India Shoe Seller’s Torched Shop Shows Vote Strife Risk

When he first spotted the mob, Riyazuddin hid behind the piles of shoe boxes at the back of his shop. As the group of Hindu men rampaging through the Muslim market with knives, iron rods and burning splints drew nearer, smashing the windows of his store, he fled for his life, bolting out a back door and down a warren of narrow alleys.

Having checked his family was unharmed, Riyazuddin, who goes by one name, watched as the shop his family ran for 104 years was looted and burned in the walled north Indian city of Faizabad. His shop was one of about 100 torched that October night in 2012, after a rumor spread that a Hindu girl had been molested by Muslims.

Riyazuddin’s experience 18 months ago explains why he opposes front-runner Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, even as Modi shuns an anti-Muslim message in his campaign to win the national election that concludes May 16.

“His arrival will only stir up more communal tension and riots,” said Riyazuddin, 42, reflecting the concern of voters in India’s more than 138-million strong Muslim community who continue to back the ruling Congress party, which champions a secular agenda.

Forged in Flames

The number of people killed in religious-driven violence in India, which was forged in the flames of Hindu-Muslim conflict that killed a million people when British rule ended in 1947, rose by about half last year compared with 2012. The BJP, leading in polls, espouses curtailing Muslim legal entitlements, raising concern that communal strife will escalate.

The anxiety toward Modi shown by Riyazuddin, who said he “felt helpless as I watched people take away everything I had spent my life working for,” underscores the difficulty for the current chief minister of Gujarat in divorcing himself from the tragedy of riots in his home state 12 years ago.

Modi, 63, was in charge of Gujarat when a riot there killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, according to a government inquiry. The violence erupted after 59 Hindu activists died in a train fire for which 11 Muslims received a death sentence.

While Modi was accused by civil rights groups of instructing police not to halt the rioting, he has repeatedly denied the accusations and a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance from reaching those being attacked. The U.S. and U.K., which shunned him after the riots, have effectively lifted their ban on him, with ambassadors from both countries having met the BJP leader in the past 19 months.

Modi Message

On the campaign trail, Modi has avoided rhetoric that could inflame tensions with Muslims, offering a message focused on economic development and the eradication of government corruption. He has distanced himself from anti-Muslim comments by some of his colleagues, criticizing party members for making “petty statements” after a BJP candidate last month said anyone who disagrees with Modi should be dispatched to Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Even so, Modi’s message contrasts with a BJP manifesto that features plans opposed by Muslims, including stripping the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. It also promises to revoke constitutional rights that allow minorities to apply religious law to personal status matters such as marriage and property ownership.

Congress party members have sought to play up their opponent’s sectarian platform.

‘Dangerous Combination’

Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party that has ruled India for the past decade, last month described Modi as a “dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, politics and money.” She also warned that an opposition victory would imperil the “very heart and soul” of India as a pluralistic mix of religions and cultures.

The Congress-led national governments of the past decade haven’t themselves managed to rein in communal violence. In a clash in September, 50 people were killed and 25,000 fled their homes in the city of Muzaffarnagar, also in the state of Uttar Pradesh and about 600 kilometers northwest of Faizabad.

The state government in Uttar Pradesh is run by the Samajwadi Party, which came to power in March 2012, seven months before the riots in Faizabad. The party draws its support from Muslims and lower caste Hindus.

Stirring Divisions

There is usually a rise in violence ahead of elections as political parties stir up divisions to win votes, said N. Manoharan, an academic who researches internal security in India at the New Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation.

“The main driver is politics,” he said. “Parties try to create communal problems to ensure their vote bank supports them.”

While the BJP is forecast in election polls to win the most seats in the 545-member parliament, it’s projected to need the backing of smaller parties to form a governing coalition, potentially reducing its ability to push through parts of its manifesto. The challenge for Modi may become managing the expectations of hardline Hindu voters.

“A whole group of Hindu nationalists are backing this campaign and waiting to wield influence,” Nikita Sud, who researches Hindu nationalism and Indian politics at the University of Oxford, said of Modi’s run for prime minister. “The fallout against minorities could be damaging.”

The town of Ayodhya, about five miles from where Riyazuddin’s shop was burned down, is ground zero for Hindu-Muslim tensions. Watchtowers, CCTV cameras and about 10,000 security personnel stationed in the area, many armed with semi-automatic rifles, are a reminder of the potential for communal violence in the country of 1.2 billion.

Mosque Destruction

The destruction of a 16th-century mosque by Hindus in 1992 in Ayodhya set off rioting that killed more than 2,000 people. In 2005, Islamic militants detonated an explosives-laden jeep at the site.

BJP leaders are committed to erecting a temple to honor the Hindu god Ram where the mosque once stood. Near the compound, Hindu artisans use chisels to sculpt 10-foot high pink stone pillars in preparation for the day they can start building the temple.

India’s top court is currently hearing appeals from Hindus and Muslims on how the land should be divided. In 2010, it ruled that the area should be split between the two groups.

“The chances of the temple being built if the BJP comes to power are very good,” said Rajendra Singh Pankaj, national secretary of the World Hindu Council. “If there was one thing to throw out of India, it would be this word secularism. Those who disagree should consider why they’re in this country. This is truly a Hindu nation at its core.”

Sectarian Violence

Hindus have also been the target of violent attacks, especially in insurgency-plagued Kashmir. In 2003, 24 Hindus were shot dead in the village of Nadimarg by militants.

Much of the sectarian violence since 1947 though has erupted in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state where Muslims make up almost a fifth of the population of 200 million. At least 200 people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured in communal attacks in the state in the past five years, according to government records.

On the day Riyazuddin’s shop was torched, one Muslim was beaten to death in rioting that fanned out from Faizabad. About 10 miles away in the town of Bhadarsa, Sanjul Nesa was working in her wheat field when three Muslim boys sprinted past her. They were being chased by as many as 80 Hindus with knives, hammers and iron rods, she said.

Lethal Beating

Hearing the commotion, Nesa’s husband Muhammad Umar ran to find his wife. The mob spotted him and chased him across the field. When they caught him, they beat him to death with their weapons, said Nesa, 50, sitting in her family’s two-room mud hut. Tears streamed down her face as her children, grandchildren and a group of neighbors listened.

“We have lived in peace with the Hindus all along,” she said, rocking back and forth, her arms clasped across her chest. “I’d never seen these men before. It’s as though they arrived here just to cause a disturbance. And then they left with my husband’s blood on their hands.”

Lallu Singh, the BJP candidate in Faizabad, is blunt when asked about the Muslim community. The balding Singh, who wore a bright saffron scarf, said he’s only interested in helping Hindus, even though Muslims comprise about 15 percent of voters in his constituency.

“I have never asked a Muslim for a vote and a Muslim has never come to me for help,” Singh said in an April 28 interview at the BJP office in Faizabad as he chewed paan, a betel leaf concoction.

‘Volatile Place’

Modi, who will also contest the election in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, campaigned in Faizabad on May 5, speaking against a backdrop of the Hindu god Ram. Before he started talking, he raised Singh’s hand in the air.

Faizabad’s incumbent lawmaker Nirmal Khatri, a member of the Congress party, accused the BJP of trying to polarize voters along religious lines to win support. “If they increase their presence in this state, it will harm communal harmony and the probability of protests and riots will increase,” he said.

Captain Abhimanyu, a spokesman for the BJP, rejected allegations his party was exploiting communal tensions and said he expects Muslims to vote for them. “The BJP is fighting these elections on the plank of good governance and development,” he said.

Religious Fervor

The 2012 riots in Faizabad took place at a time of heightened religious fervor, as Hindus across India celebrated the festival of the Durga Puja, during which idols of the goddess of power and strength are paraded through the streets and then immersed in a river. The charred wreckage from the inferno unleashed in the Muslim market that night simmered for five days, Riyazuddin recalls.

He has since rebuilt his shoe shop in the same location and replenished his stock, at a cost of 6 million rupees ($100,000), much of it covered by insurance. Whether trust can be regained is another matter, he said.

“That night I told my daughter that we are all Indians, Hindus and Muslims, and we should try to live peacefully together,” he said. “This is a volatile place though and it doesn’t take much for things to get out of hand.”

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