As election nears, religious tensions surge in an Indian village

A relative of Yogesh Raj, a Hindu activist, cries after Raj got arrested for leading the protests in which two people died on Monday, in Nayabans village in Bulandshahr district, Uttar Pradesh, India December 5, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

NAYABANS, India (Reuters) – Nayabans isn’t remarkable as northern Indian villages go. Sugar cane grows in surrounding fields, women carry animal feed in bullock carts through narrow lanes, people chatter outside a store, and cows loiter.

But this week, the village in Uttar Pradesh state became a symbol of the deepening communal divide in India as some Hindu men from the area complained they had seen a group of Muslims slaughtering cows in a mango orchard a couple of miles away.

That infuriated Hindus, who regard the cow as a sacred animal. Anger against Muslims turned into outrage that police had not stopped an illegal practice, and a Hindu mob blocked a highway, threw stones, burned vehicles and eventually two people were shot and killed – including a police officer.

The events throw a spotlight on the religious strains in places like Nayabans since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the national level in 2014 and in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Tensions are ratcheting up ahead of the next general election, due to be held by May.

The BJP said it was “bizarre” to assume the party would benefit from any religious disharmony, dismissing suggestions that its supporters were largely responsible for the tensions.

“In a large country like India nobody can ensure that nothing will go wrong, but it’s our responsibility to maintain law and order and we understand that,” party spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said. “But people are trying to politicize these issues.”

Nayabans, just about three hour’s drive from Delhi, has about 400 Muslims out of a population of 4,000, the rest are Hindu. Relations between the communities began deteriorating around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last year when Hindus in the village demanded that loudspeakers used to call for prayer at a makeshift mosque be removed, local Muslims said.

“For 40 years mikes were used in the mosque, calls for prayer were made five times a day, but no one objected,” said Waseem Khan, a 28-year-old Muslim community leader in Nayabans.

“We resisted initially but then we thought it’s better to live in peace then create a dispute over a mike,” he said. “We don’t want to give them a chance to fan communal tensions.”

Reuters spoke with more than a dozen Muslims from the village but except for Khan, no one else wanted to be named for fear of angering the Hindu population.

Several among a group of Muslim women and girls standing outside the mosque said they have been living in fear since the BJP came to power in the state in 2017.

They said that Hindu groups now hold provocative processions through the village during every Hindu festival, loudspeakers blaring, something that used to happen rarely before. They said they felt “terrorized” by Hindu activists.

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