It will take decades of data to say whether there’s been a change in the trend of communal violence episodes.
In July 2013, communal violence flared in Nanglamal near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Two people died and a dozen were injured when Hindus and Muslims clashed over complaints by the latter group of music blaring from loudspeakers outside a temple. The incident erupted into violence when a few Muslims switched off the temple loudspeaker and a Muslim mob beat up a few temple-goers.
This is but one example of communal violence in the tinderbox state of UP. The state is replete with incidents of communal violence over flashpoints such as music, procession routes, rumours of cow slaughter, of temple idols or the Quran being desecrated and so on. In each case, there’s a spark which lights the tinder, police are either inept or look the other way and local politicians who are leaders of different communities try to profit from the mayhem.
The most recent such incident which galvanised the nation was the lynching to death of a Muslim man in Dadri by a Hindu mob because he was suspected of having cow beef in his home.
In October 2014 in Bangalore in Congress ruled Karnataka, a well-known anti-cow slaughter activist was attacked and beaten by a Muslim mob for merely distributing his book arguing against cow slaughter.
Violence around consumption of meat need not even have a communal angle. In September 2014, in Bhopal in BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh, a group of female Muslim activists from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling for a vegan Eid, were threatened with stoning and stripping by a mob of Muslim men. One of the activists was badly roughed up.
In UP alone, incidents of violence associated with rumours or allegations of cow slaughter, which is illegal in that state as in many other Indian states, are legion. For instance in 2008, in Agra, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslim, after the mysterious deaths of seven cows. According to one report, a Hindu group present on location claimed they were protesting peacefully when stones were pelted at them by a Muslim mob.
It’s noteworthy that a firestorm of criticism has been directed towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the Dadri incident, some of it justifiably because of irresponsible statements made by some of its leaders and Modi’s prolonged silence. But the commenting class has completely let the Samajwadi Party (SP) in power in UP off the hook. One is led to believe that somehow Modi and the central government are to blame for a law and order failure in SP-ruled UP.
To put matters in perceptive, data from the Ministry of Home Affairs on communal violence tells a very sobering tale. As summarised here, there were 668, 823, and 644 incidents of communal violence nationwide in the years 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, the last three full years for which we have data. In each of these three years, UP recorded 118, 247, and 133 communal incidents, which resulted in 39, 77 and 26 deaths respectively, and, 500, 360 and 374 injuries respectively.
While UP has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in these statistics in absolute numbers, it must be noted in per capita terms, the state is not always the worst performer because it’s a large state.
Looking at incidents, UP’s share of the total is 18%, 30% and 20%, in these three years respectively. Given that UP accounts for approximately one fifth of India’s total population, you would expect incidents of communal incidence in the state to be in accordance with its population share. In 2012 and 2014 that was indeed the case, but in 2013, the year in which widespread communal violence took place in Muzaffarnagar, its share was much higher.
We can get more precise information on which states exhibit more communal violence than their population share by comparing each state’s incidence of communal violence with its share of the population over each of the last three years. (See charts for all states and union territories for the years 2012,2013 and 2014 respectively. Each dot represents the incidence of communal violence in a given state in a given year from which is subtracted its share of the total population of the country. The line through zero would be a state, which has the same incidence of communal violence as its share of the total population. Dots above the line represent states that have greater incidence of violence than their population share would suggest, and similarly, for dots below the line representing states that have a lower incidence of communal violence than their population would suggest.)
This statistical exercise reveals that as noted UP is slightly above average in 2012, 2014 but a huge outlier in 2013, a year after Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party became chief minister.
Other states in 2014 that exhibit a greater share of communal violence than their population would suggest, apart from UP, include Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Of these Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have long-standing BJP rule, Karnataka is Congress-ruled, while both Maharashtra and Rajasthan switched from Congress to BJP-led governments in 2014.
Recall that law and order is a state subject, so the political stripe of the party in power in a state is as relevant, if not more, than the party in power at the centre when looking at law and order disturbances. Looking at this data, it’s impossible for a fair-minded person to assert that there’s a greater prevalence of communal violence in either BJP or Congress ruled states.
Nor is it possible to assert on the basis of the available data, that there’s been some sort of upsurge in communal violence since the election of Narendra Modi and the BJP-led government at the centre in May 2014. There have been some dubious attempts to make such an assertion by looking at truncated and incomplete data. Thus it was asserted that communal violence increased by nearly 25% in the first five months of 2015 under the Modi government as against the first five months of 2014 during the last days of the UPA. The actual raw numbers are 287 incidents in January-May 2015 as against 232 incidents in the corresponding period 2014.
Leaving aside the fact there’s a relatively small absolute difference between the two numbers and there’s no way to know if the difference is statistically significant, the larger point is that by comparing any two arbitrary time periods, one can get just about any result you want. Thus, by using Ministry of Home Affairs data of the type analysed here, but using different start and end dates, one could reach a politically motivated conclusion like here that there’s a higher incidence of violence in states ruled by one political party or another.
To take an extreme case, suppose we compare March 15 across any two years and find that there was one incident last year and two incidents this year on that date. Would we then be entitled to assert a 100% increase in communal violence on that day? Of course, not. That would be like comparing the temperature on two different days a year apart and asserting that climate change is or is not accelerating. But yet Indian journalists, no doubt keen to score a political point, run with such comparisons.
Even more egregious are Indian journalists who claim that somehow communal violence associated with cow slaughter or other flash points is something new on the Indian scene since the election of the Modi government, whereas in point of fact there’s a long history of communal violence and indeed violence of all kinds in places like Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere.
Here a well-known data journalist who presumably ought to know better seems to be arguing that death instigated by issues surrounding cow slaughter is something new, whereas as we’ve seen it’s been a communal flashpoint for decades if not for centuries, at lease since the mid-nineteenth century when British colonial rulers stoked communal tension between Hindus and Muslims over cow slaughter issue as part of their wider divide and rule strategy. You just have to pick up a history book.
There appears to be what can most charitably be described as selective amnesia or, more likely, an agenda driven selective presentation of facts with the aim of trying to discredit the Modi government by creating the false impression that communal violence and intolerance is on the rise since their advent.
You have to ask the Sahitya Akademi award winners who’ve been returning their awards claiming that communal violence is on the rise in India, where are they getting their facts to make this assertion? Or is it a politically motivated stunt to generate publicity?
As I’ve shown, there’s absolutely no statistical basis on which to make such an assertion. The truth is, as any serious scholar will tell you, we’ll have to wait for years and decades of data to say whether there’s been any kind of change in the trend of episodes of communal violence in India or not. So anything you read that says there’s been an increase in communal violence is driven not by fact but by propaganda.
So much for claims about increase in communal violence in Modi’s India. But what we can be sure of is that perennial flashpoints between communities such as music, processions and so on will be spun as new and dangerous sources of conflict with no basis in historical understanding. Reader, take note.
Far from solving the sources of communal violence, such as an agenda-driven media narrative only serves to reinforce stereotypes and clichés. Meanwhile those who live in communally-sensitive and violence-prone areas in UP and other states serve as little more than pawns in a political game played by politicians and abetted by the media. Whether the BJP win or lose in 2019 or in upcoming assembly elections, the law and order problem in UP is not going to change anytime soon. UP will remain an exemplar of a massive governance failure. That’s the tragedy of a politically motivated mainstream discourse on communal violence.