Jaipur: The riot began—as riots often do in India—on the night of 2 May in seemingly innocuous fashion: Hindu groups in the desert city of Jodhpur noticed Islamic flags tied to a traffic roundabout that was home to a bust of a Hindu Brahmin freedom fighter called Balmukund Bissa.
Hindus also noticed that a saffron Hindu flag on the roundabout, fastened there to celebrate the Hindu festival of Parshuram Jayanti falling on 1 May was missing. Hindus accused Muslims of removing their flag, which Muslims denied. Words were exchanged, said the police and locals, and, soon, Muslims and Hindus were attacking each other with stones, sticks and firebombs.
On Eid-ul-Fitr, 3 May, Muslims found a saffron flag—Hindu groups had removed the Islamic flags—on the roundabout and when police, fearing further tension, tried to stop them from removing it, they attacked the police. Vexed officers, struggling to keep the peace, removed the saffron flag and hoisted the tricolour instead.
By the end of the day, the police imposed a curfew. The riots were fierce: 211 people were arrested and of the nine policemen injured, three were “critical”, director general of police M L Lather told Article 14. Mobile Internet services were suspended for five days and the epicentre of the clashes, the usually crowded Jalori gate at the heart of the city, swarmed with security forces.
On 3 May, chief minister Ashok Gehlot of the Congress party put out a series of tweets, expressing concerns over the riots. By afternoon, the situation had worsened, and Gehlot had to cancel his visit to Jodhpur, his hometown, 350 km southwest of here, where he intended to celebrate his 71st birthday that day.
Meanwhile, less than 12 hours after the first riot, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the opposition party in Rajasthan, waded into the flag affair. Social-media accounts linked to the BJP made fake claims. “Islamic goons replace Indian national flag with Islamic flag at #Jodhpur,” said one.
After the first riot, on 2 May, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, BJP member of Parliament (MP) from Jodhpur and union jal shakti or water resources minister, went to the riot-hit area and met only Hindus, who later organised a march as a show of strength chanting the Hanuman chalisa, a devotional hymn.
“In all the incidents that took place [on 3 May], was there even one worker of the BJP or RSS present in the areas?” said Shekhawat. “Was there any other party pelting stones and indulging in riots? One-sided action is being taken”.
The BJP’s state party president Satish Poonia referred on 3 May to Islamic flags and “appeasement politics” of the Congress, a dog-whistle often used to claim that the party panders to Muslims. He accused the Congress of giving permission to rallies of the Popular Front of India, an Islamic group, while imposing restrictions on Ram Navami and the Hindu new year.
The next day, on 4 May, when a peace committee meeting with Hindu and Muslim priests to calm tensions was about to start, BJP representatives walked out, accusing the government of favouring Muslims.
“They (the government) have not arrested those who hoisted the Eid flag but instead arrested innocent people,” said Soorsagar Suryakanta Vyas, 82, BJP member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Jodhpur. “So, we decided to walk out of the peace committee.”
Not Giving Peace A Chance
The BJP’s concerted effort to side with Hindus in Jodhpur was not an isolated event in Rajasthan, which is due to go to the polls on 2023.
In four other incidents involving Hindus and Muslims over a month, attempts by the BJP to stoke resentment among Hindus were evident. These were:
–A Hindu-Muslim riot in the western town of Karauli on 2 April, the first in the series.
–The controversial demolition of a temple in the northeastern city of Alwar on 17 April.
–A riot on 5 May in the western city of Bhilwara after Muslim bikers were beaten.
—A shutdown call in Bhilwara on 11 May after a Hindu man was murdered.
Political observers said the partisan reactions of the BJP indicated how the party hoped to benefit from inter-religious tensions and violence. The BJP even criticised Gehlot for hosting an iftar, the traditional breaking of the Ramzan fast, at his residence.
"It is quite evident that BJP wants to create polarisation in Rajasthan,” said Rajiv Gupta, a political expert and former dean of social sciences at Rajasthan university, “In all the incidents of communal violence that took place over one month, the party has left no stone unturned to add fuel to the fire."
Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Dalit writer and former member of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said “small incidents” were common between Hindus and Muslims in Rajasthan, as in other states. The current events, he added, were being specifically exploited by Hindu groups.
"What is common in all these incidents,” said Gupta, “is that the opposition BJP has used these to further incite communal tension by giving hate speeches, boycotting peace meetings and accusing Congress of supporting minorities.”
Diverse Hindu Groups, A Common Cause
The involvement of largely unknown Hindu groups is apparent in the incidents we mentioned, perhaps to provide, said some, the impression that support for the Hindu cause is diverse and broad-based.
Indeed, in Bhilwara, where the BJP and the RSS have a strong presence, a previously unknown group called the Kesariya Brigade called for a shutdown, followed by the BJP and its allied groups.
In Jodhpur, one of those injured in the riots was Mukul Bohra, a member of J Boys, a Hindu outfit.
Bohra told Article 14 that they had erected a saffron flag near Bissa’s bust to mark Parushram Jayanti, birth anniversary of Lord Parshuram—believed to be the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu—an event now used as a show of strength by upper-caste Brahmin groups.
Bohra, who is also a disc jockey in Jaipur, said he saw some people remove the saffron flag and replace it with an Islamic flag on the night of 1 May. Later that night, and early on 2 May, he said he was passing by when he ran into a Muslim mob.
“They surrounded me and started beating me with rods", said Bohra, who was hospitalised with multiple fractures. The J Boys were just one of many Hindu organisations involved in all the incidents.
“The names of organisations may be different, but they are all backed by BJP and RSS", said Meghwanshi, the author of the book I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS.
A Congress spokesperson accused the BJP’s leaders of either being involved in the tensions or violence or inciting “polarisation” by calling for bandhs and boycotting peace meetings. "The series of communal incidents in Rajasthan happening over the last 40 days cannot be a coincidence,” said the spokesperson, Swarnim Chaturvedi.
In Jodhpur, said Chaturvedi, union minister Gajendra Singh joined local Hindu groups at sit-in protests. In Bhilwara, he added, local MLA Vitthal Shankar Awasthi instead of appealing for peace, supported Hindu protestors.
“There have been dharnas by the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and other saffron outfits with his (Awasthi’s) support,” said Chaturvedi. “So was the case in Alwar, where (BJP) MP Mahant Balaknath organised a rally after the demolition of the temple and created polarisation.”
The BJP countered those allegations by accusing the Congress of “appeasement”.
‘Congress Creating The Divide, Not The BJP’
BJP state president Poonia said the riots and tensions were not about communalism but about bringing “culprits” to justice, something, he alleged, Gehlot, as chief minister and home minister, had failed to do.
"Ashok Gehlot is known for doing politics all 365 days,” Poonia told Article 14, accusing police and intelligence officers of “complete failure”.
“Instead of doing their duty and being alert about such incidents, they have been asked to spy on their own people,” said Poonia, a reference to previous allegations of phone-tapping by supporters of Gehlot’s deputy Sachin Pilot. “The incidents are related to law and order issues and Rajasthan has been the worst during Congress's tenure.”
This is not the first time that communal incidents have rocked Rajasthan. On April 2021 dozens of vehicles and shops were torched and vandalised by mobs as communal violence erupted in Chhabra town of Baran district following the stabbing of two youths, prompting authorities to declare a curfew.
When the BJP was in power between 2013 and 2018, a similar string of communal incidents (here , here, and here, ) had engulfed the state. At the time, the Congress as the main opposition party, criticised the BJP for the law-and-order situation.
Asked about allegations of siding with Hindus during violence at Jodhpur, Karauli, Bhilwara and Alwar, Poonia said: "Congress is doing appeasement and vote-bank politics.”
Poonia repeated BJP accusations that Gehlot’s government had permitted the Muslim PFI to hold events in Rajasthan “but at the same time on the occasion of Ram Navmi, they banned processions in 17 districts”.
Soon after the Jodhpur violence, the Rajasthan government constituted a six-member special investigation team (SIT) headed by additional director general Biju George Joseph to probe the clashes in Jodhpur, Karauli and Bhilwara.
DGP Lather said the SIT would probe if there is "a conspiracy” linked to these events.
“It is the Congress that is creating the divide and not the BJP,” said Poonia, who in a 2 May letter to Rajasthan Governor Kalraj Mishra requested a fair investigation.
But Poonia’s own conduct and that of his colleagues in one of the most damaging riots of 2022 indicates how his party exacerbated tensions.
In Karauli, Exciting Tensions After Riots
A month before the Jodhpur riots, 514 km east in Karauli—a district headquarters and capital of a former kingdom that is home to about 90,000—on the day that police were struggling to quell riots, 2 April, Poonia tweeted that the riots were a result of the Congress’ “policy of appeasement”.
The violence started after Muslims attacked a Ram Navami rally that jeered at and threatened Muslims while passing by a mosque and through a Muslim neighbourhood. Several business establishments were burned, the majority belonging to Muslims.
The next day, on 3 April, a 10-person BJP “fact-finding” committee reached Karauli, where BJP leader Rajaram Gurjar, husband of the mayor of the Jaipur Greater Municipal Corporation, was among 44 accused named in a main first information report (FIR). When this story was published, Gurjar was still being sought by police.
On 13 April, BJP MP Tejasvi Surya, president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the party’s youth wing, tried to visit Karauli with Rajasthan BJP leaders but was detained by the state police. “The deliberate attempt to disturb Ram Navami shobha yatra & the unwillingness of congress govt. to act against the aggressors (Muslims) is deplorable,” Surya tweeted.
In Bhilwara, Endorsing Shutdown Called By Hindu Groups
A similar approach was evident in Bhilwara, two days after the riots in Jodhpur, but this time there did not appear to be a communal angle, except the murderers and the man killed happened to be from different religions.
On 5 May, after two Muslims were beaten and their motorcycle set afire in Bhilwara—a city of about 340,000 people, 270 km southeast of Jodhpur—Internet services were suspended to stop the spread of social-media posts that could spread tensions. A week later, on 11 May, the Net was suspended again, after the murder of a 20-year-old Hindu man, allegedly over a personal dispute with three young Muslim men, two of them minors, with whom he had apparently had an argument a few days earlier.
Local Hindu groups called for a shutdown, swiftly supported by the BJP, the VHP and the Hindu Jagran Manch. They also demanded Rs 50 lakh as compensation for the family of the murdered man.
“In Bhilwara police, the police are not taking action against the guilty, and we are not satisfied,” said Poonia, the BJP president.
In Hanumangarh, CM Accused Of ‘Loving’ Islamic Group
A VHP leader called Satveer Saharan was injured in a confrontation with Muslim men in Hanumangarh district, about 502 km north of Jaipur.
Though the attackers were arrested within a few hours, Hindu groups launched protests and blocked roads on the night of 11 May. Hanumangarh district collector Nathmal Didel said that people were seen distributing sticks, after which nearly 30, mostly Hindu, were taken in preventive custody, as Internet services were suspended in three tehsils or subdivisions of the district.
It was on 12 May that BJP president Poonia accused Gehlot of “loving” the PFI, which was granted permission to hold a rally in the city of Kota. Poonia said the violence in the state was a pre-planned conspiracy and alleged the Congress government was doing “nothing” to prevent such incidents.
Using Divisive Issue, BJP Finds Internal Unity
The divisiveness deployed by the BJP over tensions and violent incidents in Rajasthan appear to have afforded an opportunity to the party to heal some division within.
Former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who is creeping back into the political spotlight and was once regarded as a moderate on issues related to inciting Hindus, has been unusually vocal in accusing the Congress several times this year over “appeasement politics”.
“It is clear from the incident of taking down saffron flag from the bust of freedom fighter Balmukund Bissa that religious madness spread across the state is a result of the appeasement culture of the Congress government,” said Raje after the Jodhpur clash.
This approach is helping the BJP’s unity, the Indian Express reported in April 2022. Before the Jodhpur riots, Raje criticised an electricity department order that said Muslim areas should not be subjected to power cuts during the holy month of Ramzan.
Ever since, the BJP has doggedly pursued this and related issues, repeatedly (here, here and here) accusing the Congress government of favouring Muslims. On 18 April, for instance, the BJP latched on to the demolition of two temples, including a 300-year-old Shiva temple in Alwar district.
Officials said the demolition was part of a drive against illegal encroachment to widen a road and said the action was approved by the Rajgarh Municipal Council Board. The BJP called Gehlot’s government “anti-Hindu”, but the government pointed out that the municipal council was controlled by the BJP.
Rajasthan Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra accused the BJP of “misleading people” and “playing politics over religion”. Dotasra also pointed to the demolition of hundreds of temples between 2013 and 2015 in state capital Jaipur when Raje was chief minister.
After the temple demolition, the Rajasthan police on 22 April filed a criminal case against Aman Chopra, a television anchor with the News 18 channel, accusing him of instigating communal riots in Alwar district. His arrest was stayed by the Rajasthan High Court.
On 6 May, addressing a rally in Alwar, as many in the audience shouted “Har har Mahadev”, an ancient Hindu war cry, BJP MP Balaknath compared the Congress with the Mughals and said both shared the same DNA.
(Tabeenah Anjum is a journalist based in Rajasthan, reporting on politics, gender, human rights, and issues impacting marginalised communities.)