Religious violence in India

Religious violence in India includes acts of violence by followers of one religious group against followers and institutions of another religious group, often in the form of rioting. Hinduism, the largest religion in India, accounts for 80% of the population; Islam, the second largest religion, accounts for 13% of the population; Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism taken together account for 3% of the population; and Christianity accounts for 2% of the population. Other religions such as Zoroastrianism and Judaism, although not popular, have a centuries long history in India. Religious fundamentalism is considered a major driver; with Hindu nationalism, Sikh separatism, Christian Evangelism, and Islamic fundamentalism acting as catalysts or as primary forces for outbreaks of violence.

Despite India's secular and religiously tolerant nature, broad religious representation in various aspects of society including the government, the active role played by autonomous bodies such as National Human Rights Commission of India and National Commission for Minorities, and the ground-level work being carried out by Non-governmental organizations, sporadic and sometimes serious acts of religious violence tend to occur as the root causes of religious violence often run deep in history, religious activities, and politics of India.

Along with domestic organizations, international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch publish reports bringing embarrassing attention to acts of religious violence in India. Foreign government organizations such as United States Department of State have also published similar, but controversial, reports which have largely been dismissed in India as interference in internal affairs.

Ancient India

Ancient India has no history of large scale religious violence where opponents were put to the sword. However, King Pusyamitra of Sunga Empire is linked in legend with the persecution of Buddhists. There is some doubt as to whether he did or did not persecute Buddhists actively.

The Divyavadana ascribes to him the razing of stupas and viharas built by Ashoka, the placing of a bounty of 100 dinaras upon the heads of Buddhist monks (bhiksus) and describes him as one who wanted to undo the work of Ashoka. This account has however been described as "exaggerated". Archaeological evidence is scarce and uncertain. However to many scholars, Sunga kings were seen as more amenable to Buddhism and as having contributed to the building of the stupa at Bharhut.

With the possible exception of reign of King Pusyamitra, Buddhism and Hinduism seem to have co-existed peacefully with almost all Buddhist temples, including the once at Ajanta Caves, being built under the rule and patronage of Hindu kings.

Medieval India

Muhammad bin Qasim

Muhammad bin Qasim, during his conquest of Sindh (in present day Pakistan), assaulted the town of Debal and destroyed its great temple while freeing both the captured women and the prisoners of a previous failed expedition. He then built a mosque over the remains of the original temple at Debal and later in towns of Nerun and Sadusan (Sehwan) After each battle all fighting men were executed and their wives and children enslaved. One fifth of the booty and slaves were dispatched back to Hajjaj and the Caliph. Chach Nama also records instances of conversion of stupas to mosques such as at Nerun.

After the conquest, Muhammad bin Qasim adopted a conciliatory policy, asking for acceptance of Islamic Sharia law, in return for non-interference in their religious practice,. No mass conversions were attempted and the destruction of temples such as the Sun Temple at Multan was forbidden.

Mahmud of Ghazni

Mahmud of Ghazni was a Sultan who invaded the Indian subcontinent from present-day Afghanistan during the early 11th century. His campaigns across the gangetic plains are often cited for their iconoclastic plundering and destruction of Hindu temples such as those at Mathura, Dwarka, and others. In 1024 AD, Mahmud of Ghazni attacked and destroyed the third Somnath temple killing over 50,000 and personally destroying the Shiva lingam after stripping it of its gold. .


Aurangzeb cherished the ambition of converting India into a land of Islam and his reign was particularly brutal. Aurangzeb banned Hindu festival of Diwali, placed a jizya (tax) on non-Muslims and killed the ninth Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur.

Colonial Era

Goa Inquisition

The first inquisitors, Aleixo Dias Falcão and Francisco Marques, established themselves in what was formerly the raja of Goa's palace, forcing the Portuguese viceroy to relocate to a smaller residence. The inquisitor's first act was forbidding Hindus from publicly practice of their faith through fear of death. Sephardic Jews living in Goa, many of whom had fled the Iberian Peninsula to escape the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition to begin with, were also persecuted. During the Goa Inquisition, described as "contrary to humanity" by Voltaire, conversions to Catholicism occurred by force and many native Goans were executed by the Portuguese.The adverse effects of the inquisition were tempered somewhat by the fact that Hindus were able to escape Portuguese hegemony by migrating to other parts of the subcontinent. Though officially repressed in 1774, it was reinstated by Queen Maria I in 1778. The last vestiges of the Goa Inquisition were finally swept away when the British occupied the city in 1812.

Indian Rebellion of 1857

In 1813, East India Company charter was amended to allow for missionary activity across India. The missionaries soon spread almost everywhere and started denigrating Hinduism and Islam, besides promoting Christianity, in order to seek converts. Many officers of the British East India Company, such as Herbert Edwardes and Colonel S.G. Wheeler, openly preached to the Sepoys. Such activities caused a great deal of resentment and fear of forced conversions among Indian soldiers of the Company and civilians alike. The perception that the company was trying to convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity is often cited as one of the causes of the revolt. The revolt is generally considered as a semi-national and religious war seeking freedom from English bondage and started, among the Indian soldiers of British East India Company, when the British introduced new rifle cartridges, rumored to be greased with pig and cow fat - an abhorrent concept to Muslim and Hindu soldiers, respectively, for religious reasons. However, in the aftermath of the revolt, British reprisals were particularly severe with hundreds of thousands being killed. While the death toll is often debated by historians with figures ranging between one hundred thousand and one million, it is usually agreed that several hundred thousands were killed. Estimates of death toll are made difficult since the British authorities actively suppressed information in the aftermath of the revolt.

Partition of India

Direct Action Day, which started on August 16 1946, led approximately 3000 dead and 17000 injured.

After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British followed a divide-and-rule policy, exploiting differences between communities, in order to prevent similar revolts from taking place. In that respect, Indian Muslims were encouraged to forge a cultural and political identity separate from the Hindus. In the years leading up to Independence, Mohammad Ali Jinnah became increasingly concerned about minority position of Muslim in an independent India largely composed of a Hindu majority. Although a partition plan was accepted, no large population movements were contemplated. As India and Pakistan become independent, 14.5 million people crossed borders to ensure their safely in an increasingly lawless and communal environment. While the British authority was gone, the newly formed governments were completely unequipped to deal with migrations of such staggering magnitude, and massive violence and slaughter occurred on both sides of the border along communal lines. Estimates of the number of deaths range around roughly 500,000, with low estimates at 200,000 and high estimates at 1,000,000.

Modern India

Constitutionally India is a secular state, but large-scale violence have periodically occurred in India since independence. In recent decades, communal tensions and religion-based politics have become more prominent,
coinciding with a rise in Islamic terrorism. Although India is generally known for religious pluralism, the Hindutva ideology propagates that India belongs to the Hindus, and the Christians and the Muslims are "aliens", and many proponents of this ideology portray violence against Muslims and Christians as a form of "self-defence" against "invaders". The Hindutva ideology is at the core of Sangh Parivar politics and its expression in violence against religious minority. Throughout the history of post-Independence India, both Muslim and Christian communities have faced repeated attacks from Hindu activists.
As the Hindutva ideology has grown more powerful over the years, many Hindutva activists have partaken in riots against minority communities. Over the last decade, religious violence in India has increasingly become what academics believe to be organized pogroms to eliminate minority communities. Some state governments in India have been accused of not effectively prosecuting those who attack religious minorities.

Punjab militancy and 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh religious group based in India, had heavy influence among many Sikhs in Punjab. Bhindranwale initially tried to spread the original values of Sikhism and persuaded young people to follow the original rules and tenets of the religion, and later became a militant leader supporting the creation of the proposed Sikhism-based theocratic state of Khalistan. A reign of terror was unleashed in Punjab by the militants who killed anyone opposed to them irrespective of whether they were Sikhs, Hindus, or any other religion. Bhindranwale and other militants occupied the Golden Temple complex, in Amritsar from where they planned and organized terror attacks. He was killed in Operation Blue Star in June 1984 by the Indian Army, which had orders from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to kill the militants holed up inside the temple. In the process Akal Takht inside the Golden temple was heavily damaged. This inflamed Sikh sentiments and greatly deepened the insurgency. In one major case of violence in 1987, 32 Hindus were pulled out of a bus and shot near Lalru in Punjab by Sikh militants; however, Sikhs were more frequently targeted. Human Rights Watch stressed that "In the beginning on the 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks upon non-Sikhs in the state, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated on October 31, 1984 by two of her Sikh guards in retaliation to the storming of the Golden temple. After the assassination the 1984 anti-Sikh riots took place in Delhi where the main perpetrators were led by supporters of the Indian National Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty. The riots started on 1 November and continued till 3 November 1984. The killings, that were not driven by any religious motives, were led by activists and sympathizers of Indian National Congress. The first killing of a Sikh reported from east Delhi in the early hours of November 1. About 9 am, armed mobs took over the streets of Delhi and launched a massacre. Everywhere the first targets were Gurdwaras – to prevent Sikhs from collecting there and putting up a combined defence. The then Congress government was widely criticized for doing very little at the time, possibly acting as a conspirator, especially since voting lists were used to identify Sikh families. The reactions seemed politically managed and confined to the Congress party .

Ayodhya and Babri Mosque

During the almost 800 years of Muslim conquest and rule in India, Islamic invaders and rulers destroyed and replaced many Hindu temples with mosques. In more recent times, Hindu groups such as Vishva Hindu Parishad are attempting to reclaim some of these sites, which include some of the most scared sites such as Ram Janmabhoomi and Krishnajanmabhoomi. This attempt to reclaim such sites has often led to tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities in India and has led to several major incidences of religious violence such as Bombay riots, 1993 Bombay bombings, Godhra Train Burning, and 2002 Gujarat violence.

On December 6, 1992, members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal destroyed the 430 year old Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, allegedly built over the birthplace of the Hindu deity Rama. This action caused great anger in the Muslim community. The resulting religious riots caused at least 1200 deaths. Reprisals against Hindu minorities also occurred in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Since then the Government of India has blocked off or heavily increased security at these disputed sites while encouraging attempts to resolve these disputes through court cases and negotiations.

In the aftermatch of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists on December 6, 1992, roiting took place between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Mumbai. 500 people died in the resulting violence of the worst civil unrest in India since the partition. Four people died in a fire in the Asalpha timber mart at Ghatkopar, five were killed in the burning of Bainganwadi; shacks along the harbor line track between Sewri and Cotton Green stations were gutted; and a couple was pulled out of a rickshaw in Asalpha village and burnt to death. The riots changed the demographics of Mumbai greatly, as Hindus moved to Hindu-majority areas and Muslims moved to Muslim-majority areas. It is estimated that almost 200,000 people moved location in the aftermath of the riots.

After the riots the 1993 Bombay bombings occurred, where a series of thirteen bomb explosions took place in Mumbai (then Bombay) on March 12, 1993. The coordinated attacks were the most destructive bomb explosions in Indian history. The single-day attacks resulted in over 250 civilian fatalities and 700 injuries. The attacks are believed to have been coordinated by Dawood Ibrahim, don of the organized crime syndicate named D-Company, which had operated as a terrorist organization. It is believed that the attacks were carried out in retaliation for the destruction of Babri Mosque. There were fears that the attacks would restart the rioting, but this did not occur.

Later on 27 February 2002, the Godhra train burning incident occurred in the town of Godhra in the Indian state of Gujarat, One of the coaches (Coach #S6) of a train named the "Sabarmati Express" was set on fire right after it left the train station. The coach was occupied by Hindu religious pilgrims called Kar Sevaks who were returning from Ayodhya. 58 Hindu pilgrims (23 men, 15 women and 20 children) who were inside, were burnt alive, and the coach was completely gutted by the fire. The fire started during an attack by a Muslim mob following an altercation between the Hindu pilgrims and local Muslims when the train was in platform.

The Godhra train burning incident led to the 2002 Gujarat riots in which mosly Muslims were killed in an obvious act of retaliation. According to the death toll given to the parliament on May 11, 2005 by the government, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed, and another 2,548 injured. 223 people are missing. The report placed the number of riot widows at 919 and 606 children were declared orphaned. According to human rights groups, the death tolls were up to 2000. According to the Congressional Research Service, up to 2000 people, mostly Muslim were killed in the violence. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes because of the violence. The large-scale, collective violence has been described by some as a "massacre and an attempted pogrom or genocide of the Muslim population. According to New York Times reporter Celia Williams Dugger, witnesses were "dismayed by the lack of intervention from local police", who often "watched the events taking place and took no action against the attacks on Muslims and their property". Sangh leaders as well as the Gujarat government maintain that the violence was rioting or inter-communal clashes - spontaneous and uncontrollable reaction to the Godhra train burning.

Ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits

In the Kashmir region, approximately 300 Kashmiri Pandits were killed between September 1989 to 1990 in various incidents. In early 1990, local Urdu newspapers Aftab and Al Safa called upon Kashmiris to wage jihad against India and ordered the expulsion of all Hindus choosing to remain in Kashmir. In the following days masked men ran in the streets with AK-47 shooting to kill Hindus who would not leave. Notices were placed on the houses of all Hindus, telling them to leave within 24 hours or die.

Since March 1990, estimates of between 250,000 to 300,000 pandits have migrated outside Kashmir due to persecution by Islamic fundamentalists in the largest case of ethnic cleansing since the partition of India. The proportion of Kashmiri Pandits in the Kashmir valley has declined from about 15% in 1947 to, by some estimates, less than 0.1% since the insurgency in Kashmir took on a religious and sectarian flavor.

Many Kashmiri Pandits have been killed by Islamist militants in incidents such as the Wandhama massacre and the 2000 Amarnath pilgrimage massacre. The incidents of massacring and forced eviction have been termed ethnic cleansing by some observers.

Anti-Christian violence

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in violent attacks on Christians in India, often perpetrated by Hindu Nationalists. Between 1964 and 1996, thirty-eight incidents of violence against Christians were reported. In 1997, twenty-four such incidents were reported. In 1998, it went up to ninety. Between January 1998 and February 1999 alone, there were one hundred and sixteen attacks against Christians in India. Between 1 January and 30 July 2000, more than fifty-seven attacks on Christians were reported. These acts of violence include arson of churches, forcible conversion of Christians to Hinduism, distribution of threatening literature, burning of Bibles, murder of Christian priests and destruction of Christian schools, colleges, and cemeteries.,. The attacks are often accompanied by large amounts of anti-Christian hate literature..

The rise of anti-Christian violence has been directly linked to the ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Human Rights Watch pins the responsibility for much of the violence on the Sangh Parivar; an umbrella group for the three principal Hindu Nationalist organizations, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. HRW also points to the involvement of the Sangh Parivar, as well as the local media, for promoting anti-Christian propaganda in the BJP controlled state of Gujarat. In addition to Gujarat, anti-Christian violence has been the most prevalent in the states of Orissa, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi, all of which have had administrations lead by the BJP. However at the same time there is an active dialogue between the Sangh Parivar and the Christian community in general to resolve such issues amicably.

In some cases, anti-Christian violence has been co-ordinated, involving multiple attacks. In Orissa, starting December 2007, Christians have been attacked in Kandhamal and other districts, resulting in many deaths and the destruction of houses and churches. Twenty people were arrested following the attacks on churches.. Similarly, starting September 14 2008, there were numerous incidents of violence against the Christian community in Karnataka. These were ignited by the New Light Church's distributing offensive literature that portrayed incorrect and demeaning interpretation of Hindu gods.

Foreign Christian missionaries have also been targets of attacks. In a well-publicised case Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, was burnt to death while he was sleeping with his two sons Timothy (aged 9) and Philip (aged 7) in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district in Orissa in January 1999. In 2003, Dara Singh was convicted of leading the gang responsible.

In its annual human rights reports for 1999, the United States Department of State criticised India for "increasing societal violence against Christians." The report listed over 90 incidents of anti-Christian violence, ranging from damage of religious property to violence against Christian pilgrims.

In 2007 and 2008 there was a further flare up of tensions in Orissa. This was followed by an attack on a 150-year-old church in Madhya Pradesh, and more attacks in Karnataka, where the archbishop, Bernard Moras, met the CM BS Yeddyurappa after he had taken a decision to invoke the provisions of Goonda Act against those nabbed for vandalising churches as part of its strategy to salvage its image and to instill confidence. The Bajrang Dal convenor was arrested after the incidents of church burning in Mangalore. In light of these events there were national calls to ban the Bajrang Dal.

The violence apparently spread to Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh (which has a christian CM). More sign of trouble erupted on September 27 as the attacks spread to the least communal states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where there was desecration of a statue of the baby jesus and Indian orthodox churches were stoned, respectively. However, in Kerala where one-fourth of Indian Christians live among three times their number of Hindus, there has been no proselytisation and no violence, in history.

Religious involvement in North-East India Militancy

Religion has begun to play an increasing role in reinforcing ethnic divides among the decades old militant separatist movements in north-east India.

The separatist group National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) seeks to convert all tribals in the state of Tripura, who are mostly Hindu or Buddhist, to Christianity. It has proclaimed bans on Hindu worship and has attacked animist Reangs and Hindu Jamatia tribesmen who resisted. Some resisting tribal leaders have been killed and their womenfolk raped. The RSS has attempted to counter Christian separatist groups by backing Reang and Jamatia tribals, and has called for the central government to help arm and fund them.

Hindu nationalists, upset with the rapid spread of Chistianity in the region, link the overt Christian religiosity of the groups and the local churches' liberation theology-based doctrine to allege church support for ethnic separatism. Vatsala Vedantam identifies statements from the American Baptist Churches USA as endorsing the Naga separatist cause.

According to The Government of Tripura, the Baptist Church of Tripura is involved in supporting the NLFT and arrested two church officials in 2000, one of them for possessing explosives.. In late 2004, the National Liberation Front of Tripura banned all Hindu celebrations of Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja. The Naga insurgency has Christianity as its basis, and has been repeatedly involved in violence against Hindus in the region.

More recent anti-Hindu violence

There have been a number of more recent attacks on Hindu temples and Hindus by Muslim militants. Prominent among them are the 1998 Chamba massacre, the 2002 fidayeen attacks on Raghunath temple, the 2002 Akshardham Temple attack allegedly perpetrated by Islamic terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba and the 2006 Varanasi bombings (supposedly perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Toiba), resulting in many deaths and injuries.

In 2008, a rampaging mob of Orissa christians resorted to murder. Wielding knives and axes they stabbed a Hindu man to death.

Lesser incidents

Lesser incidents of religious violence happen in many towns and villages in India. In October 2005, five people were killed in Mau in Uttar Pradesh during Hindu-Muslim rioting, which was triggered by the proposed celebration of a Hindu festival.

On January 3rd and 4th of 2002, three Hindus and two Muslims were killed in Marad, near Calicut due to scuffles between two groups, in what began as a trivial altercation over drinking water at the public tap..

On May 2 of 2003, eight Hindus and one Muslim were hacked to death by a Muslim mob, in what is believed to be a sequel to the earlier incident. The National Development Front (NDF), a right-wing militant Islamist organization, was suspected as the perpetrator of the Marad Massacre.

International Human Rights Reports

  • The 2007 United States Department of State International Religious Freedom Report noted The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the National Government generally respected this right in practice. However, some state and local governments limited this freedom in practice.
  • The 2008 Human Rights Watch report notesIndia claims an abiding commitment to human rights, but its record is marred by continuing violations by security forces in counterinsurgency operations and by government failure to rigorously implement laws and policies to protect marginalized communities. A vibrant media and civil society continue to press for improvements, but without tangible signs of success in 2007.
  • The 2007 Amnesty International report listed several issues concern in India and noted Justice and rehabilitation continued to evade most victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal violence.
  • The 2007 United States Department of State Human Rights Report noted that the government generally respected the rights of its citizens; however, numerous serious problems remained. The report which has received a lot of controversy internationally, as it does not include human rights violations of United States and its allies, has generally been rejected by political parties in India as interference in internal affairs, including in the Lower House of Parliament.

In film and literature

Religious violence in India have been a topic of various films and novels.

See also



External links

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