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In the Name of Religion: Religious Conflicts in India and the World

In my opinion, India is a land of many emotions -  emotions that are profound and powerful enough to unite the people of the country, their myriad differences notwithstanding. While cricket is one of them, religion is another. In India, nearly every major religious faith is practiced, ranging from Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism, to name a few. Such diversity also produces strong emotions within each religious community. When each religious community unites to celebrate festivals that are sacred to their religious fabric, we see that emotion as the surreal force that binds them together. However, when an emotion as potent as religion becomes overzealous, it leads to conflicts; and religious conflicts are no strangers in India’s history. 

India’s Independence in 1947 was attained over a powder-keg: the Partition, at the very core of which were two religions. The absolute horrors of the Partition are not unknown to us. We have inherited the tales of that time, through survivor accounts, through oral histories and through literature. The 1947 Partition of India is like a national heirloom that every citizen of this nation is bound to inherit. The Partition caused a mass exodus on either sides of the border, an aspect that William Dalrymple vividly illuminates upon in select excerpts from The Great Divide: "Across the Indian subcontinent, communities that had coexisted for almost a millennium attacked each other in a terrifying outbreak of sectarian violence, with Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other—a mutual genocide as unexpected as it was unprecedented". In addition, the Partition was characterised by massacres, arson, forced conversions, brutal sexual violence, abductions, looting and a widespread destruction of property. All this, in the name of religion. The Partition of 1947 was one of the most definitive moments in our shared history. The effects of the Partition still linger, and it is in order to fully understand the event that many archival projects, like the 1947 Partition Archive, are documenting the stories and experiences of the last few survivors of the Partition. 

In 1984, the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, over 'Operation Bluestar', led to an immediate surge of hatred against the Sikh community, which subsequently caused the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. 'Operation Bluestar', in which the Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed, also took the lives of eight other civilians, while also causing casualties within the army. It is reported that the firing inside the Harmandir Sahib Complex left several bullet marks on the Main shrine. The anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi began in Delhi, with the city being the worst hit. Since 'Operation Bluestar' had violated the sanctity and significance of the Golden Temple, many youths from the community joined the Khalistan movement. 

The 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by thousands of Hindus, armed with sledgehammers, motivated by their belief that the Masjid did not belong at Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, set in motion a slew of rioting, which peaked with the 2002 Gujarat Riots. It began with the Sabarmati Express being torched at Godhra, most of its passengers being returning pilgrims from Ayodhya. Within hours, the rioting spread to other parts of Gujarat, with Ahmedabad witnessing rapid spurts of violence for over two months. The official figures estimate that nearly 1,044 people were dead, and around 2,500 were injured. But, many believe that the actual estimate of the lives lost in the riots must be well over 2,000. Additionally, the riots inflicted extensive damage on religious sites, with nearly “273 Dargahs, 241 Mosques, 19 Temples and 3 Churches being destroyed or damaged”. Due to the explicit targeting of Muslims, many scholars and human rights activists have classified the 2002 riots as “an ethnic cleansing on religious grounds”. Several other incidents with a strong communal intent, such as the Naroda Patiya Massacre, could also be traced back to the riots. Even after the violence had died down, many Muslims were prevented from going back to their homes and returning to their jobs. The bomb blasts in Bombay (present day Mumbai) and the 2008 Delhi bomb blasts were labeled as ‘revenge attacks’, carried out to avenge the violence against Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat Riots. 

In Jammu and Kashmir, an exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits was prompted by the insurgency. The 1990s witnessed the exodus’ peak, as most Kashmiri Pandits became targets for the ‘Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’. Many prominent Hindu lawyers lost their lives during the exodus, like Tika Lal Taploo and Neelkanth Ganjoo. The exodus was massive, as most Kashmiri Pandits were forced to either leave or adopt the Islamic norms of living. This war over religion has resulted in a greatly altered demographic: As of 2016, around 2,000-3,000 Kashmiri Pandits remain in Jammu and Kashmir, as opposed to 3,00,000-6,00,000 in 1990.

The 2013 Muzaffarnagar Riots and the 2020 Delhi Riots are some of the latest religious conflicts that our country has witnessed. 

Religious conflicts are not limited to the Indian subcontinent alone. In many parts of the world, religion has formed the basis for genocides and communal conflicts. The Nazi regime under Hitler in Germany was motivated by a desire to preserve the superiority of the Aryan race, in order to ensure which they embarked on a vicious ethnic cleansing of the Jews. While not entirely motivated by religion, it was still an open attack on the Jewish belief. 

The ongoing Uyghur Genocide in China, where the Uyghurs, a group of Turkish descent, are being attacked by the government, is one such example. The Uyghurs have been forcibly detained in special “re-education camps”, according to a BBC Report on the same. The Chinese government has been accused of curtailing the practise of  the Uyghur religious belief, forced sterilisation of women, forced labour and separation of Uyghur children from their families. Similarly, the Baloch Genocide in Pakistan has resulted in a rampant assault on the Shia Muslims in Pakistan, with the Hazaras being especially targeted. The religious persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is also rather alarming. Collectively, these genocides are poised to transform into refugee crises’, furthering the burden on an already ravaged international landscape. Quite recently, there was much uproar over an open letter by France's former Army Generals, warning about a possible Civil War in the country. It is believed that the letter was prompted by the sensitive issue of "Islamic Concessions", and has already garnered over 1,00,000+ signatures in support. In his article on, Robert Muggah also makes references to the “outbreaks of violence between Christians and Muslims across Africa”. Further, he also draws our attention to a rather alarming statistic: “55 of the world’s 198 countries imposed heightened restrictions on religions, especially Egypt, Russia, India, Indonesia and Turkey”.

While various religions across the world might differ from each other in name and customs, they are united by their commitment to spreading the message of love, peace, harmony and togetherness. How then, did this concept of religion become the cause for some of the bloodiest and most violent incidents in world history? 

While religion has undoubtedly been the cause of much suffering, it has also been instrumental in bringing peace. As India continues to struggle with the second wave of Covid-19, many Gurdwaras are providing free langars to people of all religious communities. According to Robert Muggah,  “ Italy’s Sant-Egidio has supported interfaith dialogue and campaigns to prevent and resolve conflicts and promote reconciliation from Albania to Mozambique”. There are many such incidents where religion has been the driving force behind peace negotiations and humanitarian efforts. 

Ultimately, it is a choice we, as communities and individuals have to make. It is up to us to decide whether we want to use religion for the good or the bad. For, religion is not the problem here; our interpretation of it is. 


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Tags: India Religion Genocide Religious Conflict World Riots Partition


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