KASGANJ, India--Rahul Upadhyay, a wiry journalist with a shock of black hair, was at home when he received news of his death.

During celebrations on India’s Republic Day, Jan. 26, a clash broke out between Hindus and Muslims in the city of Kasganj. Schools, shops and a mosque were damaged. One person was killed; another nearly had his eye gouged out.

Upadhyay, 24, stayed away from the violence, bunkering down inside his home in a nearby village. But the following evening, a friend called to share a peculiar bit of news: “You have been elevated to being a martyr.”

In the span of a few hours, messages on WhatsApp and Facebook mourning “martyr Rahul,” and saying he had been killed in clashes, went viral across Uttar Pradesh state, which includes Kasganj.

Candlelight vigils paying respect to Upadhyay, who is Hindu, lit up the streets of seven districts, some with the participation of local politicians.

By the time Upadhyay found out, there was little he could do: The riots had become so bad in Kasganj that the authorities shut down the internet.

“No media house or politician bothered to visit my place or call me first to confirm that I was indeed dead,” he said. “The marketplace of rumors had heated up beyond control.”

Kasganj was not always like this. For much of its history, Muslims and Hindus coexisted peacefully in this dusty city about 100 miles east of New Delhi. As the price of land shot up in the area, the city prospered. Now, rows of mustard-colored crops, markers of the region’s agrarian roots, frame Honda dealerships catering to a population eager to trade bicycles for motorbikes.

In the years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014, violent outbreaks between Hindus and Muslims have become more common in some pockets of India.

But locals said the energy did not change in Kasganj until last year, when Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand politician with ties to far-right Hindu nationalist groups, was chosen as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 200 million people.

The clashes began with a flag. On Jan. 26, a group of Muslims gathered in an open square in Kasganj, unstacking rows of red plastic chairs and preparing to hoist a flag into the air to celebrate Republic Day, which marks the enactment of India’s constitution in 1950.

Around the same time, dozens of men on motorbikes affiliated with a far-right Hindu student group approached the assembly, asking that the Muslims move the chairs so they could pass. Accounts of what happened next vary.

According to a police report filed by Sushil Gupta, the father of Abhishek Gupta, the man who was actually killed, a group of Muslims began taunting the Hindus, shouting “Long Live Pakistan,” and telling them that they would have to chant “Hail Pakistan” if they wanted to pass.

Shamsul Arafeen, 70, a Muslim tailor who was part of the crowd, remembered the encounter differently, describing a “big mob” of Hindus who demanded that the Muslims move the chairs before boiling the argument down to religion. Others said the Hindus told the Muslims to go back to Pakistan.

“They started abusing us, saying, ‘If you want to live in Hindustan, you must chant ‘Hail Sita and Ram,'” Arafeen said, using another name for India and referring to two Hindu gods.

The confrontation became physical soon after, with rioters from both sides throwing stones at each other and burning shops to the ground. Videos of the confrontations spread rapidly. The authorities shut down internet service in the area for hours.

By the end of the clashes, which stretched over a week, over 100 people had been arrested, both Hindu and Muslim. Mohar Singh Tomar, an investigating officer with Kasganj’s police force, said it was unclear who started the clashes, brushing aside suggestions that either religious group had received unfair treatment.

Purnendra Pratap Singh Solanki, the district president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, took a harder line, characterizing the confrontation as a “preplanned conspiracy” by a growing Muslim population to target Hindus.

“What is very problematic for us is that Muslims are ruled by their religion first,” he said. “They consider themselves Muslims before Indians, whereas the Hindus consider themselves Indians first and then Hindus.”

“The solution to such problems is to control their population,” Solanki added. “Their religious education at the madrassas must be combined with nationalism, peppered with nationalism. The problem is they don’t want to get educated at all.”

Reacting to the violence in Kasganj, R.V. Singh, the district magistrate in Bareilly, also in Uttar Pradesh, described a recent episode involving a Hindu march in a village in his district.

“A strange trend has started of carrying out processions through Muslim localities and raising anti-Pakistan slogans,” he wrote in a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted after he faced pressure from the state government. “Why? Are these people from Pakistan?”

At the same time, the always rocky relationship between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan has notably worsened in recent months.

Around Kasganj, many people said they were terrified to leave their homes and return to work.

“Our children are sleeping on hungry stomachs,” said Mohammad Shadab, 24, who works in a soap factory. “The kind of fear in the community has never been felt before.”

As for Upadhyay, he still has not figured out who first reported his death or why he had been singled out. During the last weekend in January, he fielded over 400 calls from people asking if he had died. “My mother had to serve endless cups of tea to visitors and convince them that I was alive,” he said.

Eventually, Upadhyay figured that if he could not control social media, he might as well participate.

“I am Rahul Upadhyay,” he said in a recorded message sent out into cyberspace. “I am well and I have not even received a scratch.”

Still, he said, the damage was done. Hundreds of miles away, in the city of Gorakhpur, posters with his photograph had already been distributed.

Near his face was a warning: “We will take revenge for the death of martyr Rahul Upadhyay.”

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Suhasini Raj reported from Kasganj, and Kai Schultz from New Delhi.

(Feb. 5, 2018)