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Ashutosh Varshney and Bhanu Joshi write: Ram Navami violence — it wasn’t always so

During this year’s Ram Navami, meant to celebrate the birth of Ram, violence broke out in several states, including Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and West Bengal. To a large extent, the pattern was a repetition of what happened last year. This raises an important question. Is violence during Ram Navami a new emerging trend, or has it been more enduring and historically rooted?

To answer this question, we mined the “Varshney-Wilkinson Dataset on Hindu-Muslim Violence in India, 1950-95”, publicly available at the Inter-university Consortium of Political and Social Research, ICPSR. Located at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, ICPSR is among the largest archives of political and social data in the scholarly world.

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One of us co-created this dataset, in collaboration with Steven Wilkinson (Yale University). The joint dataset has become the standard quantitative reference for worldwide research on Hindu-Muslim conflict. For more recent years, the dataset has been extended by two sets of economists, Lakshmi Iyer (Notre Dame) and her colleagues, and a team led by Debraj Ray (New York University), which brings it up to 2019-20. These latter extensions are not available for public use yet. So our analysis below is primarily based on the original 1950-1995 dataset, which is adequate for deriving long-running trends.

The Varshney-Wilkinson dataset contains 1,192 riots, large and small. Only nine (less than 0.01 per cent of all riots) are related to Ram Navami. Of those, four riots took place in Hazaribagh, Chaibasa and Ranchi (all in Jharkhand today, earlier in Bihar); one each in Jalgaon (Maharashtra) and Bhadrak (Odisha), and two, noted together, in Vadodara and Bhavnagar (Gujarat), and Ayodhya and Faizabad (Uttar Pradesh). If we count the last two entries individually, we will add two riots to our tally of nine, but with only two additional deaths overall. The last two sets of riots were very small.

The dataset also records 6,971 deaths in Hindu-Muslim riots (1950-95). Of those, 171 deaths (less than 0.25 per cent) are attributable to violence that took place during Ram Navami celebrations. The largest riot took place in 1979 — in Jamshedpur (Jharkhand; Bihar earlier) — when 116 people died. Deaths in the other eight riots added up to 55.

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Thus, whichever way we cut it, in the 1950-95 period, Ram Navami was not a significant occasion for rioting. If we leave out the Jamshedpur riot, which massively deviated from the trend and skewed the overall numbers, communal violence during Ram Navami celebrations was smaller than what India witnessed during Holi, Ganesh celebrations and Durga Puja, especially during the idol immersions, Maha Shivrati and Dussehra. Of the Muslim festivals, Moharram and Barawafat figure in the database, but the number of deaths is not large.

Because the dataset produced by Debraj Ray and his team, covering the period 1996-2019, is not available for public use, we are unable to give a scholarly account of Ram Navami violence after 1995. We do have the Wikipedia listings, but given how it works, Wikipedia’s is an account of the larger Ram Navami riots, not episodes both large and small. On that basis, we can say that riots took place in 2006 (Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh), 2009 (Pusad, Maharashtra), 2014 (Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh), 2016 (Hazaribagh, Jharkhand), 2018 (Raniganj, Bengal), 2019 (some towns in Bengal and Rajasthan) and 2022 (many towns, many states).

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Indeed, the 2022 violence was so widespread that a “citizens and lawyers group” undertook detailed research, and issued a report “Routes of Wrath: Weaponising Religious Processions, Communal Violence During Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti April 2022”. Rohinton Nariman, a former Supreme Court judge, wrote the foreword. The report concluded: “In April 2022, India witnessed communal violence breaking out in as many as nine states, along with incidents of provocation and low-grade violence in three others. In all of them, the catalyst for the violence was the same: Religious processions celebrating the Hindu festivals of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, followed by targeted attacks on Muslim-owned properties, businesses and places of worship. While this is not the first time India has seen mob violence under the garb of religious festivities, not even the first time for Ram Navami in particular, it took place on a much larger, seemingly coordinated scale than previous years.”

From the statistics, reportage and analysis above, what larger inferences can we draw? First, the initial three to four decades of Indian independence did not witness a significant level of violence around Ram Navami. Indeed, it is not clear that Ram Navami processions were very large. One of us grew up all over Uttar Pradesh as the son of a government officer and can recall huge Dussehra and Muharram processions, but not large Ram Navami processions. Ram’s birth was joyfully celebrated in temples and household shrines, not in massive processions. For this article, interviews with those who grew up, or spent substantial time, in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra and Karnataka revealed the same narrative.

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Second, the situation started changing with the rise of Hindu nationalism. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, in particular, sought to transform Ram from a quiet maryada purushottam (epitome of ethical perfection) to an aggressive and assertive symbol of Hindu power. Ram devotion was no longer simply an expression of religious piety, which could also embrace all with compassion.

As an illustration of the latter, recall Mahatma Gandhi’s Ram. Gandhi was a great Ram devotee, perhaps one of the greatest in his lifetime. ‘Ramdhun‘ was frequently recited in his prayer assembly. What did it say? “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, Patit Paavan Sitaram. Ishwar Alla Tere Naam, Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwaan”. The Hindi speakers don’t need a translation of this prayer. But for those many who do, only the last line needs rendition: “The Hindu Ishwar and the Muslim Allah are two names of the same religious entity; may God give everyone the wisdom to discern that.”

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When Gandhi was assassinated, his last two words were: Hey Ram (Ram, my saviour). He stepped into life after death by remembering his maryada purushottam, the one who taught ethical conduct, compassion, kindness and inner strength.

Gandhi’s Ram is, of course, absent in the Navami celebrations. Like the peace-loving Buddha’s belligerent identification with a Sinhalese Sri Lanka, Ram for Hindu nationalists is a symbol of majoritarian power and domination. The metamorphosis began in the late 1980s.

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Ashutosh Varshney is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute. Bhanu Joshi is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Brown

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