Demolition of Muslim Properties Sets Off Deadly Violence in India

The demolition of a mosque and a Muslim seminary has led to deadly clashes and an internet shutdown in northern India. The flare-up, in the hill state of Uttarakhand, is the latest bout of sectarian tensions as Muslim sites have become a broader target of the Hindu right wing after the opening of a major temple last month.

The toll of the violence was unclear. An official in Haldwani, the town where the clash took place, said in an interview that two people had been killed and dozens injured, including police officers. Reports in the Indian news media, citing top police officials, said four people had been killed, but this could not be confirmed because the police did not respond to requests for comment. Images from the area revealed vehicles destroyed by fire and debris littering the streets.

Thursday’s unrest began when officials and the police arrived to raze the structures, which the authorities said had been illegally built on public land, and encountered an angry crowd. Witnesses said that the police fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who threw stones at a police station and set vehicles on fire. The police have denied using live ammunition.

The violence unfolded against the backdrop of Hinduism’s rise as a national identity in India, a multiethnic state founded as secular republic, but which in the past decade has been moving steadily further from that vision under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

In his 10 years as prime minister, Mr. Modi has fulfilled many of his campaign promises, like building an enormous Hindu temple where a mosque once stood, and stripping the Kashmir region of its semiautonomous status.

Thursday’s demolition was part of a larger government effort that leaders of the opposition say has been targeting Muslims. In 2022, a court in Uttarakhand ordered the destruction of about 4,000 homes of mainly Muslim inhabitants in Haldwani, located on land that the court said encroached on a railway line.

In January 2023, after weeks of protests in which residents who had been issued eviction notices camped out on the street, judges at India’s top court ordered a stay on the demolitions.

In the months that followed, tensions rose. Posters surfaced in another town calling for Muslims to shutter their businesses after two people, a Hindu and a Muslim, allegedly abducted a Hindu girl. Shops belonging to Muslims in another town were marked with black crosses, and members of far-right-wing groups urged Muslims to leave Uttarakhand. The state, home to many Hindu shrines, has increasingly become a major stop on the Hindu pilgrimage route, yet its population is about 14 percent Muslim.

This week, a court ruling cleared the way for the destruction of the mosque and the seminary. Residents and a local elected representative said the government rushed in to demolish them without consulting local residents.

On Friday, the authorities imposed a curfew, shut down schools and colleges, and deployed hundreds of riot control forces.

The demolitions are not confined to Uttarakhand. In a recent report, Amnesty International described what it called “unjust” targeting of Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship between April and June 2022 in five states where the local governments are run by Mr. Modi’s ruling party.

The report urged authorities to halt demolitions of Muslim properties, which it said were being carried out as a “punishment” after episodes of religious violence or protests by Muslims against discriminatory policies.