Indian authorities have demolished the homes of several people linked to riots prompted by derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.
Muslims and rights groups interpreted the destruction as punishment for the protests after comments by a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Hindu nationalist BJP.
The house of one of alleged organisers of the riots, whose daughter is a female Muslim rights activist, was demolished on Sunday in Prayagraj, and the properties of two more people accused of throwing stones after Friday prayers were also demolished in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Reuters reported that over the weekend a BJP spokesperson said the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, ordered officials to demolish any illegal establishments and homes of people accused of involvement in riots there last week.
But authorities in the state on Monday insisted it was because at least one of the homes was illegally built on public land.
An aide to Uttar Pradesh’s hardline Hindu leader said: “We are not demolishing houses to stop Muslims from protesting as they have all the right to take to the streets.”
Muslims have protested in several Indian states in recent weeks against the anti-Islamic comments by two members of the BJP.
Intercommunal violence has broken out, along with clashes between protesters and police in several areas.
It comes amid a climate in which many Muslims in India have been questioning their place in society since Mr Modi came to power in 2014.
Critics say his BJP is often deliberately confrontational, promoting the idea that India is a Hindu country, despite the Constitution asserting India is a secular nation.
Many Muslims see actions by Hindu nationalists, which can include rounding on opponents they brand “anti-national”, as an attempt to marginalise them, even though Muslims make up 13% of India’s population.
The city where the demolition took place saw its name changed in 2018 by the BJP-led state government from Allahabad to Prayagraj, angering the BJP’s opponents.
Mr Modi has not commented on the latest controversial remarks even though countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Iran, important trade partners for India, have lodged diplomatic protests.
Leaders of prominent Islamic groups and mosques issued an appeal to fellow Muslims on Monday to suspend plans for further protests and avoid big gatherings.
Last week, two Muslim teenagers died and 30 people were hurt during protests.
Malik Aslam, a senior member of Jamaat e Islami Hind, a Muslim organisation that operates in several Indian states, said: “It is the duty of every Muslim to stand together when anyone belittles Islam but at the same time it is critical to maintain peace.”
Early this month, a BJP spokesperson made one of the offending comments in a television debate. The other comment that upset Muslims was made by a party spokesperson on social media.
The BJP suspended one and expelled the other and the party said it denounced any insult towards any religion, but that did not stop enraged Muslims taking to the streets in anger.
On Sunday, police in Indian-controlled Kashmir arrested a youth for posting a video threatening to behead the official who made the comment on social media, officials said.
At least 400 suspected rioters have been held during unrest in several states and curfews have been imposed.