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Religious divide 'kept alive' with low intensity communalism in Gujarat's cultural capital

By Rajiv Shah 

A fact-finding report, prepared by the Mumbai-based non-profit, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), has cited the Vadodara Ram Navami violence of March 30 as yet another example of how, after the BJP consolidating its hold on political power in Gujarat post-2002 riots and at the Centre in 2014, the nature of communal riots has changed, underlining, as opposed to high-intensity violence earlier, now riots have become “more sub-radar and at a smaller scale, more localized”.
Prepared by Irfan Engineer, director, CSSS, and Hozefa Ujjaini, director, Buniyaad, among others, who visited the affected areas of Vadodara, the report says, “The newer triggers to communal riots included objectionable posts on social media, festivals and processions and bogey of love jihad.” This is coupled with “exclusion of Muslims from festivals like garba” adversely affecting “traditional spaces of composite heritage and inter-community relationships.”
Stating that violence around Ram Navami is latest in a series of low intensity riots that have been taking place Vadodara, considered the cultural capital of Gujarat, the report gives the examples of communal tensions in 2006, 2014, 2018, 2019, 2022 and 2023 (before the Ram Navami event), all of which, it says, were “controlled riots” not allowed to spread to “larger geographical areas or allowed to continue for more than a day or couple of days”, and yet “were successful in deepening communal identities and polarization.”
Referring to the March 30 Ram Navami clashes in this context, the report says, it followed a Shobhayatra organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (BD), in which according to different claims between 550 and 1,500 persons participated. While both sides pelted stones, the report regrets, the narrative that is being spread is, “Muslims don’t want Hindus to celebrate their festival and are intolerant towards their festivals.”
Pointing out that the stalls selling food, a pan masala shop, rickshaws and vehicles belonging to the Muslim residents were vandalized, the report quotes Niraj Jain, VHP leader and lawyer, as asking, “Why can’t the procession go into Muslim areas? Why do we need permission to go there? India is Hindu Rashtra and we are free to go anywhere we want. The Muslims are intolerant towards the Hindu festivals.”
Referring to videos of the processions showing participants in the procession were carrying arms, especially trishuls, all allegedly intended “to intimidate and target the Muslim community”, the report says, Vadodara city MLA Manisha Vakil was not only present during the procession which went through the Muslim-dominated Fatehpura, but did not seek to “calm" the situation or "maintain law and order.” Another BJP MLA of the city Keyur Rokadia went so far as to “instigated the police to act against the Muslims.”
As for the police, which diffused the Shobhayatra within few hours in Panjrigar Mohalla, the report says, its role seemed suspect, as despite the violence during the Shobhayatra, it allowed another procession at about 5.30 pm from Kumbharwada. “The permission this time was given for a different route than usual, allowing it to pass through Fatehpura, a Muslim dominated area and prone to tensions, the report notes, adding, “The police was present during both the processions but couldn’t do anything to stop the stone pelting or vandalization of property.”
Following the two incidents, the report says, apparently on instructions from Gujarat home minister Harsh Sanghavi, the police began “combing operations”, in which it “hit women and damaged houses belonging to Muslims. Muslims were arrested randomly and arbitrarily, without sufficient cause or proof. The police kicked food during iftar and were insensitive about Ramadan. In one night around 23 persons were arrested". In all 80 persons were arrested -- "only 15 to 16 were Hindus and rest all are Muslims.”
Asserting that the cops’ “conduct with women was appalling”, the report says, “There was no woman official while the Muslim women were arrested, thereby violating their rights. The members of Hathikhana and Panjrigar told the team that women went to the police station but their complaint was not taken. It seems like the arrests were more as a punishment against Muslim women for resisting the violence of the Hindu right wing during the procession."
Providing details of past low intensity riots in Vadodara, the report says, in 2014, the violence reportedly broke out after the images of Hindu Goddess Maa Ambe and Lord Ram superimposed over Mecca's religious shrine went viral on the internet, leading to over a dozen severe injuries, noting, “The violence coincided with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US.” Then, in 2018, on the first day of Ramazan, two communities clashed after a group of Hindu boys had a quarrel with a Muslim soda vendor, resulting in Hindu-Muslim clashes.
Stating how love jihad bogey was raised to incite the Hindu community and trigger violence in 2019 in Vadodara at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) campus, the report says, “An anti-ragging protest took a communal turn when one of the groups protesting against the anti-ragging protest – mainly a group consisting of Muslim students – was accused of luring Hindu women in romantic relations with Muslim boys.”
According to the report, the first case under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act 2021 was filed in Vadodara in 2021, when a Dalit woman visited Gotri police station to complain against her husband who, she claimed, had abused her. “The police manipulated the entire case and booked Divya’s husband, Sameer, under the Act, alleging that Sameer hid his religious identity (Muslim) from Diyva and fraudulently married her”.
In yet another example, a road accident snowballed into a communal clash in Vadodara city on April 17, 2022. “The matter escalated and in no time people from two communities gathered and hurled stones at each other”, the report says, adding, in another incident that year in October, a clash took place at a vegetable market in Savli town of Vadodara district after a local Muslim group tied a religious flag on an electronic pole situated near a temple nearby.
This year, before the Ram Navami incident of March 30, the report says, riots took place on March 10 in Samiyala village near Vadodara following an altercation between people of two faiths over bursting crackers during a wedding procession on March 10, leading to injury to some people and gutting of few vehicles.
According to the report, the communal incidents have been taking place in Vadodara at a time when Vadodara, dominated by BJP sweeping elections for almost the last three decades, has not seen a single Muslim elected representative in the local body since 1999. “While the ruling BJP doesn’t give opportunities to Muslim candidates to run for elections, the communal politics has forced other political parties including the Congress to not have any Muslim candidates”, it notes.
The report believes, it is not surprising that “the civic issues of Muslim community including education, health and infrastructure remain un-redressed”, asserting, since private education is expensive and unaffordable, there is “high drop out of Muslim children from schools.” In fact, the administration demolished a municipal school Kavi Sundaram School, situated in Panjrigar Mohalla, and has refused to “build a new bigger school” despite promise, leading to “Muslim children to discontinue their education.”
Pointing out how instigators seek to create tensions, the report quotes Niraj Jain, VHP leader and lawyer, as claiming that he brought out 5,000 Hindu girls who had married Muslim men back to their parents in the last 7 to 8 years. When asked how many cases were filed against Muslims under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Amendment Act, Jain answered, “Not many. Only 10 to 12 cases”.
Jain is further quoted as saying that Hindu women have “no brains and it is easy to seduce them”, attributing their gullibility their to their “sanskars”. Meanwhile, fake WhatsApp messages stating that 10,000 Muslim girls in Vadodara married Hindu men were being spread.

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