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Islamic Body, Rights Group Denounce Anti-Muslim Violence at Hindu Festival

Devotees take part in a religious procession to celebrate the annual Hindu festival of Ram Navami in Ahmedabad on March 30, 2023.
Devotees take part in a religious procession to celebrate the annual Hindu festival of Ram Navami in Ahmedabad on March 30, 2023.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation or OIC, a Saudi Arabia-based global Islamic body, has denounced violence that targeted Muslims in different Indian states during the annual Hindu festival of Ram Navami last week and called on the Indian government to take action against the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns, too, noting in an April 5 statement that “India’s Hindu festivals are increasingly being used by the ruling Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rally voters,” leading to an increase in anti-Muslim violence across the country. The rights group also noted the festival coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Indian government has condemned the OIC and said that its statement showed its “communal mindset” and “anti-India agenda.”

Ram Navami is an annual Hindu festival to celebrate the birth of Ram, a Hindu deity. During the day of Ram Navami, Hindus traditionally participate in processions in which the Hindu epic Ramayana— the tale of Prince Ram’s quest to save his wife — is recited.

In recent years, however, following the rise of Hindu right-wing forces across India, the Ram Navami processions often see large numbers of people brandishing sticks, swords, machetes and even guns.

As the processions pass through minority Muslim neighborhoods, they sometimes play anti-Muslim songs with hate-spewing lyrics — commonly known as “Hindutva pop” — on the music system, and chant abusive slogans targeting Muslims.

Last week, anti-Muslim violence broke out in several places across the country after armed revelers from Ram Navami processions violently attacked Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, West Bengal and other states, communal tension and violence clashes broke out during Ram Navami processions.

In Bihar’s Sharif town, men from the Ram Navami procession physically attacked Muslims, forcing some of them to chant “Jai Shri Ram,” meaning Hail Lord Ram, in Hindi, and beat them up before vandalizing and setting fire to a madrasa and an attached 113-year-old Islamic library. A madrasa is a religious school.

In last week's statement, HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly noted that the Hindu mobs attacking Muslims are “emboldened by a sense of political patronage that affords them impunity.”

“The record shows that it is usually Muslims who are unfairly targeted by the authorities… The BJP governments at every level have adopted discriminatory laws and policies targeting religious minorities, and its leaders and affiliates make frequent anti-minority remarks, including inciting violence,” the HRW statement said.

The OIC called last week’s violent attacks on Muslims in India “provocative acts of violence and vandalism.”

While taking note of the burning of the madrasa and library in Bihar, in its April 4 statement, the 57-member organization said that the violence marked a “vivid manifestation of mounting Islamophobia and systemic targeting of the Muslim community in India.”

In other comments aimed at the OIC, Indian authorities said, “We strongly condemn the statement issued by [the] OIC Secretariat today regarding India. The OIC only does its reputation damage by being consistently manipulated by anti-India forces,” Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a Twitter statement.

New Delhi-based senior BJP leader Alok Vats said he agreed that some unruly young people were infiltrating the Hindu religious rallies and giving a bad name to the community.

“It is true that of late some chauvinistic and divisive forces are trying to rip apart the social fabric of India. The states and the police forces under them are failing to restrain their nefarious designs. If not controlled with an iron hand, they can definitely ruin the peace and stability of India,” Vats told VOA.

The Hindu nationalist BJP is using Ram “to further its politics of Hindu supremacy,” Delhi University professor Apoorvanand, who uses one name, told VOA.

“The strategy is to evoke a feeling of supremacy and power among Hindus by forcibly carrying out processions, which are supposedly religious, but are in actuality an instrument for abusing and threatening Muslims. Armed processions are deliberately driven through Muslim-dominated localities; mosques are targeted, and violence is provoked,” Apoorvanand said. “This process widens the divide between Hindus and Muslims, implicates Hindu youth in violent acts and criminalizes the Hindu society.”

Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said that Ram Navami processions are used by the BJP to polarize the society on communal lines, in a desperate attempt to win elections.

“They demonize Muslims by actively spreading hate and lies through social media. Their leaders deliver hate speeches aiming to whip up anti-Muslim passion in society. Also, they launch violent attacks against Muslims as they are during Ram Navami. All this is aimed to polarize Hindu votes,” Khan told VOA.

“In a Hindu-majority country, communal polarization always helps the Hindu nationalist BJP garner more Hindu votes and win elections.”

HRW’s Ganguly told VOA that India is looking to be an influential voice in world affairs, “one that speaks for the perspective of the global south.”

“To be effective in that role, the Indian government should set an example of upholding rights and celebrating diversity. Inciting and indulging attacks on religious minorities, particularly Muslims, bias in a justice system that unfairly targets minorities and government critics, is not just wrong, but also damages India’s reputation,” she said.

“If India seeks to be a true world leader, putting an end to human rights abuses in the country needs to be a priority,” she added.