Hate finds a home in Indian state polls

Provincial minister Yogi Adityanath foments anti-Muslim sentiment, tells voters to side with BJP to Hinduize city names
Hate finds a home in Indian state polls

Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, inspects the site of the 2019 Kumbh Mela festival on the banks of the Ganges River in Allahabad on May 19. (Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP)

Hindu groups in India intensified their anti–Muslim campaigns for elections being held in two key Indian states on Dec. 7.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tasked one of its senior leaders, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, to seek votes for the party in Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan, and Telangana state.

Yogi, a Hindu priest turned politician, is known for his anti-Muslim statements. He has been issuing veiled threats to Muslims during the campaign, making Muslim leaders and rights groups apprehensive about a possible outbreak of sectarian tension in the country.

In his own state of Uttar Pradesh, two people including a policeman were slain on Dec. 3 when a mob attacked a police station over the alleged slaughter of cow, a revered animal for many Hindus.

However, during his campaign in Rajasthan, Adityanath used a number of religious statements to galvanize Hindu voters. In an apparent attempt to broaden the scope of his appeal and appeal to even the socially downtrodden, he termed the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman "a Dalit," based on the logic that he lived in woods.

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Dalits sit on the bottom rung of Indian society and are often referred to disparagingly as "untouchables."

"He was deprived and he was a Dalit. Bajrang Bali [Haunuman] worked to connect all Indian communities together, from north to south and east to west," Adityanath said in his appeal to the Dalit people.

While campaigning in Telangana on Dec. 2, Adityanath sought votes in favor of a nascent move to change the provincial capital's Muslim-sounding name, Hyderabad, to a more Hinduized name. "If you are keen to rename Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar, then vote for the BJP," he said.

In another rally in the same state, he said local Muslim leader Assaduddin Owaisi would be forced to flee the city if the BJP were voted into power. "If the BJP forms the government in Telangana, Owaisi will have to run from Hyderabad," Adityanath said.

Adityanath's anti-Muslim stand and the government's apparent inability to check such speeches is encouraging mob violence against Muslims, their leaders claim.

For example, in the latest outbreak of violence in Uttar Pradesh, tensions built up after villagers found the head and limbs of a cow stashed in a pocket of their village, reports said.

Hindu groups brought the animal's remains in a tractor-trolley to the police station and demanded that action be taken against those who slaughtered the cow, an activity banned by law in the state.

They raised slogans against the police and blocked a highway. During this episode, a police officer was shot dead. The mob also killed a protester.

"There are attempts by fanatic groups to stoke religious passions. It happens whenever the BJP finds it hard to win an election. The party resorts to instigating religious violence," said Ajit Srivastav, a social activist.

The BJP, which has been struggling to retain its power in Rajasthan, is facing criticism for failing to check the spiraling prices of essential commodities, not bringing promised developments to fruition and not providing enough jobs for young people.

In Telangana, the party has never been in power. It has struggled to convince voters there that it can deliver on its promises in the face of critics who highlight its past failures and those of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

"In their mad rush to Hinduize the country, these fanatic groups are actually trying to break the nation apart. This must be resisted by all sane elements of the country," said Naeem Akhtar, leader of the regional political party, the PDP, in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Akhtar regretted that there was "no counter-narrative to this hate" being spread across the country.

"Muslims are finding it harder to rent accommodation. They are also being excluded from buying houses in desirable apartment complexes and housing colonies," he said. "This has led to the enforced ghettoization of Muslims, which is leading to separate communities within the country." 

Christian leader Joseph Dias said the speeches "instigating religious violence are becoming rampant during the poll campaigns, and there is a growing sense of apprehension that this could turn people from different religious communities against each other."

Ali Ismail Khan, a social activist based in New Delhi, said the situation between Christians and Muslims is so fraught with tension that even the slightest provocation can spark an attack.

Moreover, he said, there is a growing belief that certain elements in society can cause trouble with impunity. "Religious minorities feel insecure because of the BJP's pro-Hindu rhetoric. This is only going to get worse as the national elections are due early next year," he said.

He cited a recent statement from groups advocating for religious freedom, as well as comments by other activist groups in the United States, that urged Prime Minister Modi to curb Hindu extremism in the country.

"Modi's failure to definitively condemn such acts or definitively distance himself from the extreme elements of his party has played a substantial and significant role in bringing about the situation we see today," Katrina Lantos Swett, former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said on Dec. 2.

As per government records, last year 111 people were killed and at least 2,384 injured in 822 communal clashes across the country.

In 2016, 86 people died and 2,321 were injured in 703 such incidents. One year earlier, there were 751 comparable incidents.

Hindus form 966 million or 80 percent of India's population of 1.3 billion. Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent while Christians comprise 29 million or 2.3 percent.

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