Deadly communal violence flares in India a month before world leader summit

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Separate outbreaks of violence this week, including the alleged shooting of three Muslim men by a police officer on a train, have exposed the deep communal fissures in India weeks before it welcomes Group of 20 (G20) leaders to the capital.

Violence erupted in the northern state of Harayana state on Monday after a right-wing Hindu organization led a religious procession in the Muslim dominated region of Nuh.

Clashes spread to several districts of the finance and tech hub, Gurugram, also known as Gurgaon, home to more than 1.5 million people and hundreds of global firms, where violent mobs predominantly targeted Muslim-owned properties, setting buildings ablaze and smashing shops and restaurants.

At least six people died, including two police personnel and a cleric who was inside a mosque that was set alight, and more than 110 people have been arrested, authorities said.

Gurugram’s district counselor urged residents to remain home and ordered the closure of some private education institutes and government offices.

As the violence unfolded, about 1,300 kilometers (807 miles) south in Maharashtra on a train traveling to Mumbai, another deadly attack demonstrated the depth of the country’s sectarian divide.

In a video that has emerged of the aftermath and quickly gone viral, the officer can be seen standing over a lifeless body, rifle in arm, as terrified travelers huddle at the end the coach.

The officer glances at the body, then scans the carriage before saying: “If you want to vote, if you want to live in Hindustan (India), then there’s only (Narendra) Modi and Yogi (Adityanath).”

Referencing the country’s leader, and the Hindu monk turned chief minister of India’s most populous state, he appeared to be advocating for their popular, but deeply divisive policies.

“We haven’t heard a lot from the authorities,” he added. “But I believe this happened because we are Muslim.”

Police have arrested the officer and a motive is yet to be determined, authorities have said. However, opposition politicians and activists have called the attack a “hate crime” that targeted India’s Muslim minority population.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of parliament and leader of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen political party called it a “terror attack that specifically targeted Muslims.”

Another lawmaker and member of India’s main opposition Congress party, Jairam Ramesh, said it was a “cold-blooded murder” that was the result of a polarized media and political landscape.

The image of India that Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want to project is one of a confident, vibrant, and modern superpower – and it will be one they want on display in India when G20 leaders meet in New Delhi next month.

But analysts say these scenes of violence underscore an uncomfortable reality as the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies gain momentum in the world’s largest democracy after nearly a decade of Modi’s rule.

On Wednesday, hundreds of members from the Hindu extremist right-wing Bajrang Dal group took to the streets in several cities, including Delhi, burning effigies and chanting slogans against Muslims in protest against what they called “Islamic jihad and terrorism.”

Asim Ali, a political researcher based in New Delhi and no relation to Asgar Ali, said that official silence over sectarian assaults and rhetoric is encouraging for the radical groups and such attacks have become “more brazen” since BJP ascended to power nearly a decade ago.

Ethnic violence has been raging in the northeastern state of Manipur for the last two months, a topic that has received little public comment from Modi.

Ali fears sectarian tensions may only worsen next year as India heads into a bitterly fought election with Modi seeking a third term and an opposition building a coalition to unseat him.

Increase in hate crimes

The latest communal violence come against a broader rise in hate crimes against minority groups.

A study by economist Deepankar Basu noted a 786% increase in hate crimes against all minorities between 2014 and 2018, following the BJP’s election victory.

The BJP, however, says it does not discriminate against minorities and “treats all its citizens with equality.”

But Basu’s study shows – and news reports indicate – the brunt of these hate crimes targeted Muslims. And activists point to a host of recent incidents that they say contribute to India’s sharp communal divide.

Last month, the BJP chief minister of the state of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, blamed Muslims for the soaring prices of tomatoes. His accusation came weeks after he lashed out at former US President Barack Obama, saying Indian police should “take care of” the many “Hussain Obama” in the country, referring to the country’s Muslims.

Former US President Obama is not a Muslim.

Meanwhile Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who was referenced by the police officer allegedly involved in the train shooting, is among the most divisive of the BJP politicians.

Since he took office, the state has already passed legislation that, critics say, is rooted in “Hindutva” – the ideological bedrock of Hindu nationalism.

It has protected cows, an animal considered sacred to Hindus, from slaughter, and made it increasingly difficult to transport cattle. It also introduced a controversial anti-conversion bill, which makes it difficult for interfaith couples to marry or for people to convert to Islam or Christianity. Some cities named after historic Muslim figures have also been renamed to reflect India’s Hindu history.

Adityanath is also known for his provocative rhetoric against Muslims.

He once praised former US President Donald Trump’s travel ban barring citizens of several Muslim-majority countries and called for India to take similar measures, according to local channel NDTV.

India has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world with an estimated 170 million adherents, roughly 15 percent of its 1.4 billion population.

Adityanath’s cabinet members have previously denied allegations they are promoting Hindu nationalism.

But prominent Muslim author and journalist, Rana Ayyub, who has written extensively about India’s sectarian shift, says the current political rhetoric “emboldens” radical right wing groups who feel increasingly protected and untouchable in today’s India.

“It feels like an Orwellian novel playing out in front of you,” she said, adding she fears for the safety of her Muslim friends and family. “I think the silence of the country is a tacit approval for these hate politics.”

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