In the past year, religious rioting and other forms of communal violence have increased in several areas of India. In the past two weeks alone, riots have broken out in West Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan killing a handful of people and causing extensive damage. The police have arrested local officials from the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for fomenting the violence. In the most high profile case, the son of a national cabinet minister was arrested. Given the BJP is in power in New Delhi, holding the majority of states and constituencies across the country, the involvement of the party’s officials in a growing number of violent communal incidents is puzzling. That is until we consider where and when the incidents are taking place.
First some background. Religious riots have held a central place in Indian politics since the communal carnage of Partition in 1947. Scholars have gone so far as to describe them as “politics by other means”, a proven strategy for heightening communal tensions before elections. Politicians and political parties hold noisy parades and deliver provocative diatribes against Muslims and other minorities. After the violent riots that so often follow they decry other political parties as soft on communal issues. Only they are the true defender of the community.
This strategy, referred to as ‘ethnic outbidding’, is intended to convince more Hindus to vote along nationalist lines and deter them from leaning towards more secular and moderate alternatives. It is often successful. One study of riots in 16 states between 1981 and 2001 found that a riot increased the BJP’s vote by 5% in an election held the following year. In the most famous example, in Gujarat in 2002, the incumbent BJP was foundering after a series of missteps. Yet widespread communal rioting which killed approximately 2,000 Muslims saw the party sweep back to power in elections that same year. The BJP performed best in those areas where rioting had been fiercest.
The strategy is so effective that in many cities, Hindu nationalists have formed what the political scientist Paul Brass calls an Institutionalized Riot System. A network of actors from politicians to propagandists to street thugs and members of nationalist organisations maintain the town in a state of tension waiting for the most politically opportune moment. As the anthropologist Stanley Tambiah demonstrated, politicians and their nationalistic supporters portray mundane incidents – car accidents or crimes for example – as representative of a much larger communal struggle.
With this analytical context in mind we can now return to the recent rise in violence and our main puzzle. Given the BJP’s current political ascendancy, why are these riots occurring now? The government’s own data on communal violence holds that in the first three years of the BJP’s rule, violent communal incidents rose by 41%.
The key to understanding this puzzle lies in understanding the geographical and temporal distribution of the recent riots. Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal are among the states witnessing the most violence in 2017. In that year, Uttar Pradesh reported 195 communal incidents resulting in 44 deaths, Karnataka reported 100 incidents and 9 deaths, Rajasthan reported 91 incidents and 12 deaths, Bihar reported 86 incidents and 3 deaths and West Bengal 58 incidents with 9 deaths.
The rise in violent incidents in these areas is simply following a pattern seen before other recent state-level elections. Bihar witnessed state assembly elections in 2015, with two regional parties – Rashtriya Jantha Dal (RJD), Jantha Dal United (JDU) – and the Congress joining forces against the BJP. Facing this united opposition, the BJP attempted to stimulate Hindu nationalism and 20 deaths from communal violence occurred in the state in 2015. Despite this, the BJP was defeated. This election exposed the BJP’s weakness when faced with a united opposition.
Two years later, state elections were held in Uttar Pradesh. 2017 was one of that state’s most violent years with 195 incidents of communal violence and 44 deaths. The BJP had learnt its lessons from the Bihar defeat and increased the focus on the Hindu nationalist agenda. Prashant Jha’s study of the BJP’s election machinery suggests that the BJP’s ground work for these elections began from 2015, following its defeat in Bihar. This time, BJP won an unprecedented majority.
With BJP now controlling almost all of its natural heartland – the so called Hindi Belt – the recent riots can be understood as part of its strategy to move into new territory (as it did in Assam in 2016). As such, Bihar and West Bengal are an important part of BJP’s strategy for the 2019 elections. States in central and northern India like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Haryana and Rajasthan are strongholds of the BJP. In the national elections in 2014, out of the 211 seats available from these states, the BJP won 194. In 2019, the BJP’s target is 320-350 seats nationwide. Even if the BJP wins all the 211 seats in central and northern India, it can only improve its 2014 tally by 17 seats. In fact, the BJP has faced a recent fall in approval ratings in some of its heartland states (Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) meaning it may actually win fewer seats in the Hindi Belt in 2019 than it did in 2014.
The recent rise in violence in West Bengal and Bihar should therefore be seen in this larger political context. Both states are crucial in the upcoming 2019 national elections if the BJP hopes to reach 350 seats in the national parliament. India’s minorities will likely be increasingly vulnerable as the campaign draws on.
Sanjal Shastri is currently enrolled in the Master of Conflict and Terrorism Studies (MCTS) at the University of Auckland. Chris Wilson is the Coordinator of the MCTS.