Religious Identity of the Perpetrators and Victims of Communal Violence in Post-Independence India


K. Jaishankar*

Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, India


Debarati Haldar**

University of Madras, India




Before independence of India and after there were many occurrences of communal violent incidents. Predominantly it is the Hindu and Muslim religious communities who are always at loggerheads. Even after fifty-seven years of Indian independence, the seeds of hate between the two religious communities continue to sprout. To assess the communal violence scenario in post-independence India, some fundamental questions need to be answered. Can we discard that communal violence is purely a political problem and religion has no role to play in it? What is the perpetration and victimization pattern of communal violence in India? What is the role of religious identity of the perpetrators and victims in the communal riots? What is role of police in assessing the religious identity of the perpetrators and victims of communal violence? This article tries to analyse the state of affairs of communal violence in India from the religious, criminological and victimological perspectives.


Key words: Religious identity; Communal violence; Religious Symbols; Perpetrators and Victims  



Religion plays a vital role in India’s way of life. Religious laws govern the people’s clothing, food, marriage, and even occupations (Shah 1998). Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis are the major religious communities of India. According to the 1991 Religious Census[1], Hindus constituted 82.2%, Muslims 12.12%. Christians 2.34%, Sikhs 1.94%, Buddhists 0.76%, Jains 0.40% and others 0.44% in India. Religion as an element of personal belief remains the biggest force in India. There is, of course, absolutely nothing in that. The trouble arises when the personal faith is converted into communal antagonism. Religion comes into fray because it is a part of the social order in which men live. Religion cannot be disassociated from the modes of thought that characterize a society. While religion as such has not been responsible for the origin and growth of communalism, religiosity, that is deep emotional commitment to matters of religion, has been a major contributory factor and at the popular plane, imparted passion and intensity (Ghosh 1987).

Religious tolerance in India finds expression in the definition of the nation as a secular state, within which the government since independence has officially remained separate from any one religion, allowing all forms of belief equal status before the law. Although India has been committed, to what is referred to as ‘unity among diversity’ there have been frequent clashes between the different linguistic, regional, and religious groups in the country. Of these conflicts, the relationship between Hindus and Muslims has been particularly salient (Hewstone and Voci 2003).



Communal Violence in India: The Historic perspective

The roots of communal disharmony and violence between the Hindus and the Muslims in India go back to the history of several centuries. Historical analysis of Hindu-Muslim communal conflict, its causes and preconditions, has been highly contentious in character. Contemporary historians of India do not even agree that there were Hindu or Muslim communal identities before the nineteenth century, and Hindu-Muslim conflict were endemic (Brass 2003). Historians like Sirkar (1983) view that, Hindu and Muslim conflicts are essentially modern phenomena, as communal riots do seem to have been significantly rare down to the 1880s.

On the other side are historians who argue that there is more continuity between past and present, extending backward at least to the early eighteenth century and, in some arguments, into the earlier period of Mughal rule. In this view, inter religious strife and riots that resemble contemporary Hindu-Muslim conflict were present, even endemic, in pre-modern times (Brass 2003). The victimization of one religious community by the other started as the suppression of rulers who invaded India. In 712 AD, Mohammad Bin al Q’asim overran Sind. The Arabs, the Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals invaded India in hordes from 1206 onwards, reducing temples to rubble putting hundreds of thousands of Hindus to the sword, and forcibly converting the survivors to Islam. Later during the Mughal period relations between Hindus and Muslims were not cordial during the regimes of Babur, Jehangir, Shah Jehan, and Aurangazeb (Ghosh 1987).

Among the Mughal emperors, Aurangazeb reversed the enlightened policy of Akbar, the Great, and he was determined to make India a strictly Muslim empire. Under his orders, several Hindu temples were destroyed (Ghosh 1987). In 1669, a circular order was addressed to all appropriate officers in the Mughal Empire directing them to destroy all newly built temples and forbade the repair of old ones. Thousands of temples at Prayag, Kashi, Ayodhya, Hardwar, and other Holy places were destroyed. When these temples were destroyed, there were disturbances at many places on account or resistances of the Hindus against the demolition of temples. There was a prolonged fight between the Hindus and Muslims around the Mosque built on the ruins of the Veni, Madhava or Bindu Madhava temple at Banaras. The rioters destroyed some mosques in retaliation and when the Muslims got reinforcements, they destroyed all temples whether new or old (Mahajan 1993). From Mahajan’s (1993), analysis it can be noted that communal rioting and victimization of both the religious communities started during Aurangazeb period.    

Eventually, the imposition of colonial rule in India ignited animosity and conflict between the Hindu and Muslim communities. After the decline of Mughal power, the British often utilized “divide and rule” tactics in order to maintain governance over the vast area. In essence, the Hindu-Muslim conflict has existed in earnest since the British rule (Girdner 1998). The British organized communal violence because it provided them a pretext to further suppress the people and declare that it was not the colonial rule that was the cause of the problems of the Indian people, but that religion was the problem. They blamed the victims and their religions for the situation created by the colonial rule, and said that it is the policy of the British to be fair and pursue a Secular policy to "do justice to all religious communities" (Eh Din 2002).

Widespread Hindu-Muslim violence occurred during the ensuing years, until in 1947, Indian and British leaders agreed to partition the country into India and Pakistan in hopes of ending the violence. Both nations became independent, yet more bloodshed followed the partition as one of the largest population transfers in history occurred as many Muslims left India to reside in Pakistan while Hindus moved to India (Shah 1998). Thus communal violence was institutionalised in the state structures, used to weaken the unity and resistance of the people and used as a pretext to further attack them and cause diversions. This communal nature of the institutions and state structure did not change with the transfer of power in 1947 and this transfer of power itself was done in the midst of a communal carnage (Eh Din 2002).

The birth of Pakistan in 1947 did not settle Hindu-Muslim differences or end conflicts. To the contrary, all the old problems remained. However, the problem is more complex and involves more than simply a difference in values. Violence and communal strife have defined the relationship between Muslims and Hindus since partition (Shah 1998). India has regularly experienced communal rioting, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, but has occasionally involved other minority communities, since its independence in 1947. Even before Independence, there were serious communal riots in Varanasi (1809), Bareilly (1871), Lahore and Delhi (1825), Kolkata (1851), Azamgarh (1893), Ayodhya (1912), Kolkata and Dhaka (1926), Ahmedabad and Mumbai (1941) and of course, the horrendous countrywide riots of 1946 and 1947 (Dhar 2002).


Communal Riots: 1947 -  2002

The India-Pakistan partition in 1947 led to widespread violence resulting in the death or displacement of millions of people. Since then, communal riots have occurred every year, with varying degrees of severity. The death toll has ranged from seven people per year to over 3000. After Independence, there was a deceptive lull but communal riots again broke out in Madhya Pradesh (Jabalpur) in 1961, which is considered as the first major riot between Hindus and Muslims after partition. It was shortly followed by riots in Uttar Pradesh, and later in Gujarat (Ahmedabad) in 1969, where approximately 1000 people were killed, due to a national level political dispute (VIC 2002). The other major riots were Ahmedabad (1965-66), Bhiwandi (1970), Jamshedpur (1973), Meerut (1973, 1987), Moradabad (1980), Bhagalpur, and then the large-scale post-babri riots in 1992-93 in Bombay and other places (Dhar 2002).

Numerous occurrences and issues have perpetuated the religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims over the last decade in India, and the outlook for now remains rather bleak. At the heart of the present-day dispute is the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, in North-central India (Shah 1998). On December 6, 1992, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was demolished. During the preceding months, a movement of political parties, religious groups, and cultural organizations, including the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)[2], Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)[3] and Shiva Sena[4], had called for the construction of a temple on the site of the mosque as an integral move in their struggle for Hindutva, or Hindu rule. Over 150,000 supporters known as kar sevaks (voluntary workers) converged on Ayodhya, where they attacked the three-domed mosque with hammers and pick-axes and reduced it to rubble (Human Rights Watch 1996).

The destruction touched off Hindu-Muslim rioting across the country that has killed thousands in the past few years. Within two weeks of the destruction of the mosque, 227 were killed in communal violence in Gujarat, 250 in Bombay (Maharashtra), 55 in Karnataka, 14 in Kerala, 42 in Delhi, 185 in Uttar Pradesh, 100 in Assam, 43 in Bihar, 100 in Madhya Pradesh, and 23 in Andhra Pradesh (Week 1992).

It is interesting to note that the number of major communal riots in post-Babri Masjid demolition period went down considerably. Three major riots took place in this period, besides several small riots in which 2 to 6 persons were killed. These three major riots are Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu in1997, Kanpur in U.P. in March 2001 and Malegaon in Maharashtra in October 2001 (Engineer 2001). However the post-babri riots saw the growth of communal terrorism and the spread of Communal virus to the southern part of India in Tamil Nadu in 1997 by the way of Coimbatore communal riots. Violence replaced terrorism to kill innocent citizens.

Communal violence in India reached unprecedented level in 2002. The communal violence that occurred recently in Gujarat (2002) is considered as genocide of Muslims. The violence in Gujarat began after a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra attacked and set fire to two carriages of a train carrying Hindu activists. Fifty-eight people were killed, many of them women and children. The activists were returning from Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, where they supported a campaign led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP) to construct a temple to the Hindu avatar[5] Ram on the site of a sixteenth century mosque destroyed by Hindu militants in 1992. The Ayodhya campaign continues to raise the spectre of further violence in the country (Human Rights Watch 2002).

Between February 28 and March 2, 2002, a three-day retaliatory killing spree by Hindus left hundreds dead and tens of thousands homeless and dispossessed, marking the country’s worst religious bloodletting in a decade. The looting and burning of Muslim homes, shops, restaurants, and places of worship was also widespread. Tragically consistent with the longstanding pattern of attacks on minorities in India, and with previous episodes of large-scale communal violence in India, scores of Muslim girls and women were brutally raped in Gujarat before being mutilated and burnt to death. According to the official records, since February 27, 2002, more than 850 people have been killed in communal violence in the state of Gujarat, most of them Muslims. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as high as 2,000 (Human Rights Watch 2002).


Major communal riots: Perpetration and victimization patterns

In the post independence India it is found, that majority of the riots have started as a clash between the two communities on issues related to religion. It is either clash over desecration of religious places, demolishing religious identities and rumours related to these issues. The rise and growth of fundamentalist outfits from both the communities have fanned the communal violence more in the post independence India. Here it is to be seen whether the 82% of Hindus are against the 12% of Muslims in India and vice-versa. The fact is it is not.  The following map shows the concentration of Muslims and Hindus in the country.

               A cursory look at the Table 1 and 2 gives the clear picture of perpetration and victimisation pattern of communal violence in post independence India. Majority of the riot victims were Muslims. However, when it comes to perpetration of communal violence, Muslim fundamentalists are no less either. The communal riots in India also reveal a discernible pattern, blurred and unformed in the initial decades, evolving gradually into a clear-cut design that today has assumed a frightening shape. The pattern reveals a distinctly soft approach by the state and its armed manifestation, the police, towards Hindu communal organisations whose fomenting of communal venom months before the riot actually erupts goes unchecked. The Hindu communal organizations like the RSS (indicted in the Tellicherry, Bhiwandi and Ahmedabad riots), the Jana Sangh[6] (held responsible in Ranchi, Ahmedabad), VHP and Bajrang Dal[7] (in Meerut and Bhagalpur) the Shiva Sena in Maharashtra, the Hindu Munnani[8] in Tamil Nadu played a great role in the perpetration of communal riots in India (Setalvad 1998).

In riot after riot the Hindu Fundamentalists have attempted to absolve themselves of any blame by projecting that it is the Muslims, who have in every communal conflagration cast the first stone, that is then followed by “justifiable retaliatory acts by Hindus in self-defence.” Detailed investigations by most judicial commissions that have investigated communal riots since Independence have in their findings held the systematic poisoning of the atmosphere through provocative acts by Hindu communal organisations. The RSS, Jana Sangh, Shiva Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and affiliates are responsible for injecting the poison of communalism into the atmosphere that manoeuvres Muslims into apparently throwing the first stone (CJP 2002).

There was rise and decline of Muslim fundamentalist organizations like Jihad Committee, Al-Umma, and Islamic United Front, but no organization could be so strong and spread its roots like RSS. However, the role of Muslim fundamentalists in the perpetration of communal violence in India cannot be undermined. The Bombay (1993) and Coimbatore (1998) bomb blasts are telltale examples of the orgy left behind by the Muslim extremism. The Mumbai blasts of March 1993 were a sequel to demolition of the Babri Masjid and what followed later. It was the first planned and proven terrorist attack by a group of Indian Muslims. The target of attacks was Mumbai stock exchange. More than 300 people were killed and hundreds injured. The country suffered huge financial losses (Haque 2000). Coimbatore was subjected to the most devastating attack of terrorist bombings on February 14,1998 in which 58 persons were killed. The attack, by Al-Umma a Muslim fundamentalist group, came barely three months after 18 Muslims were killed in the city in November-December 1997 in a pogrom unleashed by a section of the police in concert with Hindu militants following the killing of a police constable, allegedly by three Muslim youth (Subramanian 1998).


Table 1. Perpetrators and Victims in some of the Major Communal riots in Post-Independence India

Communal Riots (Place and State)




(By Community)

Deceased Victims

(By Community)

Rourkela (Orissa)


*Political groups of Hindus

*Inaction by the District Administration

More than 2000 persons of both the Hindu and Muslim communities were killed in which Muslim victims formed the majority

Ahmedabad (Gujarat)


*Hindu Fundamentalists

More than one thousand people, a large majority of them Muslim, lost their lives

Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad (Maharashtra)


Hindu fundamentalists and Muslims

59 Muslims

17 Hindus

Aligarh (Uttar Pradesh)


Hindu Fundamentalists

5 Hindus

2 Muslims


Sambhal (Uttar Pradesh)


*Muslim fundamentalists

23 Hindus

2 Muslims



Muslims in first instance and later Hindus

400 Muslims

Biharsharif (Bihar)


Muslims at the first instance

71 Muslims

2 Hindus

Hazaribagh (Bihar)


*Hindu Fundamentalists

*Negligence on the part of Administration

1 Hindu

1 Muslim

Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh)


*Muslim Fundamentalists

*Negligence by Administration

*Certain Ethics less newspapers publishing religious identities of the victims

14 Hindus

9 Muslims

Bhiwandi and Bombay  (Maharashtra)


Hindu fundamentalists and Muslims fundamentalists

More than 100 persons of both the Hindu and Muslim communities were killed

Bombay (Maharashtra)


Muslim Fundamentalists and Hindu Fundamentalists

Dead - nine hundred (575 Muslims, 275 Hindus, 45 unknown and 5 others).

Bombay (Maharashtra) Bomb blasts

1993 (March)

Muslim Fundamentalists

Two hundred and fifty seven persons, mostly Hindus

Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu)


Hindu Fundamentalists and Muslim Fundamentalists

18 Muslims

Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu)


Muslim Fundamentalists

58 Hindus

Godhra in Gujarat and all major places in Gujarat


Muslim Fundamentalists in Godhra and later Hindu Fundamentalists with full support from the state administration

Over 2000 persons were killed-around 90%of the victims were Muslims. By official reports it is 552 Muslims 168 Hindus

Source: Ghosh (1987) Communal Riots in India –Meet the challenge unitedly. New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House.






Table 2. Hindu-Muslim Causalities of communal riots in a decade in India


No of Incidents



















































Source: Bureau of Police Research and development and Ghosh (1987) Communal Riots in India –Meet the challenge unitedly. New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House.



Patterns of religious Identities and Communal conflicts

Religion is one aspect of life and one element in the social structure. A person is born into a family or social group, which has a religion. The child grows into awareness as the member of a particular family, of a particular ethnic group or caste, of a particular religio-cultural tradition. Religious identity is supported by and supports social and political identities. Identity also means that one differentiates oneself from another group or tradition (Amaladoss 2000).

Religious identity can be experienced both as an individual identity and a group identity. A person acquires his/her primary religious identity as a member of a group. In a tribal group, this is taken for granted. There is no differentiation between religion, culture, and society. They are different aspects of the same group identity. One's individual identity is one's group identity. In societies that are more modern, there is a growing differentiation between the individual and the group (Amaladoss 2000). Religious identity at the group level can be open/ 'weak' or closed/ 'strong'. A child internalises his/her religious identity in an early age. As the child encounters other religious persons on the street or in school, he becomes aware of his identity as different and special.

 Kakar (1995) thinks that this awareness of the other group as different, leads almost automatically to a sentiment of superiority. But when there is no social, political or economic rivalry between the religious groups, the identity and differentiation is open or 'weak'. People mix easily and work together at the same tasks. There is a traditional division of labour, which makes them live peacefully. For example, many Muslim communities in the north India are artisans, while the traders are Hindus. Even in the religious sphere there is a certain friendship shown in mutual offering of gifts during religious festivals. People belonging to different religions live together in the same colony next to each other. We have had and we have examples of such inter-religious fellowship in many parts of India. Religious difference is not a social barrier. One is aware of being different from the other. However, this difference is not seen as opposition.

Group religious identity becomes closed or 'strong' when religion turns fundamentalist and/or communalist. In ordinary speech, fundamentalism and communalism are used almost as synonyms. However, they are not the same. When a religious group feels contested at the strictly religious level by another religious group or by the secularising trends of science and modernity, in a defensive reaction the group holds on to what it sees as the 'fundamentals' of its religion, in terms of doctrines and rituals. In a meaningless and hostile world, their religious 'fundamentals' offer them a simple and clear framework of meaning. That is why it is called fundamentalism. In defence of its religious identity, it may affirm the literal truth of its scriptures, the special and sure efficacy of its rituals and the divine authorization of its leaders. The others are seen as being in the darkness of error and sin. Therefore, one avoids social intercourse with them in order to protect oneself from their influence. Fundamentalism is normally a sectarian movement within a religious group. In multi-religious — societies they may consider the members of other religions as religiously 'polluting' and therefore avoid all religious contact with them. Normally they are not violent, if they are left alone. They tend to live in religious ghettos with a strong invisible wall round them. Any idea of religious mobility would be anathema to them, unless it brings new converts into their fold. Every religion has its fundamentalist groups (Amaladoss 2000).

Communalism uses religious identity for political purposes. Religion is used as the powerful integrating factor of a group that is competition with other groups for economic or political power. It has been noted in recent years that different groups of people live together rather peacefully under a colonial or authoritarian regime, often sustained by military power. However, once the colonial or authoritarian regime disappears and the people are on their own in an emerging democratic order, then different groups start fighting with each other either for scarce resources or for political domination that would facilitate economic domination. We see such conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere — all over the world, in fact, in open or hidden ways. Any factor of group identity can be politically abused in this manner: nationality, race, ethnicity, caste, and religion. Majorities seek to be assertive, while minorities tend to be defensive. Competition gives rise to conflict. Conflict leads to a mounting spiral of violence. The other has now become the enemy. A history of enmity leaves a trace of unhealed memories. Invisible but strong walls go up between the different groups. This leads to the ghettoisation[9] of the groups, even geographically (Amaladoss 2000).

In such situations of conflict religion seem to be a particular source of power (Kakkar 1990). Reaching out to the Ultimate brings strong sources of motivation: one is not merely fighting for oneself; one is also fighting for one's Gods, for what is most sacred in one's life. It is also easy to demonise the other in a religious context as the embodiment of evil. Once the other becomes an enemy or the evil one, it is easy to project all undesirable characteristics, even one's own, on the other. The other is not merely a competitor in the economic or political field. S/he is also morally depraved and religiously ignorant and evil. S/he is an infidel, which is a term with overtones of unfaithfulness and disloyalty. People who are killed were idolized as martyrs. The hope for martyrdom may aggravate the conflict further. When religion is used in this way for political purposes, what is important is not religious practice. The political leaders may not be and often are not very religious. Nevertheless, common religious symbols like popular Gods, festivals, and shrines are used as rallying points to gather a crowd (Amaladoss 2000).

Religious fanaticism among the people also has its source in the constant preaching and actions of communal organisations. Since they are interested in sharpening the differences between religious groups, it is in their interest to make their followers hard-boiled, unreasonable, and passionate followers of a manipulated form of the religion concerned, a form that is, in fact, farthest from the actual tenets of the faith. That is why it is a common feature, observed in every religious group, to unite whenever the religion in danger slogan is raised. Priests and politicians vie with each other in mobilising people around this slogan, and they persevere in keeping the slogan alive all the time. This fostering of fanaticism is, of course, facilitated by the ignorance and the lack of awareness amongst the people. That is why vested interests have a stake in keeping ignorant as many people as possible and for as long as possible. This is the reason for their insistence on fundamentalist and fanatical notions and on following strictly every word handed down to them by the religious texts, custom, and tradition. Any attempt at a scientific inquiry into these texts and traditions is not only frowned upon and resented, but those who attempt it are socially boycotted, persecuted and often even physically eliminated. Fundamentalism and fanaticism thus continue to thrive, in spite of the advances made in science and technology (CJP 2002).


Victims, perpetrators, and religious identities

Engineer (2002) believes that many rationalists in India has reduced the issue of communal violence to religion and for them religion is the main culprit. Such reductionism would not help. It is not only oversimplifying an issue it also means ignoring the complexity of a social phenomenon. Religion, at best, is one factor, among many. Religion, it should also be noted, is an instrumental rather than fundamental cause. Religion is used as a powerful instrument to achieve political, economic, and social purposes for its powerful mobilising power. Religion has powerful emotional appeal and hence it is easy to exploit clouding real interests. What appears to be clash of religions is, really clash of interests (Engineer 2002).

While partially accepting Engineer’s analysis, still we find that, many questions in this context are left unanswered. Can we totally absolve the role of religion in the phases of communal violence? What is the role of religious identity of the perpetrators and victims of the communal riots? How do each other identify themselves? Are the victims and perpetrators known to each other before the riot? What is the role of religious symbols in the perpetration? How does police assess the religious identity of the perpetrators and victims in a communal riot?

The religious identity of the perpetrators and victims becomes significant once any riot starts. The importance of religious identity or ethnic identity was seen in the attacks of Sikhs in the aftermath of September 9/11 incident,[10] many Sikhs were targeted because they were wearing turbans like Osama bin laden[11] Mobs from one community target the other only by identifying the others religion and the Indian police is no exception. The identity of their religion determines their victimization. In the case of perpetration, raising of slogans relating to their religion and the weapons they use also signifies their religious identity. The usage of religious symbols during riots and the desecration of places of worship have become inherent trend of the Communal violence scenario in India. Considering the graveness and contemporary chronological order of riots, most of the examples given in the following analysis are from Gujarat riots (2002).


1. Religious Symbols and perpetration

In most of the riots, we see that the perpetrators used religious symbols either through their attire, slogans, holy books, and weapons. The Muslim perpetrators raise slogans like Nairai Taqbeer[12] and Allaho Akbar[13], whereas, the Hindu fundamentalist raise slogans like Jai Sri Ram[14], Jai Kali[15], Om Kali[16] and Sabse Bada Hanuman[17]. Apart from that both the religious fundamentalists use obscene remarks on their opposite religions during the riots. The Hindu fundamentalists use trishul[18], which is specifically associated with the religion. The trishul, like the kirpan (the dirk, which it is compulsory to carry, that functions like a sigil for the Sikh community), is exempt from the provisions of Indian law, on the ground that it is a religious symbol. However, there is no specific identity of their weapons related to religion of the Muslim fundamentalists.

The clear patterns that has emerged from Gujarat riots (2002), is the widespread use of upper caste Hindu symbols like fire, (to kill and burn), trishuls, (weapons of assault), Hulladiya Hanuman (Literally, Riot Hanuman) idols, were installed to symbolize conquest over Muslim places of worship. The slogan, Jai Sri Ram, was scrawled on the external walls of Hindu houses and shops, so that Muslim premises could be easily identified at the time of attack. Other Hindu religious symbols that were extensively used during the violence included the following: shouting of Jai Sri Ram as a battle-cry by marauding mobs and politicians of the ruling party; forcing Muslims to chant, Jai Sri Ram or Sabse Bada Hanuman; projection of the Godhra victims as martyrs in the cause of Hinduism; aggressive and loud bhajan singing; public recitations of the Hanuman Chalisa[19] organised by those involved in looting and arson. The installation of Hulladiya Hanuman was evident in many religious places that were attacked or destroyed (CJP 2002).


2. Desecration of religious symbols

In Hyderabad riots (1983-84), Muslims desecrated the Bhagyalakshmi Temple, popularly known as Charminar Temple. In the case of Biharsharif violence (1981) tension mounted over a piece of land near a mosque which both the communities claimed ownership. In that land Hindus planted Tulsi[20] sapling, installed Sivalinga[21] and an idol of Hindu god, which was violently opposed by Muslims. In the Hazaribagh violence (1983) Muslims attacked the Hindu pooja (worship) procession. Hindus desecrated many mosques in Meerut violence (1983).

In Moradabad riots (1980), the idgah[22] was ransacked and set ablaze by the Hindu fundamentalists. The main trouble started due to the entrance of a pig in the prayer ground during the namaaz[23], which was supposed to be done by some Hindu fundamentalists. One of the main causes of Sambhal riots (1978) was the attack on the Imam by certain Hindus. In the Bombay riots (1992), the Muslim fundamentalists desecrated many temples and the Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a few mosques. In majority of the riots, it can be seen particularly Hindu religious festivals were targeted by the Muslims with warnings that they should not pass by Muslim Mohalla[24] or near the Mosque, which the Hindus defied to obey. The destruction of Babri Masjid, a mosque built by the Mughals at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 by a Hindu mob is the noted desecration of religious places, still lies as a catalyst for sparking Hindu-Muslim riots in several cities in India.

In the Gujarat riots (2002), it was clear that apart from the lives of Muslims, several symbols of India’s composite culture were deliberate targets during the carnage in Gujarat. The durgahs (shrines) of Sufi saints that are revered by persons from all communities were destroyed. Mosques and madrassas[25], several of them dating back to several centuries, were damaged in the violence. In several cases of attacks on mosques, copies of the Koran was vandalised or burnt. Books, furniture, and other items in mosques and durgahs were damaged or burnt. Temples were quickly constructed on destroyed Muslim property (CJP 2002).

Thus, it can be seen that the Hindu fundamentalists at the spate of communal violence targeted mostly the Muslim mosques or the places of Namaaz or burial grounds. In revenge, the Muslims attacked certain temples and Hindu religious symbols like Tulsi plants, Sivalinga, Processions carrying saffron flags and pictures of Hindu gods etc. 


3. Victims and their Religious identity

          The Hindus and Muslims have some specific physical symbols that explicitly show their religious identity. The Hindus wear tilak in their forehead (vermilion) and Muslims have beards without moustache, Topies, Chadars and Pathan Suits[26]. Apart from that, the other important identity of Muslim males is circumcision. It is found in many riots that Muslims were victimized based on their religious identity. In the riots if the perpetrators or the Police are not able to identify victims with their religion they forcefully remove the pants of the victims to check whether they are circumcised or not. Once they find that the victim is circumcised he is targeted without further analysing which community he belongs to.

For example in Bombay riot (1992) there is a case of man who was frisked by the police for assessing whether he was a Muslim. However, out of fear he gave his name as Raju (a Hindu name) the officer made him take out his trousers and, noticed that he was a circumcised Muslim, and fired at him. They also beat him with the rifle butts. After he was shot at, he was pulled by his hair and dumped into the van and taken to the police station (Srikrishna 1993). After the Gujarat riots (2002), the situation was so malignant that for weeks it was difficult for Muslims to be hailed by their names even in elite Hindu-predominant parts of the city of Ahmedabad. Many Hindus shaved off their beards for fear of being mistaken as Muslims. In the genocidal climate that prevailed, every aspect of a Muslim’s identity was a target for violence (CJP 2002).


4. Religious identity and Selective Targeting of victims

In many riots, it is found that Muslims and their properties are singled out and targeted. From cities and towns to villages, be it the question of life, dignity or property, barring few exceptions, Muslims were the sole target. The Coimbatore communal riots (1997) and Gujarat riots (2002) are glaring examples of the selective targeting of victims. In the Coimbatore riots (1997), Hindu fundamentalist forces looted almost all the Muslim houses. Poverty-stricken Dalit women and children went into every house and carried every item they could lay their hands. A rice warehouse (located in a Muslim building but owned by a Hindu) was ripped open and looted. Inn contrast, not even a scratch was made on a Hindu house or on the three temples in the Kottaimedu side (Less than one fifth of the population here are Hindus) The execution was clinically precise. While two Muslim shops separated by a Hindu shop were targeted, the Hindu shop remained untouched. Many citizens of Coimbatore realised that Muslims were the owners of shops like Pazhamuthir Solai, Top Notch, Zodiac and Popular Automobiles, only after they were targeted. There is a striking similarity between the methods used in Coimbatore and those used elsewhere in India (for example, Mumbai and Meerut) to target Muslims economically, politically, and psychologically (PUCL report; Frontline 1998).

Except in the few cases where some Hindu establishments were targeted, the selective targeting of Muslim lives, Muslim homes, Muslim business establishments, and Muslim properties occurred in the Gujarat carnage. In most places, Hindu houses amongst Muslim bastis[27] had been marked out before the attacks using saffron flags, or pictures of Ram and Hanuman, or with crosses in some places. This marking was done a few days before February 27, 2002 and which was the ostensible justification for the retaliation. These markings were to avoid inadvertent attacks on Hindu homes and businesses in areas that were targeted later. There was no damage to the Hindu houses so marked. In some villages, the adjoining Hindu houses were first sawed away from the Muslim houses before the latter were set on fire (CJP 2002).


5. Caste Polarization and Perpetrators identity

We have found that most of the perpetration in communal violence in India is done by Hindu Fundamentalists. However, who are these fundamentalists? To comprehend this scenario, we have to understand the caste factor of Hinduism. Hinduism is segregated in to thousands of castes. Of these castes, the upper castes propagate the fundamentalist ideology. They form the leadership of the Hindu fundamentalist organizations such as RSS, VHP, Shiva Sena and others. Even though these organizations propagate casteism[28], when it comes to communal riot, they skilfully lure the lower caste Dalits[29] and Shudras[30] and the non-caste Tribals into its fold as Hindus and use them to target the Muslims and Christians. It is evident in Coimbatore riots (1997) and Gujarat riots (2002).

It is a fact that the Dalits and Tribals were used in large numbers in violence against Muslims but no one can say that they do the entire riot perpetration. They are the cannon fodder and sacrificial goats of the Hindutva forces. Dalits and Tribals are the victims of the vile Hindu social system, which is revived by the Hindutva project. The Hindu Fundamentalists exploited the political vacuum among Dalits and Tribals to create political constituency but it is entirely different matter to communally convert them for the genocide of some other people. The former can be legitimate political work; the latter is an utterly illegitimate criminal act. The Muslim victims may identify, under the influence of media propaganda, the Dalits and Tribals as their killers and marauders. However, the stark reality is that, the Hindu upper castes are the masterminds of the communal riots and they operate from behind utilizing the services of the dalits and tribals (Teltumbde 2002). 

Many civil rights people found it difficult to come to terms with how tribal and Dalit people could make common cause in communal riots with the upper castes (Mander 2002). Part of the explanation lies in their historical peculiarity, economic crisis, political vacuum, but most of it lies in the motivated manipulation carried out by the Hindutva brigade over a long time. Where the persuasion did not work, the VHP- Bajrang Dal terrorised these weaker sections to show compliance. As one activist in Gujarat stated the Dalit and Christian communities were so terrorised that they were willing to do the bidding of the upper castes (Macwan 2002).


6. Bomb blasts: Nullifying the importance of religious identity of the victims

The religious identity of the victims does not gain significance in the bomb blasts that occur as retaliation of communal riots.  Bombay (1993) and Coimbatore (1998) bomb blasts leaves one perplexed to understand the mindset of Muslim fundamentalists. These bomb blasts are the retaliation of riots in which Muslims were victimised. In these bomb blasts it is not the direct perpetrators of riots who are victimised, rather, it is the innocent people who are in no way connected to riots, irrespective of their religious identity are victimised. Some of the Muslim extremists justify the use of bombs as a way of hitting back at the Hindu Fundamentalists. ``We are in a minority; we can't match them in riots. This is the only way we can retaliate,'' they argue.


7. Police bias towards religious identity

In several riots that occurred in post independence India, it is found that, police officers either did not prevent Hindu rioters from indulging in rioting, looting or arson or actively assisted Hindu rioters in burning and looting Muslim properties. They also showed communal discrimination in dealing with the rioting mobs or gave incorrect information to the control room or lodged incorrect FIRs[31], in order to make out that the persons who had rioted or were responsible for looting or arson in particular incidents were Muslim rioters not Hindu. A scrutiny of all the judicial commissions into post-partition communal riots in India shows how every report presented to the state or central government has indicted the police for its communal bias since 1961(Setalvad 1998).

The prejudice reflects itself in a more aggressive treatment of the minority and shielding of the aggressors belonging to Hindu communal organisations through the tailoring or scotching of evidence so that the guilty go scot-free. It started with sporadic riots in the sixties — Ranchi (Bihar), Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Jamshedpur (Bihar), and Tellicherry (Tamil Nadu). Then came the more systematic acts of aggression by the forces of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in Uttar Pradesh and policemen in other states in the seventies and eighties — Bhiwandi, Jalgaon (Maharashtra) in 1970, Meerut, Moradabad, Aligarh (UP) in the early eighties, New Delhi in 1984, Meerut, Maliana-Hashimpura (UP) in 1987 and Bhagalpur (Bihar) in 1989. More recently, the inherent bias in the administration and the police force has played itself out through virtual pogroms like those witnessed in Bombay (1993), Coimbatore (1997) and Gujarat (2002) (Setalvad 1998).

Rai (1997) conducted a study in to the behaviour of police in the communal riots. The finding of this study is very disturbing. The study is based on the interviews with the community leaders, feedback from serving and the retired police personnel, record of the police academy, and study of the reports of different communal riots. While we know that 65% the victims of communal riots have been Muslims, the arrest and casualty figures are very revealing. In Bhiwandi riots 1970, of those arrested in cognisable offences, 21 were Hindus while 901 were Muslims, casualties wise, 17 were Hindus and 59 were Muslims. In Meerut riots of 1982 the pattern is no different in which 124 Hindus were arrested, as against 231 Muslims while 2 Hindus and 8 Muslims were the victims of casualty. As in Mumbai, here also police bullets selectively hit the body of Muslims and soul of secular values. In Bhiwandi (1970), Firozabad (1972), Aligarh (1978) and Meerut (1982) there was not a single Hindu victim of police bullets while the number of Muslims dying of police bullets respectively was-9, 6, 7, and 6 (Punyani, 2000).

In the Coimbatore riots (1997) police started a series of shooting, particularly targeting at Muslims and that left 10 dead and 100 seriously injured (PUCL report; Frontline 1998). In the recent Gujarat riots (2002), there was absolute failure of large sections of the police to fulfil their constitutional duty and prevent mass massacre, rape and arson. Worse still is the evidence of their active connivance and brutality, their indulgence in vulgar and obscene conduct against women and children in full public view. It is as if, instead of being impartial keepers of the rule of law, they were a part of the Hindutva brigade targeting helpless Muslims (CJP 2002).

It is not difficult to identify the reasons behind the discriminatory behaviour of the police. The conduct of an average police officer is guided by the same predetermined beliefs and misconceptions, which influence the mind of an average Hindu. Not unlike his average co-religionist, an average Hindu police officer too believes that Muslims by nature are generally cruel and violent (Rai1999). Because of the heavy communalisation of the police force, police personnel believe that communal riots are due to Muslims and this is what guides their conduct. Their communalised consciousness is supplemented by brutal savagery, which gets further compounded by their non-professional approach in dealing with these situations. Many Muslim predominant areas are termed as 'mini-Pakistan' and police force while entering these areas enter with the preparation and the spirit as if they are entering the enemy territory. This also makes them do the riot investigation in apathetic manner and years after years they keep sitting on the available evidence, which goes against their deep-set biases (Punyani, 2000).



A communal riot occurs when categorical identities have become a central motivating force for a wide range of people--due to the transgeographical agitations of sectarian politicians, the general foregrounding of categorical identity in the modern nation, and so on. In India, both Hindu and Muslim groups, which encourage narrow communal identities are adding to the problem. The reality is that real people's identities are fluid and complex, whereas the project of ethnic nationalism requires the construction of narrow identities, and then the use of those identities to mobilise people. In this way, the apparently innocent encouraging of religious identity can be part of a process, which culminates in violence. The role of religious identity within the incidents of communal violence should not be undermined. The recent Gujarat pogrom (2002) speaks of voluminous evidence in the identification of victims and perpetrators based on their religious identity.


[1] Excludes figures for Jammu and Kashmir where the 1991 census could not be conducted due to disturbed conditions.

[2] Rashtriya Suyam Sevak is a Hindu fundamentalist organization. The RSS is also a cultural organization, which seeks to promote a Hindu ethos within India and among Indians living abroad. Although an ostensibly cultural organization, RSS cells are involved in supporting political candidates for government, trade unions, and student organizations.


[3] Vishwa Hindu Parishad is a Hindu fundamentalist organization. The VHP was established to unite Hinduism's regional and caste divisions under a single ecumenical umbrella. It is actively involved in Sanskrit education, the organization of Hindu rites and rituals, and converting Christians, Muslims and animists to Hinduism.


[4] Shiva Sena is a Hindu Fundamentalist party based in Mumbai, Maharashtra, and Known for its cultural policing.

[5] Avatar is a form of god in the guise of Human being. Ram is a god in the form of Human.

[6] Jana Sangh is communal political outfit known for its Hindu fundamentalist ideology.

[7] Bajrang Dal is a Hindu fundamentalist organization

[8] Hindu Munnani   is a Hindu fundamentalist organization, which is active in the state of Tamil Nadu.

[9] Ghettoisation is the process of living in ghettos to prevent themselves from the attacks of Fundamentalist elements.

[10] September 11 incident is the one the world will never forget. On September 11 2001, the al-Qaeda network of Osama Bin laden shocked the world by demolishing the twin towers in New York killing more than 2000 people.

[11] Osama bin laden is the noted terrorist of the world, heads al-Qaeda network. The notorious terrorist alleged in the September 11 incident

[12] A slogan raised by the Muslim Fundamentalists while attacking the Hindus.

[13]A slogan raised by the Muslim Fundamentalists while attacking the Hindus. It means “Allah is the great”.

[14] A slogan raised by the Hindu Fundamentalists while attacking the Muslims. It means “Hail Lord Ram (The Hindu Avatar)”.


[15] A slogan raised by the Hindu Fundamentalists while attacking the Muslims. It means “Hail Kali (The Hindu Goddess)”.

[16] A slogan raised by the Hindu Fundamentalists while attacking the Muslims.

[17] A slogan raised by the Hindu Fundamentalists while attacking the Muslims. It means “God Hanuman is great”.

[18] A three-pronged lethal instrument used by the Hindu fundamentalists both as a religious symbol and a weapon.

[19] These are songs describing the might of Lord Hanuman the Hindu monkey Avatar.

[20] Tulsi is an herbal plant that is used for medicinal purposes. Hindus believe it as a holy plant.

[21] Sivalinga is the virtual symbol of procreation, symbolizing the male and female reproductive organs. Hindus worship it as Lord Siva.

[22] It is a place of worship where many Muslims at a time do namaaz.

[23] It is the process of worship done by Muslims and as per the holy book Koran; every Muslim should do the namaaz five times a day.

[24] A Muslims concentrated residential area

[25] They are institutions of Islamic Studies.

[26] Topies, Chadars and Pathan suits are some religious symbols of Muslims. Topies are the caps, Chadars are long scarfs, and Pathan suits are a kind of dress.

[27] Bastis are small Muslim residential areas

[28] Casteism is like communalism, dividing people on the basis of castes

[29] Dalits is a holistic term of all low caste Hindus.

[30] Shudras are the persons who are in the lowest rung of Hindu caste hierarchy.

[31] First information report. This is the report developed on the first information given by any complainant of any incident to the police officer concerned in a police station



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*Dr. K. Jaishankar is a Lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, India. He received his Ph.D. in Criminology from the University of Madras, Chennai, India. His research interests include Communal violence, Crime mapping, GIS, Policing, Crime prevention, and Victimology. Please send correspondence to Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Abhishekapatti, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu 627 012 India. email:


**Debarati Haldar is an Advocate practicing in High Court of Madras, Chennai, India. She received her LLB degree from the University of Calcutta. She is presently in the final year of Master’s programme in International Law, University of Madras. Her current research interests include Terrorism, Violence, and its International Law ramifications.