Her husband was a victim of anti-Muslim hate in India. A research group warns it’s on the rise

As she scrolled through countless wedding photos on her phone, looking at the smiling face of her husband who was killed last September in communal clashes, Ayesha Hasan Shikalgar couldn’t help but smile back at him through her pain. 

“He was always joking and laughing,” said Ayesha, 30. “Now, the void in my life can never be filled.” 

It started as a normal Sunday, she said, with the young couple hosting a housewarming party that day to celebrate the renovations they had done in preparation for the birth of their first child. In the evening, her husband, Nurul Hasan Shikalgar, went to the local mosque for prayer, as he always did. 

He never came home. 

“The wound is so deep and the trauma is so strong,” Ayesha said, in an interview several months after her husband’s death. “People say time heals all wounds, but for me, it’s the opposite. It keeps getting worse.” 

Locals in Pusesavali, a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra’s Satara district, said the violence erupted late that evening, when an angry Hindu mob burst through the streets of the town, eventually entering the mosque, brandishing metal rods and sticks. 

A mosque with an off-white exterior and pale blue door.
Nurul was at this mosque in Pusesavali when he was killed. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“They were throwing stones at our door,” said local shopkeeper Shakira Bagwan, who runs a chicken stall near the mosque.

Bagwan and her family locked themselves inside — only peering out of a small hole to see where the crowd was going.

Some in the mob kept yelling at her family to open the shop’s door, “so they could attack,” she said. “They were screaming abuses and anti-Muslim slurs at us.” 

A woman in grey and pink stands for a photo. On the left are chickens in stacked cages.
Shakira Bagwan is a local shopkeeper who runs a chicken stall near the mosque. She says the mob threw stones at her door and screamed at her and her family. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

She said her son was at the mosque when the mob entered and was one of 10 people injured. Nurul, a 31-year-old-engineer, sustained deadly blows to the head. 

In the early hours of the morning, Ayesha got the news that her husband had been killed. 

“I was in complete shock. My mind just stopped,” she said. She was six months pregnant at the time.

Police officers in camouflage uniforms stand outside a mosque.
There’s a constant police presence by the mosque ever since the violence in September. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Violence in India’s richest state

The attack was one of 41 incidents of communal tension and violence in Maharashtra, India’s richest state, between January and October 2023, tracked by the Washington-based research group India Hate Lab (IHL). 

According to the group’s data, Maharashtra saw the highest concentration of rallies and gatherings featuring hate speech against minorities last year: 118 out of the 668 events the researchers documented across India. 

In Pusesavali, the scars from the violence were still prevalent in January, months after the incident. A mass of mangled and burnt motorcycles sat outside the mosque’s door, and there was a police officer stationed nearby at all times, in light of the communal clashes. 

Burnt motorcycles are stacked against the wall of a mosque.
Burnt motorcycles are piled outside the mosque in Pusesavali in January 2024, a remnant of the violence four months prior. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Witnesses said several Muslim shops were also vandalized. Police reports have been filed over the incident, and authorities are investigating. 

“My son was innocent,” Nurul’s mother, Jaibunnisa Liyakat Shikalgar, told CBC News, breaking down in tears. “There was no reason for this to happen.”  

She said every day is painful to get through because of “the fear of this [violence] happening again.” 

A woman in blue and pale yellow.
Jaibunnisa Liyakat Shikalgar is Nurul’s mother. She says ever since her son’s death, she is afraid the violence will happen again. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Many hate speech events in BJP-ruled states

According to a report released in February by IHL, India saw a large increase in hate speech in 2023, with a 62 per cent rise in the second half of the year. 

“What we are witnessing is a huge wave of anti-Muslim hate speech,” said the group’s founder, Raqib Hameed Naik. 

“There were 668 hate speech events throughout 2023, and 75 per cent of those events took place in states ruled by the BJP,” Naik said, referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi exits a vehicle and waves to supporters. There are two security officers behind him and there is a crowd in the background. The car is covered in flower petals.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to his supporters in New Delhi in January 2023. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images)

The BJP also holds the most seats in Maharashtra’s state legislature, but rules as part of a fragile coalition. 

Nearly half of the events the report tracked — 46 per cent — were organized by Hindu nationalist organizations.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Prem Shukla, a BJP spokesperson, accused IHL of bias.

He alleged that other secular states are targeting the Hindu majority community with hate speech, and said the members of IHL “have sworn to destroy the BJP.”

In the lead-up to India’s general elections, which will stretch from April 19 to June 4, Naik and his volunteer researchers are prepared to be busier than usual. 

“We expect a steep rise in hate speech events” this spring, he said. 

Along with IHL, Naik runs the website Hindutva Watch, which similarly tracks incidents of religiously motivated violence across India. Both groups were blocked online in the country earlier this year, Naik said, at the government’s request.

Hindutva is an extremist political ideology that pushes the idea of Hindu supremacy in India, even though secularism is enshrined in the country’s constitution. 

WATCH | Breaking down the communal violence in Maharashtra: 

What’s driving hate rallies aimed at Muslims in one Indian state

There’s a surge in communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in Maharashtra, one of India’s most populous states. Salimah Shivji breaks down what’s behind the growing tensions as the world’s largest democracy prepares to vote.

The rallies tend to stick to similar themes, including debunked conspiracy theories targeting India’s Muslim population, such as what some have termed “love jihad,” which accuses Muslim men of wooing Hindu women in order to convert them. 

Other versions Naik has tracked include “land jihad, halal jihad [and] spit jihad,” the researcher said, all “created to demonize and generate hate and fear against Muslim minorities living in the country.” 

BJP MLAs are involved

At a February 2023 rally in Latur, a city in eastern Maharashtra, a BJP MLA from Telangana state told the large crowd that had gathered that if they found “any love jihadis, cow killers or ones who convert your religion, those [anti-Muslim slur] should be killed.” 

“In our land, Maharashtra, no love jihadi should be alive,” T. Raja Singh said. 

A man wears a paper mask of India's prime minister. He is holding a green and orange flag.
A supporter of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party waves the party flag during an election campaign rally in New Delhi in May 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Singh has frequently been charged with inciting hate, and was briefly suspended by the BJP, though that was revoked ahead of his state’s elections. 

At another rally in Mumbai earlier this month, Nitesh Rane, a BJP member of Maharashtra’s legislative assembly, called for a boycott of Muslim vendors and floated the idea of impunity for anyone committing a crime against Muslims. 

“The government is with you,” Rane said at the rally. “Do what you need to do for the Hindu religion.” 

For some observers, it’s not just overt hate speech, which is easier to track, that’s an issue. 

Hate has started to seep into popular culture, according to journalist and author Kunal Purohit, with songs and poems devoted to attacking India’s minority communities garnering millions of views. 

“The Hindu right wing has realized that hate doesn’t have to be a boring political speech,” said Purohit, who recently released the book H-Pop: The Secret World of Hindutva Popstars.

A man in a dark green polo. Behind him are three clocks, some books and two blue calendars.
Kunal Purohit is a journalist and the author of the book H-Pop: The Secret World of Hindutva Popstars. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“Hate can be entertaining. It can be an everyday affair, where it goes under the radar.” 

He said the songs, which feature catchy beats constantly playing in the background, pack a dangerous message. 

“The message is the same: that Muslims are a threat to India … and that the threat must be acted upon.

“They goad the listener into action mode.” 

‘It feels like anything could happen’

For Ayesha Hasan Shikalgar, still struggling to process how her life has changed, it doesn’t matter what sparked the hate that spilled onto the streets of her town and killed her husband. 

A man and a woman dressed for their wedding hold their hands up, showing their matching rings.
Nurul and Ayesha Hasan Shikalgar during their wedding celebrations in 2022. (Submitted by Ayesha Hasan Shikalgar)

She has since given birth to a baby girl named Ashnoor, whom her late husband will never know. 

“We had never seen an incident like that [in Pusesavali],” she said. Most of her community fears more violence will follow. 

“It feels like anything could happen.

“Now, there is a divide between Hindus and Muslims.”   

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