music in front of mosques, the provocation almost inevitably results in what was always intended by the organisers, a communal riot.

What has changed from the past, as I highlight in the following Introduction to present-day religious processions typified by those that celebrated Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022, is the attitude of the authorities and the administration. Whereas in the first seven decades of our nationhood, governments and civilian administrators expressed remorse, or set up commissions of inquiry to determine the causes of riots, and often announced compensation for the victims, the past few years have seen state governments shedding the fig leaf of plausible deniability, and proudly embracing the cause of the provocateurs.

Instead of an inquiry commission we now have a phalanx of bulldozers following in the wake of processionists, ready to demolish the businesses, livelihoods and homes of anybody perceived to have obstructed the procession. The civilian administration play judge and jury, pronounce the hapless people in the path of processionists guilty of being stone-throwers, the police play hangman with the bulldozers, and the municipal authorities come in to clean up the mess by post-facto declarations of encroachments, unauthorised constructions and other neat cover-ups for the demolitions.

Chander Uday Singh is a Senior Advocate.

The above is Chander Uday Singh’s prologue to the detailed report by the Citizens and Lawyers Initiative which looks into the sharp spike in events leading to communal violence during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022, which involved targeting Muslim places of worship or Muslim-majority localities.

Titled ‘Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions,’ the 174-page report, can be read here.