Mumbai, India – The route was no coincidence.
On March 30, nearly 5,000 people poured into the streets of north Mumbai to participate in a procession celebrating the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, which marks the birth of the god, Ram.
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For about three hours, the procession passed through Muslim neighbourhoods, blaring incendiary songs of Hindu supremacy, waving saffron flags and provocatively chanting “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Lord Ram, the Hindu right wing’s war cry).
Young and old danced to the high-decibel speakers mounted on a truck, playing “Bharat ka bachcha bachcha, Jai Shri Ram bolega” (Every child in India will be compelled to say Hail Lord Ram).
An elderly Muslim security guard, watching the procession pass through Malad, said he had not seen such a display of supremacy in years. He was among the many Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to who did not want to reveal their identities for fear of a backlash.
“You don’t have to belittle or disrespect other religions while celebrating your festival,” he said. “It is particularly humiliating to witness it during the month of Ramadan. The music gets louder and people get aggressive, especially while passing by a mosque or through a Muslim area. It is provocative.”
And that is exactly what happened a couple of hours later. The procession slowed down and the volume of the speakers was increased as it reached a mosque where Muslims were offering their evening prayers.
The situation got tense when some Muslims complained about their prayers being disrupted. A row broke out between the two communities and stones were pelted.
The police say they arrested nearly two dozen people for allegedly throwing stones. The official version of the incident says a Muslim man threw a stone at the participants in the Ram Navami rally after his request to lower the volume was rejected.
But the residents of Malad say they were at the receiving end of aggression by the Hindu marchers.
Concerted attempt through amorphous group
The procession was organised by two far-right Hindu groups – Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). But the nature of the procession was in the same vein as several rallies held in the past six months across the state of Maharashtra, home to nearly 13 million Muslims or 11.5 percent of its population.
Observers say the Ram Navami procession in state capital Mumbai was part of a concerted attempt to ignite religious tensions in the western Indian state that had remained relatively peaceful at a time when attacks on Muslims in other parts of India were rising.
According to conservative estimates, more than 50 such rallies have taken place across the state under the banner of Sakal Hindu Samaj, an amorphous organisation that nobody had heard of until a year ago.
The group is made up of far-right Hindu groups including Bajrang Dal, VHP, Sanatan Sanstha, and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti among others. Leaders and functionaries of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also attended several of these rallies.
VHP member Shriraj Nair, who is a main organiser of these Mumbai rallies, said the groups came together for a “common goal to awaken the Hindus”.
“Activities like ‘love jihad’ are on the rise,” he said, referring to an unproven conspiracy theory of Muslim men wooing Hindu women for marriage in order to convert them. It is mentioned in every rally.
“Sleeper cells are being created. Maharashtra is in danger due to illicit activities. The Sakal Hindu Samaj is here to raise awareness among Hindus,” Nair added.
Speakers at such rallies have called for economic boycotts and even the extermination of Muslims, with suspended BJP legislator from Telangana state, T Raja Singh, as a prominent speaker.
On March 10, at a rally in western Maharashtra’s Shrirampur town, Singh said, “Jo bhi landya love jihad karega, arey beta tum aadhe kate ho, poore kaat denge” (If any circumcised [Muslim] indulges in love jihad, o son, you are half-cut, we will cut you completely).
The response was a rousing applause from the crowd.
“Landya” is an anti-Muslim slur which he has repeatedly used in his speeches. Two police cases have been filed against him in Maharashtra, but that has not stopped him from making hate speeches.
‘State is impotent’
On March 24, Suresh Chavhanke, editor-in-chief of Sudarshan News, who is well-known for broadcasting anti-Muslim stories on his channel, addressed the crowd in Nashik, where he discussed a “10-point offer to Muslim women, which details why it is better to marry Hindus over Muslims”.
On February 9, Hindu far-right leader, Kalicharan Maharaj, referred to another conspiracy theory during a speech in western Maharashtra’s Baramati town. He falsely claimed that Muslims believed people of other religions were eligible to be killed according to the Quran because they regarded non-Muslims as “kaafir” (infidel).
“Wives of kaafirs are stolen property and one woman being raped by 50 men is not a big deal,” he said.
Such falsehoods are being reported in Maharashtra every two or three days, forcing Kerala state’s resident Shaheen Abdullah to file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on such rallies.
The petition further asked the top court to inquire into measures taken by the Maharashtra police to prevent hate speech against Muslims.
“Your right to hold a procession is different from what is said or done in the procession,” said Justice B V Nagarathna during a hearing on March 29 after the Sakal Hindu Samaj group’s lawyer argued that the petition was trying to curb their “religious practice”.
“Why can’t the citizens of this country take a pledge not to vilify others? What benefit do you get by vilifying others?” asked Justice Nagarathna. “We want to know what the state will do to curb it?”
Another judge, Justice KM Joseph, said: “It’s happening because the state is impotent. It is not doing anything … Why do we have a state where the state is silent when all this is happening?”
Impact of hate speech in villages
The state-wide rallies have activated and emboldened right-wing groups at the village level, ensuring that Muslims face a lot more hostility in their daily lives than they earlier did.
On March 26, Saiyyad Zakir Khajamiya, a 26-year-old religious scholar, was quietly reading the Quran at a mosque in his village of Anva in central Maharashtra’s Jalna district.
“At the time, three unknown men barged into the mosque and asked me to chant Jai Shri Ram,” he told the police. “When I refused to do so, they kicked me in the chest, beat me up, and even pulled my beard.”
According to his testimony, the men, their faces covered with black masks, beat him until he was unconscious and shaved his beard. He is currently being treated at a hospital in Aurangabad, about 100km (62 miles) away.
Abdul Sattar, head of a neighbouring village, said it was the fourth such incident in the past two months within the jurisdiction of just one police station.
“The situation has been extremely tense,” he said. “The police have done nothing to reassure the Muslim community. It doesn’t get reported as much but such instances have become part of our daily lives.”
About 500km (331 miles) from Jalna, in Savarde village in western Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, a Muslim family had to leave their home over a WhatsApp status message.
On March 16, Mohammad Momin, 19, put up a status on WhatsApp praising the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. The Mughals, who were Muslim, ruled over India between 16th and 19th centuries.
The WhatsApp status aimed to criticise the Maharashtra government’s decision to rename Aurangabad to Sambhaji Nagar. The police arrested Momin for “hurting religious sentiments”.
But that was not enough for the Hindu supremacist groups in Kolhapur, who carried out rallies demanding that Momin be charged with sedition. The protesters wanted the family to be driven out of the village. If not, the protesters said, the family’s electricity and water supply should be cut off.
Yunnus Momin, 50, the boy’s father, said he had never witnessed such hostility in all the years of living in the village. “I was ready to apologise,” he told Al Jazeera. “My son made a mistake. But I never thought I would have to leave the village.”
When the situation did not settle down, Yunnus, his wife, his elder son and daughter locked their house and escaped to their in-laws in Kolhapur city.
“I was scared and anxious,” he said. “While I locked the door, I told my family that this could be the last time we get to see our home. If it survives, it is ours. If it doesn’t, it was God’s will.”
A week away from the village seemed to have calmed things down. When the family returned, Yunnus said, the tension had dissipated and people had gone back to their work.
However, no lawyer would accept his case, fearing a backlash, said Yunnus.
“The right-wing groups had appealed to the bar to not take up our case,” he said. “Eventually, a lawyer in Kolhapur accepted the case on March 27 and my son got bail on March 29. He had to stay in jail for 10-12 days only because no lawyer took up the case.”
About a month before this incident, in the same Kolhapur district, a Hindu mob had launched a rocket into a “dargah” (shrine) located in Vishalgarh, allegedly in the presence of police. It happened during a “protest” against “land jihad” – another Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory that alleges Muslims are occupying public lands by building religious structures or holding mass prayers on them.
Following an uproar over the shrine incident, police arrested six people, who, residents said, were minions in the larger scheme of things. The main culprits remain unpunished.
Spike after BJP retook Maharashtra
Journalist and political commentator Prakash Akolkar has traced the sudden rise in anti-Muslim hate speech in Maharashtra back to June 2022.
For two and a half years after the state elections of 2019, India’s richest state was ruled by a non-BJP alliance of three political parties – Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, with Uddhav Thackeray as the chief minister.
However, in June last year, Maharashtra saw a change of power after the BJP poached 40 of Shiv Sena’s legislators and formed a government by overthrowing the alliance.
“I don’t remember a single such rally being organised when the alliance was in power,” Akolkar told Al Jazeera. “The hate speech has gone unchecked. Speakers have incited hatred with impunity. It is not possible to do so without tacit state support.”
Under the previous government, Maharashtra had stood out during Hindu festivals, especially because in the states ruled by the BJP, Hindu seers had called for a genocide of Muslims and mass rape of Muslim women.
Al Jazeera reached out to at least four BJP spokespersons for their comments, but they declined.
In last year’s Ram Navami celebrations in Aurangabad, a procession passing by a mosque turned off the music out of respect. “For two minutes, the DJ will pause the music,” the organiser said. “After we pass by the masjid, we will resume the music. There is no problem. We all need to live together to make all religions coexist.”
A year later, clashes erupted in the same city celebrating the same festival, leaving the whole of Aurangabad, renamed Sambhaji Nagar by the BJP, on the edge.
Akolkar said the concerted attempt to destabilise a relatively peaceful state might have something to do with next year’s general elections in which Modi’s BJP is seeking a third straight term.
“Every poll and survey has suggested that the BJP is struggling in Maharashtra,” he said. “This is an age-old tactic of the right wing to create a perception that Hindus are in danger. It is a bogey raised by Hindu groups to create fear among ordinary Hindus and unite them as a vote bank.”