Across several states in North India, the police were on edge this past week as the Bharatiya Janata Party and allied Hindutva groups organised a series of rallies and events commemorating the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, on December 6, 1992, as well as the deaths of around 30 Hindutva workers in the 1990 rath yatras led by BJP leader LK Advani from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya. Some of these programmes also called for a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

In some places, the rallies, celebrated as “Hindu Shourya Divas” or Hindu bravery day, took place without permission and in defiance of prohibitory orders. On Thursday, one such procession ended in violence between Hindus and Muslims in Hazaribagh city in Jharkhand.

More processions and events are planned in the coming days. On Friday, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court modified the order of a single-judge bench of the same court staying three planned BJP rath yatras in West Bengal until January 9. The division bench directed the Trinamool Congress-led state government to hold discussions with the BJP on December 12 about the three rallies and come to a final decision by December 14.

The first of the three rath yatras criss-crossing the state was to kick off from Cooch Behar on Friday. It was to be led by BJP president Amit Shah. But the police in Cooch Behar refused permission for the rally for fear that it would lead to communal tension. The BJP has said it will wait for the High Court’s final decision, but it remains defiant.

“We are not going to bow down at any cost,” News18 reported Shah as saying at a press conference on Friday. “Our ‘yatra’ will happen soon and I will flag off all three of them. If required, we will go to the Supreme Court for justice but we will make this happen in Bengal.”

Trouble seems to be brewing around Delhi as well. In the run-up to a Vishwa Hindu Parishad event planned for Sunday, Hindutva groups organised truck and bike rallies in and around the Capital on Thursday to drum up support for the upcoming programme. One of these processions, organised by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, went through the city’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Intelligence agencies have warned the Delhi Police of possible communal clashes on Sunday, reported The Hindu. Five senior police officers reportedly told the newspaper that no organiser of any of the preparatory rallies had approached them for permissions.

Rallies across the country

In Hazaribagh, the rally by saffron groups took place despite the district administration denying them permission. As the procession went past a mosque where an event marking the death anniversary of BR Ambedkar was on, an altercation broke out, a witness said. The Ambedkar event was organised by the Dalit group Bhim Sena and Muslim groups.

“The Dalit, Bahujan and Muslim communities were conducting a programme near the Jama Masjid with slogans such as ‘Samvidhan bachao’ [save the Constitution] and ‘Desh bachao’ [save the country],” said Jamal Ahmed, a Congress worker in Hazaribagh who witnessed the events. “At the same time, the BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal people passed nearby, playing loud, offensive songs.”

Ahmed said the Hindutva procession attacked a nearby restaurant, after which Muslims participating in the Ambedkar programme started throwing stones at them, leading to a bigger fight. He said the district administration worked through the night to bring the situation under control and that without their efforts, riots could have broken out across the city.

Megha Bharadwaj, the Hazaribagh city sub-divisional officer, said the Hindutva groups had sought permission for processions on Thursday but this was not granted because of the possibility of trouble. “We were told by the police it was not safe,” she added.

On Wednesday, the administration issued prohibitory orders forbidding the display of weapons and the use of sound systems beyond a certain decibel level, and asking people to desist from making provocative speeches and playing certain types of songs.

Despite that, the Hindutva groups went ahead with several processions and bike rallies. Bharadwaj said administration officials intercepted one of the processions. “Questions [about] which group they belonged to [were asked], but they did not reply,” she added. The police impounded a vehicle carrying a sound system as it was blocking a road. The driver of the vehicle ran away on seeing the police. Moments later, BJP MLA from Hazaribagh Manish Jaiswal turned up at the police station to protest against the police action, Prabhat Khabar reported. Bharadwaj declined to comment on this.

Ahmed added, “Hazaribagh is a sensitive area and violence does break out around festival times. This is the first time violence has broken out over this issue, and the first time that a ‘shourya divas’ was held here.”

Screenshot of a video of the clash at Hazaribagh, Jharkhand.

The Hazarigabh rallies were among dozens of similar processions organised in towns and cities across North India and led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal.

Many of these rallies were deliberatively provocative. Participants in some openly bore weapons, as in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh and Muzaffarpur in Bihar, or advocated violence against Muslims.

At a meeting in Panchmahal district in Gujarat, Acharya Suryasagar, a Digambara sadhu of a tradition that eschews clothing, said, “Those Hindus who have forgotten how to bear arms should be ashamed of themselves.”

For the most part, Hindi news reports were largely uncritical of the rallies, which took place in capital cities, district headquarters and small towns across several states. These included Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, Bhagalpur and West Champaran in Bihar, Sonbhadra and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Raipur in Chhattisgarh, Dhanbad in Jharkhand, and Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. The reports described the towns festooned with saffron banners and citizens turning out in large numbers to welcome the rally participants.

Only one report, in Dainik Bhaskar, from Muzaffarpur in Bihar linked the rallies to the general elections next year. It described young men with saffron bands on their heads, a sword in one hand and a 15-foot saffron flag in the other. It quoted unidentified bystanders as saying that this seems to be a trailer for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.