What is behind the communal clashes in Maharashtra?

The unusual spike in communal clashes in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur suggests an alarming pattern.

Published : Jun 30, 2023 15:56 IST - 9 MINS READ

Security personnel disperse people protesting against the alleged use of Tipu Sultan’s image in objectionable social media posts, in Kolhapur district on June 7.

Security personnel disperse people protesting against the alleged use of Tipu Sultan’s image in objectionable social media posts, in Kolhapur district on June 7. | Photo Credit: PTI

The streets of Sadar Bazar in western Maharashtra’s Kolhapur city are tense and unusually quiet these days. On June 7, the police arrested five persons, all minors, on the grounds of disturbing social harmony. They had shared a picture of Tipu Sultan along with a song that went “Baap to Baap Hota Hai” on their Instagram status the previous day, coinciding with the 350th anniversary of Shivaji’s coronation.

For right-wing groups, Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha empire, is a symbol of Marathi pride, and Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore, is a bigoted tyrant. Soon, word spread that Instagram status updates about Tipu Sultan and Aurangzeb, another figure of right-wing hate, were being circulated. Right-wing organisations in the city called for a bandh on June 7.

On that day, a mob gathered at Shivaji Chowk and at one point it went berserk. “We were protesting peacefully when we saw a video on Instagram of a Muslim girl mocking the protest,” Sambhaji Salokhe, a leader of the Sakal Hindu Samaj, told Frontline. “Disrespecting Shivaji Maharaj, cheating Hindu girls, tearing up posters of Shivaji and Sambhaji Maharaj [Shivaji’s son], and making derogatory comments against Hindu rituals are a few things that have been happening in Kolhapur in the past few months. Despite our repeated complaints, the police did nothing. That’s why the common citizen of Kolhapur has taken to the streets.”

Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is also the Home Minister, remarked, “We will have to find out how come the offspring of Aurangzeb was born in Maharashtra suddenly. Are they engaged to disturb the law and order of the State?” The remarks did little to uphold the dignity of the offices he held.

Meanwhile, the mother of one of the boys, said her son was too young to understand the politics surrounding Tipu or Aurangzeb. “He is just 14 years old. He uses my mobile for his Instagram account. On that day, he posted something on Tipu but deleted it the next morning. But someone had taken the screenshot of his post and spread it. My son is being used for dirty politics by some people,” she said. The boys were produced before a court, which sent them to a juvenile home in the city. They were granted bail on June 21.

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According to local media reports, there have been at least 20 incidents of communal tensions in Kolhapur district in the past year, with the intensity of the incidents increasing in the past three months. “The communal clashes of June 7 are the result of the hatred spread against the minority community in the past two years. Everyone could see this coming. The intention behind these clashes is an open secret: communal polarisation before elections,” said Vijay Chormare, a senior journalist from Kolhapur.

A larger pattern?

Some people view the Kolhapur incident as part of a larger pattern of communal clashes in Maharashtra in the past year since Eknath Shinde split the Shiv Sena and joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party to emerge as Chief Minister with the Sena faction he headed. Every incident seemed to follow a similar script: most communal clashes erupted over a local issue, to which the right wing gave a communal colour. The tensions were also amplified on social media.

The precursor to the Kolhapur clashes were the communal skirmishes in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (formerly Aurangabad) during the Ram Navami procession on March 30. The police opened fire in which one person died. The Kiradpura neighbourhood of Sambhajinagar also saw vandalism as the parade progressed.

Then in May a video that showed a Muslim offering incense at the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik went viral. BJP MLA Nitesh Rane tweeted the video and said that the man was trying to enter the temple forcefully. Fadnavis announced a Special Investigation Team to probe the matter and ensure that the situation did not spiral out of control. The police filed a first information report against four people under the Indian Penal Code Section 295 (injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult a religion) on the basis of a complaint from the temple trust.

The video shows a man carrying a basket on his head in a procession outside the temple gates. Apparently, the man, identified as Salim Bakshu Sayed, belongs to a Muslim family running a garment and worship material business. It had been his family’s annual tradition to make an offering from outside the temple gates. Sayed says the misinterpretation of the incident and the subsequent police action has forced him to reconsider the age-old family tradition.

A vehicle set on fire during clashes between members of two communities over a social media post, in Akola on May 13.

A vehicle set on fire during clashes between members of two communities over a social media post, in Akola on May 13. | Photo Credit: PTI

On May 13, Akola town in western Vidarbha youths from two communities clashed over a social media post that showed a picture that it said was of Prophet Muhammad. The post was made by the local leader of the Chhatrapati Sena, a right-wing group. A passer-by died in the clashes, which were apparently the first in 30 years in Akola.

The very next day, clashes erupted in Shevgaon town in Ahmednagar district in connection with a procession on the anniversary of King Sambhaji’s coronation. Reportedly, as the procession reached a mosque in the area, the volume of the audio system was raised, leading to the tension.

  • Maharashtra witnesses a spike in communal clashes, with over 20 incidents reported in Kolhapur district alone in the past year.
  • Right-wing groups and social media play significant roles in amplifying communal tensions and giving them a communal colour.
  • Experts say the potential political motive behind these clashes is communal polarisation for electoral gains.

The statements of BJP leaders and other Sangh Parivar members after every communal incident betray their eagerness to take advantage of the situation for electoral benefits.

Satej Patil, a Congress member of the Legislative Council and former guardian Minister of Kolhapur, had warned in April about the possibility of riots in the district. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar questioned the failure of law and order, saying that the BJP was desperate to create tensions in society. Former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray called the Kolhapur incident a blot on the progressive ethos of Maharashtra and said, “The BJP wants to polarise the State ahead of key elections because they [Central government] have nothing to show as a government model for the past nine years.”

Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Assembly are due in April and October 2024, respectively. Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha seats, which is second only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats. In 2019, the BJP won 23 seats in alliance with the undivided Shiv Sena, which won 18. But with the State’s political dynamics changing in the past four years, the BJP is desperate to repeat its 2019 performance.

Also Read | Karnataka effect: Maharashtra ruling, opposition alliances swing into action to woo electorate

Elections to local bodies in Maharashtra will be held before the end of the year. Apart from the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Asia’s richest local body, elections will be held for 23 municipal corporations, 240 municipal councils, 26 district committees, and 289 taluka committees.

Politics of polarisation

Anand Shrivastava, professor of economics at Azim Premji University and Sriya Iyer, professor of economics and social science at Cambridge University, had published a research paper titled “Religious riots and electoral politics in India” in the Journal of Development Economics in 2018. According to their study, in the 1981–2001 period, in every election that took place within a year of communal clashes, the BJP’s vote share increased by five percentage points.

Also Read | ‘Polarisation is temporary’: Anand Shrivastava

Several inferences can be drawn by projecting the findings to the results of recent elections. For instance, in a byelection in April 2022, a Congress candidate won the North Kolhapur Assembly constituency, which includes Sadar Bazar, with 54.34 per cent votes. The Congress was part of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi Alliance (MVA), which included the NCP and the undivided Shiv Sena. The BJP got 43.56 per cent of the votes, a 10.78 per cent difference. With the Shiv Sena now divided and a sizeable number of its leaders joining the Eknath Shinde faction, the outcome is anybody’s guess.

A survey published by the Marathi daily Sakal in May says that in a straight fight between the Shinde-led Sena-BJP alliance and the MVA, the former is likely to get 39.3 per cent of the votes (the BJP’s 33.8 per cent votes and the Sena’s 5.5 per cent) in the State. The Congress is expected to get 19.9 per cent, the NCP 15.3 per cent and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Bal Thackeray) 12.5 per cent, totalling 47.7 per cent.

A five-percentage-point increase for the BJP-Sena (Shinde) alliance is enough to turn the tables in the State. Communal clashes have, according to the study mentioned earlier, delivered this to the BJP in all elections in the 1981–2001 period; the BJP perhaps thinks there is no reason why it should not continue to deliver.

“Right now, polarisation is the only thing the Sena-BJP alliance has on its mind,” said the political scientist Suhas Palshikar. “Their government has not done anything that would earn them votes. That’s why we are seeing these ‘love jehad’ marches and other communal issues being raked up every now and then.”

As in the rest of the country, Maharashtra’s Muslim community too has diverse reactions to the communal incidents. Some Muslim youths have started sharing pictures and information about Tipu Sultan on their social media accounts. Kalim Azim, a young author, said, “There are enough historical records to show that to rule Indians, the Britishers defamed many kings and nawabs of mid-18th century India. Tipu was one of them. Today’s Tipu-bashing is serving a divide-and-rule agenda. Unless this misunderstanding and prejudices about Tipu are dispelled, communal incidents will continue.”

However, voices within the community are taking the initiative to join hands with local Hindu community members for peace and harmony. Recently, in Pabal village of Parner taluka of Ahmednagar, a youth made some objectionable comments on social media, creating tension locally. Dr Rafiq Sayyed, a veteran social worker from Parner, immediately held a meeting with a Hindu leader to jointly condemn the young man’s actions and make an appeal for peace. This helped to get the situation under control.

Communal clashes have more than just social implications. Mumbai is India’s financial capital, and cities such as Kolhapur, Nashik, Ahmednagar, Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar, and Akola are towns with many medium- and large-scale industries. Any incident of social tension can impact the economy.

Prolonged clashes can also be a blot to Maharashtra’s long history of secular progressive politics. It is the birthplace of Mahatma Jyotirao Phule, King Shahu of Kolhapur, and B. R. Ambedkar, the famous triumvirate of social justice and progressive political ideology. Will Maharashtra succeed in salvaging its legacy from the onslaught of communalism?

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