How Polarized India Erupted Into Violence

Growing social divisions, stoked by the BJP-led government, have mixed dangerously with a slowing economy.

Expert comment Published 27 February 2020 2 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

A woman sits on the terrace of a damaged building following clashes between people supporting and opposing the amendment to India's citizenship law, in New Delhi on 27 February. Photo: Getty Images.

A woman sits on the terrace of a damaged building following clashes between people supporting and opposing the amendment to India’s citizenship law, in New Delhi on 27 February. Photo: Getty Images.

The outbreak of communal violence in Delhi this week is the worst in India’s capital for decades. It both reflects and will reinforce India’s polarization.

That polarization is between the view that India represents homogeneity, grounded on the fact that its citizens are overwhelmingly (around four-fifths) Hindu (the view of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] of Narendra Modi), and the alternative that India represents diversity – its population includes hundreds of millions of non-Hindus and speakers of dozens if not hundreds of different languages.

India’s polarization is reflected in the reaction to the three days of violence in northeast Delhi, which left hundreds injured and, at the time of writing, 34 dead. The government and its supporters portray the protesters as almost exclusively Muslim fifth-columnists, their actions facilitated by Islamist extremists or Pakistan or even the opposition Congress Party.

The alternative view is that violence has been initiated by state-supported thugs, with the police turning a blind eye. In this view the protesters reflect a broader spectrum of Indian society, with a shared aversion to communalism and a commitment to India’s secular ideals.

Delhi recently held a state election, and while the BJP lost, some of the rhetoric used by its politicians was vitriolic. One compared protesters to rapists and murderers. Another led his supporters in chants of ‘shoot the nation’s traitors’, referring to the protestors.

In such an environment, in which Hindu vigilantes feel empowered and India’s Muslims feel defenceless, Delhi’s worst communal violence for decades erupted.

Some have drawn parallels between events in Delhi with the violence in Gujarat in 2002 when at least 1,000 people – the majority Muslim – were killed. There, the accusation against Modi, then chief minister of the state, was that the state turned a blind eye to violence.

In general, past outbreaks of communal violence in India have been dampened by the rapid imposition of a curfew and deployment of substantial security forces to enforce it. Such an approach was notably absent in both Gujarat and, thus far, Delhi.

The BJP, emboldened

The violence takes place in the wake of two controversial actions the BJP has taken since its re-election in 2019.

First, the BJP-led government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. To the BJP, the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, was simply the most egregious example of their long-held view that other parties pandered to the Muslim community.

While the move gained some international criticism, the general response in India to the crackdown that followed – including the restriction of internet access and arrest of a number of politicians – was muted.

Then, the government put forward the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

In 2013, a year before the BJP’s first term in office, India’s Supreme Court ordered that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) be updated in the northeast Indian state of Assam.

Migration from what is now Bangladesh has been a contentious issue in northeast India region since colonial times and was the cause of widespread agitation, and conflict, in the region from the late 1970s.

While militancy continued thereafter, tension was partly resolved by the 1985 Assam Accord, which stated that people who had moved into Assam after 1971 (after the creation of Bangladesh) should be deported. However, this provision was not acted upon until the 2013 order.

In August 2019, the final NRC was published. Just under 2 million people were found to be non-citizens. A substantial proportion of these, however, appear to have been Hindus, a dilemma for the BJP.

To solve this, the government put forward the CAA, under which Hindus (along with followers of several other religions) could become Indian citizens. Muslims, however, were excluded. The BJP argued that the act was a generous gesture to illegal immigrants who faced persecution in neighbouring countries, and not a discriminatory gesture.

Unlike moves in Kashmir, the CAA sparked nationwide protests across India. While Assam is something of a special case, concern over the possible nationwide rollout of the CAA caused alarm. The government has recently been ambiguous over its intentions, though had earlier directed states to establish at least one detention centre.

The economy, creaking

That this is all taking place during an economic slowdown provides additional cause for concern. Many of India’s long-running internal conflicts subsided in recent years as the economy grew rapidly. But for the past year and a half, growth has slowed each quarter, to just 4.5% year on year.

The common assumption has been that India needs to grow at 8% to stand still, given the need to create millions of jobs. Unemployment currently stands at a 45-year high. Among 20 to 24-year olds, unemployment stands at 37%. India’s demographic dividend is being wasted.

For now, India seems trapped in a self-created vicious circle. The more it focuses on social and religious division, the more its economy will suffer. And while its economy worsens, the need to double-down on division as a distraction for its underemployed young men will intensify.