Communal Riots in 2020 Low Numbers only a Deception

04, Feb 2021 | Irfan Engineer and Neha Dabhade


In the previous section of this report, the authors highlighted the heightened structural violence in India which is contributing to intensifying communal violence. Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS) brings out annually comprehensive reports on communal violence- consisting of structural violence, physical violence, attitudinal and symbolic violence, to understand the emerging patterns and trends.  As pointed out in section I of the report, in 2020, physical violence in the forms of the number of communal riots compared to previous years has reduced. In 2020, the communal riots were down by 60 percent as compared to the number in 2019. In 2020, India witnessed 10 communal riots claiming 59 lives as compared to 25 communal riots in 2019 claiming 8 lives as per the media reportage (Engineer, Dabhade, & Nair, 2020). There might be more than 10 riots but here the focus is on the riots reported in 5 newspapers monitored by CSSS.  In fact, there are new patterns emerging in communal riots which are insightful in understanding the decline in the number of communal riots.

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In 2020, the major riots that took place in North-East Delhi in February and Ujjain, Indore and Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh are the telling signs of the times we live in. The patterns in these riots point towards the over-reach of the authoritarian State in targeting the Muslim community. Earlier, the institutionalised riot system (IRS) was carefully constructed where riots were engineered and orchestrated at available trigger points. There was comprehensive planning and extensive political mobilisation to trigger a riot. However, there was still some fear of prosecution and investigation into the communal riots, however weak and biased against religious minorities. But the state was not as blatantly and officially involved as witnessed today. The state no more pretends to be impartial. The Hindu nationalist groups are freely instigating and fuelling communal riots targeting the Muslims like in Madhya Pradesh. They are fearless and enjoy political impunity. The state is actively persecuting the Muslim community- demolishing their houses as seen in Ujjain and Chandankhedi village.

The communal riots thus though fewer in number in 2020 are not an indication of declining communal tensions and communal sentiments. There is consolidation of communal identities and greater political mobilization of Hindu nationalists who are overcome with naked hatred for Muslims and unapologetically baying for the blood of Muslims as seen in the Delhi riots. The state is facilitating this targeting by not only not taking any effective action against the perpetrators but also itself persecuting the religious minorities with the single intent of reinforcing their inferior position in the now frail Indian democracy. The result is greater impunity to perpetrate violence against religious minorities, its normalization and religious polarization.


The findings of the report of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism are based on the reportage of the prominent newspapers- Mumbai edition of Indian ExpressTimes of India and The Hindu, which are English newspapers and Inquilab and Sahafat which are Urdu newspapers. Previously, the reports contained useful figures and statistics on communal riots published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The NCRB figures in comparison to the CSSS figures were always higher given the wider access of NCRB to information in the police stations across the country. The numbers provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs occasionally too were substantially higher than the CSSS numbers. However, for the past couple of years, the NCRB has not published the data on communal riots, and data was put out in the public domain by the MHA recently. This makes any comprehensive comparison impossible, and the only available source, is the reportage in the media.

Region wise breakup of communal riots:

Northern India was a hotbed of communal riots in 2020. Out of ten communal riots that were reported in the 5 newspapers monitored by the CSSS in 2020, five communal riots took place in northern states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Two communal riots took place in the southern states of Telangana and Karnataka. One riot took place in the western state of Gujarat, one in the North- eastern state of Assam and lastly one in Eastern state of Jharkhand.

The higher number of communal riots in Northern India is unsurprising given its proclivity to communal tensions. For many years, Uttar Pradesh had the dubious distinction of being the state with the highest number of communal riots. However, in 2020, the hotbed of riots has been the two states of Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. The riots in Delhi which lasted for over three days and covered different areas of Jaffrabad, Maujpur, Shivpuri were in response to the anti-CAA protests. The riots in the state of Madhya Pradesh- Ujjain, Indore and Mandsaur took place due to the aggressive donation collection drive by Hindutva organizations to build the Ayodhya temple at the site of the demolished Babri Masjid after the Supreme Court verdict clearing the way to construct the temple. The Northern states have been simmering with communal issues built on propaganda of “love-jihad”, the Ayodhya temple and the suspicions of cow slaughter. It is worth noting that the Ayodhya judgment has paved the way for a number of Hindu nationalist organisations claiming multiple sites where there are now Mosques and Dargahs across India to have been temples in the past stoking communal tensions. The Hindu Mahasabha in the past have demanded handing over sites in Kashi and Mathura to Hindus and threatening organizing rallies to mobilise support if this demand is not met (Awasthi, 2020).

The riots in South India are reflective of the persistent efforts and consequent processes to polarize and instigate communal feelings in the region to make political and electoral inroads. One riot took place in Bhainsa in Telangana and another in Benguluru in Karnataka. Bhainsa has been a communally sensitive area with a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims with a history of tensions and riots. The last major incident of communal violence took place in October 2008. Violence had broken out during the Durga Devi immersion procession which had left three dead. In the west, one riot took place in Khambhat region of Gujarat. Interestingly, Khambhat has been communally sensitive for a few years now- witnessing communal riots every year for the past few years. In the east, Jharkhand too has simmering communal tensions encouraged by the politics of polarization. Assam has always been at the precipice of communal violence with the processes of NRC leading to fear, unrest and uncertainty.


There has been a shift in the communal discourse on a whole which also reflects in the triggers of communal riots in 2020. The causes in the past have been not starkly communal in a sense that smallest inter-personal conflict was given a communal twist and instigated violence. The role of the Institutionalized Riot System and its working was palpable in the past. The IRS system put in place carefully to engineer riots when the smallest of opportunity presented itself can be seen waning. In 2020, the riots have taken place in the form of a direct contestation facilitated by the state. Hate speeches are increasingly allowed to be raised by those in constitutional positions without reproach or any penal action. Another prominent trend is that social media is increasingly used to fan communal flames by posting inflammatory materials which can hurt the religious sentiments of a particular religious community. Equally, social media is used to politically mobilize youth to participate in communal violence. Thus social media still remains an important instrument in the ecosystem of communal tensions.

Let us briefly look at some of the important triggers:

Hate Speeches of Political leaders and constitutional authorities:

To begin with, the Delhi riots were a direct result of the hate speeches of political leaders and a violent ecosystem made conducive by the state. The police and Hindu nationalists were given a free hand to crush the anti-CAA protests in Delhi (reference). The Hindu nationalists encouraged and emboldened by the impunity and political patronage openly given to them indulged into political mobilization and targeted Muslim communities in North East part of Delhi. The violence was an expression of hegemony to crush the political assertion of religious minorities which manifested in the form of anti-CAA protests all over the country.

The Delhi Minority Commission report has in its report cited the incendiary speeches of BJP leaders like Kapil Mishra. The report also finds a mention of the speech of the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah in the build up to the Delhi Assembly elections where he called upon the voters to press the voting button with so much force and anger that the protestors at Shaheen Baug feel the current. February 8 ke subah, parivar ke saath, 10 baje se pehle kamal ke nishaan par button dabainge?… Aur mitron, itni zor se dabana woh button ki current se hi sham ko woh Shaheen Bagh waale uth kar chale jaayein (On the morning of February 8, will you, along with your family, press the lotus symbol before 10 am… and friends, press the button so hard that its current forces the protesters at Shaheen Bagh to leave the place by evening).”

The report also cites the speech delivered by Yogi Adityanath during the election campaign for the Delhi elections. He asked voters to install a BJP government in Delhi, which would promote all religions, but added that where “boli” (words) don’t work, “goli” (bullet) does.

It also assessed some of the damage caused during the riots through witness testimonies, while also detailing the police response. “In some cases, police merely stood as onlookers while the mobs engaged in looting, burning and violence. In others, they explicitly gave a go-ahead to the perpetrators to continue with their rampage… A few accounts state how police and paramilitary officers even escorted the perpetrators safely out of the area once the attack was over. In some cases, police escorted victims also to safety,” the report alleged.

Instigating Slogans and rallies by Hindu Nationalist Groups:

The trigger for the riots in Madhya Pradesh was the rallies by the Hindu nationalists in Ujjain, Indore and Mandsaur. The rallies were organized to collect donations for the construction of the Ayodhya temple. The rallies openly witnessed provocative sloganeering by the participants which was derogatory towards the Muslims. For instance, in Ujjain the slogans included, “Baccha baccha Ram ka, chachiyon ke kaam ka,”. The slogan is laden with sexual innuendo towards Muslim women and roughly translates as, “All Ram’s children are useful for aunties. (Singh, 2021)”.It was alleged that in response to the slogans, the Muslim residents of Begumbaug started pelting stones on rallies. The rallies in all the three locations were laden with sharp weapons.

Social media:

In Karnataka, riots were triggered by a “derogatory” social media post uploaded by P. Naveen Kumar, nephew of Pulikeshi Nagar Congress MLA R. Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy. As word spread in the community, a crowd of nearly 200 persons gathered outside the DJ Halli Police Station demanding his arrest. Simultaneously, as many as 1,000 people gathered outside the house of Mr. Srinivasa Murthy. Both sides of the mob turned violent, demanding Mr. Naveen Kumar be handed over to them.

Other triggers:

In Baksa, Assam, unidentified arsonists entered the Kalpani Jame Masjid in Salbari and allegedly set fire to religious books. When this incident came to light, there were large scale agitations with members of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union and the All Bodo Minority Students’ Union in the middle of a sit-in outside the mosque. The Salbari area has a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Local residents alleged that the Kalpani mosque had been the target of miscreants since the final NRC was published. Thus, communal tensions have been simmering in this area like in other areas of Assam arising from the discriminatory and divisive process of NRC.

In Gumla, Jharkhand, clashes erupted on April 7, when some locals thrashed Anis Ansari, a resident of Basia Road, for loitering around a pond. The locals believed that a few outsiders were moving around the locality to spread the virus. Around 8 PM, another group armed with sticks and torches took to the streets in protest against the attack on Ansari. The group spotted a few tribals and attacked them.

Thus, the role of social media, the increasing incitement by Hindu nationalists through aggressive rallies, anti-minority narrative constructed by political leaders and mindful deliberate targeting of the religious minorities are the triggers for communal riots in 2020. These are quite blatant and the role of the State is more direct in inciting these riots.

Religion wise break up of deaths:

There were reported a total of 59 deaths in 2020 from 10 communal riots as compared to 8 lives lost in 2019. From these 59 dead, 42 were Muslims. In Delhi riots alone, 53 lives were lost, 38 of them Muslims. 4 more Muslims were killed in Bengaluru riots. There were 11 confirmed deaths of Hindus, 9 from Delhi riots, one from Khambhat and one from Gumla, Jharkhand. The religion of the rest of the victims is unspecified. Majority of the deaths were from Muslim community.

Religion wise break up of arrests:

Most of the arrests in 2020 communal riots have been from the Muslim community. In Delhi riots, there have been allegations of state protection to Hindus and arbitrariness in filing FIRs where there are reports after reports how the complaints of Muslim complainants were not registered or watered down. Though the police have claimed to have arrested 1300 people based on different FIRs related to the communal riots in Delhi, almost equal numbers from both communities (The Hindu, 2020), it is ironical that Muslims suffered disproportionately with suffering most loss of property in the wake of burning, looting and arson and also loss in terms of lives (38 out of 53). In Madhya Pradesh, the government invoked the draconian National Security Act to book 18 Muslims, including two women. In total, 28 were arrested in the three riots.

As holds true for the years earlier, in 2020 too, the Muslims were doubly victimised- while they suffered greater losses in terms of lives and properties, they were also persecuted and criminalised under draconian stringent laws like NSA and also at the receiving end of arbitrarily state action like demolition of houses and recovery of damages even before their guilt is proven.

Role of the State:

The State is responsible for equally protecting all its citizens and maintaining law and order without favor and partisanship. But the way communal riots have unfolded in 2020, it is alarming to see that the state has given up even the semblance of impartiality and being a protector. The role of the state has been largely that of a facilitator for the rioters and perpetrators. This argument has been supported by some of the prominent fact finding missions into the crucial incidents of communal riots in 2020.

Similarly in Mandsaur, Indore and Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, bike rallies were organized by Hindu nationalists groups including Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal as part of fund collection campaign for construction of Ram Temple at Ayodhya. In Ujjain, it was led by Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). Ujjain’s Begumbagh locality, participants reportedly shouted inflammatory slogans and consequently stone pelting ensued. Not only did the police or administration not take preventive action or penal action against the participants of these rides, a day after the incident, the local administration went to the Begumbagh locality and demolished a house and damaged another in a curious bid to “remove illegal structures” in the area. According to District Collector Asheesh Singh of Ujjain, the demolition drive was meant to hurt “criminals who resort to such acts of stone-pelting” economically (Siddique, 2020).

In Indore, the participants of a rally allegedly tried to damage a mosque and read the Hanuman Chalisa outside the premises. In the Mandsaur incident, a group carrying saffron flags and raising slogans blocked a narrow lane near a local mosque, with some climbing on top of it and put a saffron flag atop, according to viral videos from the scene. Similar rallies took place in other parts of Madhya Pradesh between 25th to 30th December, most without the requisite permissions. Again no punitive action was taken even in such cases while NSA has been invoked against innocent Muslims.

In Delhi riots, there are reports by Amnesty and BBC pointing towards police brutality and complicity in targeting the Muslim community (BBC News, 2020). While the blood thirsty rioters went for the Muslims for three days- killing them, looting their properties, setting them on fire, the police aided the rioters. The police didn’t respond to the pleas for help from the victims. According to Amnesty and BBC, there are videos where the police is seen beating up a Muslim man who succumbed to his injuries. The Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) said Muslim homes, shops and vehicles were selectively targeted during the rioting. The DMC report recommended an impartial probe into the Delhi riots. The Chairperson of the DMC, Zafarul Islam Khan was booked under the pretext of sedition after this critical report. Khan had posted on Facebook and twitter where he spoke about Muslims being targeted in Delhi riots. This was deemed “provocative” and seen as causing “disharmony”.

These actions of the state which are favoring the majority community and targeting the minority communities betray the steady hollowing out of the democratic institutions and constitutional system of check and balances to ensure equal protection of every citizen before law.


Though the number of communal riots reported in media monitored by CSSS shows a sharp decline in 2020, communal violence has not declined by any means. Communal riots have become an instrument to victimize the religious minorities by the state itself by blatantly targeting the religious minorities. On the one hand, there is a distinct consolidation of religious identity and polarization along religious lines due to discriminatory laws and policies of the State, on the other hand, communal riots are instrumentalized to persecute the religious minorities under draconian laws like NSA, incarcerating them for long duration and also demolishing their houses arbitrarily. Also the state failed to protect the victims during communal riots when the minorities were freely targeted by the Hindu nationalists enjoying political patronage and impunity. The constitutional safeguards are most blatantly disregarded and all democratic mechanisms subverted to perpetuate violence and discriminate against religious minorities, taking India down the tunnel of lawlessness and authoritarianism.

*Feature Image: Representational image


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