Irshad Khan knew there would be trouble when he saw the procession. “They were up to no good,” he said of the Ram Navami revellers in Jharkhand’s Gumla town on April 5, 2017. The rally had halted outside the Jama Masjid, when it was not supposed to.

The halt made everyone anxious. Suddenly, the music changed and a new song came on. Khan does not remember the exact words. “But it was something to the effect of ‘Mulle ki topi phenk do.’” Let’s toss the Muslim man’s skullcap.

This was direct provocation for the Muslim community, said Khan, the Gumla head of Anjuman Islam, a socio-religious Muslim organisation. “Some of us tried to calm tempers in the Muslim community, others asked the procession members to stop the music,” he said.

In those moments, Khan said, anything could have happened. Within minutes, however, the police intervened and defused the tension.

But Khan knew the situation was a ticking time bomb.

A few hours later, close to midnight, his fears came true, he told FactChecker. A call informed him that a group of Hindu men returning from the procession had lynched a Muslim man, Mohamed Shalik, to death. The lynching had taken place in Soso village, 4 km from Gumla town, where the procession was held. The assailants had allegedly objected to Shalik’s relationship with a Hindu girl in the neighbourhood.

MD Minhaj's son, Mohamed Shalik, was lynched to death after a Ram Navami procession in Gumla. Credit: Kunal Purohit/FactChecker
MD Minhaj's son, Mohamed Shalik, was lynched to death after a Ram Navami procession in Gumla. Credit: Kunal Purohit/FactChecker

Calling Shalik a “jolha”, a pejorative term for Muslims, the mob had tied him to a pole and attacked him with sticks and rods, his father MD Minhaj told FactChecker. Shalik had died on the way to the hospital, according to the FIR which FactChecker reviewed.

Around the same time that evening, 280 km away in Koderma district’s Kolgarma village, Hindus participating in a similar Ram Navami procession had entered a Muslim neighbourhood, ransacked a mosque and assaulted local residents, including women.

Ten years, nine deaths

Across Jharkhand, festivals are being weaponised in a bid to drive up religious hatred and polarise communities. Primary among them is Ram Navami, the occasion when the Hindu community celebrates the birth of Ram.

Two of the seven hate crimes FactChecker investigated occurred on Ram Navami – the accused in both cases had participated in Ram Navami processions. At the five other hate-crime spots, the festival played a key role in driving up a communal frenzy, police officials and local observers said.

Jharkhand’s population is 68% Hindu and 14.5% Muslim, according to Census 2011 statistics. Since 2009, the state has reported 16 hate crimes motivated by religion and 12 deaths – the second highest after Uttar Pradesh (23 dead). All of these have been reported after the Bharatiya Janata Party won national and state elections in 2014, but before general elections in April and May. The BJP won 11 of 14 parliamentary seats in Jharkhand this year.

Of the 16, FactChecker shortlisted nine instances listed in the database, trying to balance out different types of cases and geographical spread. Travelling across Jharkhand, covering more than 3,000 km in 13 days, FactChecker visited these nine spots, met the accused, the surviving victims and their families, and spoke to locals and police officials.

The aim was to investigate and verify the listings in Hate Crime Watch (a database of religious identity-based hate crimes across India from 2009 to 2019, maintained by FactChecker), follow up on developments, and document the long-term impact of the crimes on the social fabric of these regions.

From FactChecker’s reporting, two cases did not turn out to be hate crimes, according to the definition and methodology employed for Hate Crime Watch.

For the purpose of Hate Crime Watch, FactChecker collates data on crimes motivated partly or wholly by prejudice against the religion of the victims. For an incident to qualify as a religion-based hate crime under our criteria, the act must qualify as a criminal act under Indian law. It is not necessary that formal criminal proceedings should have started for the fulfilment of this criterion, only that the available evidence should suggest that the act qualifies as a criminal act on the face of it. The target of a hate crime can be a person, groups of persons or property. Hate Crime Watch does not document speech crimes.

The first of these was the alleged lynching of an elderly couple and their three daughters. While two daughters had sustained injuries, the couple and their elder daughter had died.

Some of the media reporting of the incident had said the family were members of the Sarna adivasi group while the attackers were Hindus and Christians. Our investigation found that the victims were Hindus of the Kewat caste while some of the alleged attackers were also Hindus, some from the same caste and others from the Lohar caste. The reason behind the lynching, we found, was that the family had filed a complaint with the police against a 23-year-old Lohar man for allegedly abducting their daughter.

The man, who had recently converted to Christianity though his family had remained Hindu, had died while trying to evade police custody. As a consequence, there was tension in the village. This had resulted in the lynching.

In the second case, it was reported that a 20-year-old Hindu woman from Ramgarh district had been raped and killed by her husband, his father and his uncle. The reason, media reports had said, was that the girl had refused to convert to Islam.

FactChecker visited the families of the victim and the accused, spoke to senior police officials in the district as well as with defence and prosecution lawyers. We found that there was no evidence to show that the killing had been linked to the woman’s religion. The woman’s family also said that they did not fully understand why their daughter had been killed.

FactChecker removed both these cases from their database, which leaves 14 cases from Jharkhand that led to nine deaths.

In each of the six districts FactChecker visited, Ram Navami celebrations had become synonymous with communal clashes and low-intensity tensions.

“The scale of Ram Navami celebrations in Jharkhand is unprecedented,” said ML Meena, additional director-general, Jharkhand Police. “It isn’t celebrated with as much fervour anywhere else in the country. Playing communally sensitive lyrics, provocative songs – there are some elements, not all, who try and do this. Some people take advantage of such major festivals and create trouble.”

Small scale, big style

The scale of Ram Navami celebrations in Jharkhand is massive. In state capital Ranchi alone, the procession of nearly a million participants starts from various parts of the city and culminates at the Tapovan mandir in the Doronda locality, IndiaSpend learned.

Typically, various akharas – in this context, Hindu socio-religious groups – start marching towards mandals or social groups across the city, said Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, a former chairperson of key procession organiser Shri Mahavir Mandal, who has been at the helm of the celebrations for more than three decades. “When they start marching, people keep joining in and the procession keeps growing,” Mishra said.

Rajiv Ranjan Mishra (centre, in blue) is a key organiser of Ram Navami processions. Credit: Rajiv Ranjan Mishra
Rajiv Ranjan Mishra (centre, in blue) is a key organiser of Ram Navami processions. Credit: Rajiv Ranjan Mishra

Snaking through lanes and bylanes, the procession covers almost all the major parts of the city before reaching the mandir late at night. “The procession starts around 4 pm and then takes up to eight to nine hours to cover around 15 km,” Mishra said.

Most participants of the procession wear saffron scarves – a colour associated with Hinduism – and are armed with weapons, such as swords, daggers, maces and rods. The procession involves showing off fighting skills using these weapons. “So, men either air-fight or fight each other using these weapons on the streets,” said Mishra.

Often, the atmosphere, the weaponry and the fights create a sense of hyper-masculinity, Mishra said, adding, “After all, this procession is a shakti puja [worship of Shakti, the goddess of strength]. So, men often get carried away, seeing all the weapons and the electric atmosphere.”

Traditionally, these processions featured bands of musicians. These have given way to pre-recorded music, played by DJs atop trucks fitted with amplifiers.

Police officials said the music often sparks off altercations, as in the 2017 Ram Navami processions in Gumla, where provocative songs were played right in front of a mosque.

Contentious music

A dive into the world of Ram Navami music, and conversations with participants and observers showed that many songs played at processions involve themes such as the Ram Mandir that the BJP has promised to build in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque that its followers demolished in 1992. Some songs berate Mughal rulers and speak about transforming India into a Hindu Rashtra or nation. The sub-text to the lyrics almost always threatens Muslims with violence. Consider this popular song:

Agar chhua mandir toh tujhe dikha denge,
Hum tujhko teri aukaad bataa denge.”

(If you touch the mandir, you won’t be spared,
We will show you your rightful place.)

Another example is this song popular across many of Jharkhand’s Ram Navami processions that talks of a “Masjid galli. One line goes:

“Ram Seeta Lakhan sang hai Bajrang Bali
Chal tujhko ghuma laoon masjid galli”

(With Ram, Seeta and Lakshman is Bajrang Bali
Let me take you for a ride to mosque lane.)

“In that moment, with the slogans, the music and the weapons, the josh [fervour] is very high,” said 22-year-old Ramesh Singh a Bajrang Dal member in Ranchi, who has been going for these processions for years. He did not want to share his real name. “Some boys try and outshine others by doing something,” he said.

Singh’s ringtone is a wildly popular song often played at these processions, Har Ghar Bhagwa Chayega (saffron will fly high in each house, saffron being a metaphor for Hinduism), which vows that gau-hatya (cow slaughter) will be stopped and insists that anyone who wants to continue to live in India must recite Vande Mataram (Hail, Mother Goddess). The song has gathered 230 million views on YouTube.

That “doing”, Singh said, could include taking the lead in sloganeering in front of a mosque and provoking members of the Muslim community along the way.

Police precautions

Among police circles, Ram Navami celebrations have become a law and order issue. In some parts of Jharkhand, their link with hate crimes were direct and clear – as in the central Jharkhand district of Ramgarh.

One police official, not wishing to be identified, narrated the sequence of altercations that the procession members would have with the police in the run-up to Ram Navami celebrations. “We would ask them to stick to the pre-decided route whereas they would insist on going to sensitive areas,” the official said.

Some of the main organisers of the Ram Navami celebrations in Ramgarh district have been Bajrang Dal members, including Chhotu Verma and Santosh Singh, a police official stationed in the district told FactChecker. Both of them led a mob in July 2017 that lynched and killed a trader, Alimuddin Ansari, for allegedly carrying beef.

“We had asked them to submit a CD to us with all the songs they would play because we had realised that the music is often provocative,” the police official said. “They were angry but, finally, they had to submit the CD.”

These precautions continue, said District Superintendent of Police Nidhi Dwivedi. “We sit with both communities, map out a clear route and ask the organisers to submit a CD of the songs they are going to play,” she said.

Despite these precautions, Ram Navami in Ramgarh district continues to be a thorny affair.

This year, there were clashes between two groups in the procession who hurled stones at each other, according to news reports. The violence left five people, including two police persons, injured.

Some instances are considered too local, or too sensitive, to be reported in the media, local reporters said. “There have been times when there have been clashes between the two communities and the police defused the situation,” said Kasif Akhtar, a journalist based in Koderma district. “But the authorities request the media to not report it so that it doesn’t lead to more tension.”

The Ram Navami procession in Koderma town passes peacefully through Muslim localities, Akhtar said. “The Muslim community welcomes them with drinks and sweets when they pass by, the Hindu community does the same during Muharram processions,” he said.

Yet, even in Koderma, fault lines exist.

‘Outlet for discord’

Kolgarma village in Koderma district, with a population of close to 1,700, has been on the edge since 2012, when construction of a mosque started on a disputed plot that both the Hindu and the Muslim communities claimed rights over.

In 2012, some Muslim villagers started voicing the need for a mosque in the village, the nearest one was at least 3 km away, said Mohamed Karim Rehmat Ansari, 35, the deputy village head.

But the construction ran into opposition when the Hindu community objected. Hindu villagers said the Muslim community had deceived them. “We were told that a one-room madrassa [Islamic religious school] was being built.” said Chhotu Yadav, 35, a daily-wage labourer. “But then, once construction started, we realised it was not a small madrassa but a mosque that was being built, instead. That caused immense anger.”

The construction halted but resumed after the Muslim community claimed they had obtained permission from the authorities. “We started construction again, in fact, the Hindu villagers were now on board, they even laid the foundation,” said Ansari.

But tensions were rising.

The mosque was inaugurated on March 25, 2017. On April 3, 2017, the Hindu community complained to the authorities.

A day later, on Ram Navami, the tensions spilled over. More than 200 members of the procession allegedly entered the Muslim neighbourhood during namaaz, assaulted people and vandalised the mosque and some homes, according to the FIR filed at the Koderma police station. “The mob entered, shouting slogans like Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram], topi kholo [remove the skullcap], and Quran padhna band karo [Stop reading the Quran],the FIR said.

Imamul Haq, 24, was inside the mosque, praying when he heard the slogans. “[But] I wasn’t afraid because the police were there,” he said. Within seconds, however, the attackers had broken in, and assaulted him with sticks, rods and swords, fracturing both his knee caps. “As soon as I received the first blow, I turned around to see a huge mob,” he said. “They came from everywhere.”

Imamul Haq stands outside the disputed mosque in Kolgarma village where he was assaulted. Credit: Kunal Purohit/FactChecker
Imamul Haq stands outside the disputed mosque in Kolgarma village where he was assaulted. Credit: Kunal Purohit/FactChecker

The injury was so severe that Haq, who was on a break from his job as a driver in Saudi Arabia, had to give up work. “For six months, I could barely walk,” he said. Even now, he cannot take up a job that involves using his legs.

Allegations on both sides

Hindus blame Muslims for provoking Ram Navami processions.

“The procession was orderly,” said Yadav of the clash following the construction of a mosque in Kolgarma village. “But when we were passing the Muslim neighbourhood, someone spat on us. Hence, some people got angry and reacted to it.”

Police officials registered a complaint from the Muslim community against eight persons and 200 unidentified assailants.

Muslim villagers said after they lodged the complaint, the Hindu community boycotted them. “We were denied provisions at the shop, our fields went dry because we were not allowed to use sources of water on land owned by Hindus,” said Kayumuddin, 27.

Dhaneshwar Sahu, 30, a Hindu trader from the village said, “We decided to not interact with them so that there is communal harmony and we don’t end up fighting. It was not a boycott.”

In 2018, the two communities clashed again in Kolgarma. Allegations and counter-allegations flew fast. Police officials at the Koderma police station said the incidents resulted from long-standing communal discord.

“The dispute started with land.” said Ram Narayan Thakur, the officer in charge of Koderma police station. “Hindu villagers had donated a piece of land and had agreed that a madrassa should be built. The Muslim community, instead, built a mosque.”

A police team from Koderma was targeted while investigating the clashes, officials told FactChecker.

The village now lives in uneasy calm. Hindus told FactChecker that normalcy had returned, while Muslims said they felt fear.

Ansari, the deputy village head of Kolgarma, said the Muslim children in the local government school had stopped eating the government-distributed mid-day meals after a rumour spread that some Hindus were trying to poison their food. It has been two years since the clash in their village, but the children are still scared, he added.

This article originally appeared on FactChecker.in

Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist and an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), writing on development, gender, right-wing politics and the intersections between them.