Most Americans, one hopes, would today feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed by a dark chapter in their history. Perhaps even a white supremacist might today flinch at the mention of the word lynch. It’s what the White Man frequently did to the Black Man in “the land of the free” toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Dictionaries define lynching as a premeditated extrajudicial killing of a person(s) by a mob to punish an alleged aggressor(s) or to terrorize a targeted minority group. For maximum impact, the act had to be made a public spectacle so others could watch, hear or read about it.
America’s shameful past is now India’s disturbing present with no sign of any letup in the near future. Under the watch of a right-wing majoritarian government, Hindu mobs seem to have discovered a deadly national sport: lynching. In the four years of the regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the victims have been mostly Muslims and sometimes Dalits.
In June 2017 the data journalism portal Indiaspend reported that between 2010 and 2017, 25 people were killed and 139 people were injured in 60 cow-related hate crimes. Of these, 97 percent of the incidents took place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government assumed power in May 2014; 84 percent of those killed were Muslims. The portal updated its database toward the end of December with a report headlined, “2017 Deadliest Year For Cow-Related Hate Crime Since 2010, 86% Of Those Killed Muslim.” Of the remaining victims, 8 percent were Dalits. Dalits are India’s untouchables, the most excluded in the caste spectrum, often confined to a life of social and economic deprivation. The latest update records 87 incidents since 2010 leading to 34 deaths (again overwhelmingly Muslims) and 289 injured—158 of them seriously.
In the latest instance of mob lynching by self-styled cow vigilantes, a 28-year-old Muslim man, Akbar Khan, was reportedly “beaten to death” on July 21 on suspicion of cow smuggling in Alwar district in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled north Indian state of Rajasthan. Even more shocking is the news that followed a day later, “Rajasthan cops first took cows to shelter, then lynching victim to hospital.” According to the Times of India, the cows were taken to a gaushala (cow shelter) 10 kms away before taking the lynching victim to the nearest hospital, which was only 6 kms away, a full three hours after the incident. In a further twist to this gory tale, Gyan Dev Ahuja, the BJP member of the Rajasthan state assembly, alleged that it was the local police who beat Khan to death over three hours in police custody and were falsely “implicating Hindu villagers.”
What is significant over the spiral in such incidents of brute mob violence is the political climate that nurtures them, the culture of impunity that allows the perpetrators to go scot-free. While the ruling political class has been quick to pass off the blame on ‘fake news’ and ‘rumors’ on WhatsApp, it is clear that it is the mob, unchecked on the ground, that is having a field day. One of India’s leading civil rights organizations, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), has, in a recent analysis of incidents in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, found that “a well-oiled extortion racket” terrorizing cattle traders is what is behind the lynching(s). In fact, a spate of questionable amendments in state laws on “cow protection” that accord protection to “cow vigilantes” in a sense sanctifying lynchings of humans. This has meant a close nexus between law enforcement and the vigilante groups that also enjoy protection from politically powerful groups. As CJP reports, several “states with the strictest laws reported higher incidents of lynchings—nine cases in Haryana, eight in Uttar Pradesh, seven in Rajasthan, six in Jharkhand and five in both Delhi and Gujarat, together accounting for almost 54% of the total reported cases. Karnataka is an exception; high incidents (relatively) but not so strict laws.” Summing up the climate prevalent in today’s India, in a tweet on July 23, the president of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, targeted “Modi’s brutal ‘New India’” where “humanity is replaced with hatred and people are crushed and left to die.”
The slaughter of cows and their “progeny” is now banned in most Indian states. Some BJP-ruled states have enacted laws that make the killing of a cow as serious a crime as (if not more serious than) manslaughter. A Hindustan Times news report dated July 18, 2017, headlined, “14 years in jail if you kill cow, 2 if you kill people: Judge in BMW case,” says it all. It reported the verdict of a Delhi judge in a road accident case who “couldn’t help but observe how present-day laws provide more stringent punishment to perpetrators of cattle-related crimes than errant drivers who take human lives.”
Notwithstanding the stringent laws in place, cow vigilantes prefer to dispense instant justice. The mere suspicion of carrying or eating beef, transporting or killing a cow is sufficient for the lynch mob to stir into instant deterrent action. As news reports after most of these incidents have subsequently pointed out, in the cases registered by the police, the charges against the perpetrators are diluted, and in some cases it’s the victims who are named as the accused.
At times, looking like a Muslim is bad enough.
The first victim of the lynch mobs since Modi took over as prime minister (May 2014) was a 24-year-old IT professional, Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, who was lynched by seven members of a radical Hindu outfit in Pune in Maharashtra state. Shaikh’s only fault was that he looked like a Muslim. (He was returning from a mosque after prayers.) The killing happened within weeks after Narendra Modi assumed the office of prime minister: June 4, 2014. Despite numerous appeals and calls for a statement from him, the PM preferred total silence.
On June 27, 2017, 16-year-old Junaid Khan, who was returning home after shopping for the upcoming post-Ramadan Eid festival along with his brother and three friends, was thrashed to death following arguments over a seat on a local train on the outskirts of the national capital. Those accompanying him were badly injured. The fanatic lynch mob accused their victims of being “anti-national” and “beef eaters.” The other passengers in the compartment chose not to intervene.
For civil society, the cold-blooded killing of Junaid Khan turned out to be a murder too many. Saba Dewan, a filmmaker from Gurgaon city adjoining the national capital, issued a call for a #NotInMyName protest, and ordinary citizens responded in large numbers, in Delhi and in cities across the country. The protests, however, seemed to have left no impression on the perpetrators of hate crimes.
While opposition parties have repeatedly accused the Narendra Modi government and his Hindu majoritarian BJP of saying or doing nothing to rein in the “lunatic fringe,” human rights groups allege that “lunatics” are no longer the fringe but have captured the national center stage. At times, ministers and parliamentarians in the BJP government have had no qualms in publicly embracing the accused or the convicted.
Harsh Mander is a former member of the India’s elite civil service cadre: Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Following the anti-Muslim mass crimes in Gujarat in 2002 under the watch of its then-chief minister Narendra Modi, Mander resigned his job in protest against the abject failure of senior officials from the IAS and the IPS (Indian Police Service) in ensuring impartial enforcement of the rule of law. Since then, he has been active as an independent human rights defender. In the past two years, along with a few of his colleagues, Mander has launched a Karwan-e-Mohabbat (Caravan of Love), visiting families of the victims of cow-related hate crimes across the country, offering them solace and solidarity.
In his latest column in the Indian Express titled “The Mob that hates,” Mander wrote:
“Hate crimes flourish most of all because of the enabling climate for hate speech and violence which is fostered and legitimised from above, which frees people to act out their prejudices; and the impunity assured by state administrations to the perpetrators. The political response to these attacks tends to follow a set pattern. Through all of this, the prime minister does not express any spontaneous anguish or outrage about hate attacks, except for brief and very occasional general statements. Senior ministers and elected representatives frequently come out in open defence of the attackers, charging the victims with provoking the attacks. The messaging is unambiguous: Not the lynch mob, but the victim, and the community to which he belongs, are guilty. …
“One Union minister wraps the body of a man charged with lynching who died in prison in a national flag, an honour otherwise reserved for soldiers who die defending the country’s borders. Another visits persons arrested for lynching in prison and weeps for their suffering. A third provides legal aid to persons convicted for lynching, and garlands them when they are released from jail. It is important to recognise that in every single case in which ministers and senior leaders of the BJP honour and valorise lynch mob killers, the victims are always Muslim.”
Mander’s article was in response to a July 17 (2018) landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India asking Parliament to consider enacting a separate law to deal with lynching. “Horrendous acts of mobocracy cannot be allowed to become a new norm and… [have] to be curbed with iron hands and states cannot turn a deaf ear to such incidents,” ruled the highest court in the land.
In July 2016, on the rare occasion that he spoke out against cow vigilantes, following the brutal thrashing of Dalits tied to a car in his native state of Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi had talked of “close monitoring of the violence” and “strict action against the perpetrators.” However, on July 18, 2018, two years later, union minister of state for home affairs Hansraj Ahir told the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) that “the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not maintain specific data with respect to lynching incidents in the country.” But the online news portal FirstPost noted that the minister may not have spoken the whole truth in Parliament. It pointed out that in March 2018, the home ministry had furnished data in Lok Sabha, according to which, “Between 2014 and 3 March, 2018, 45 persons were killed in 40 cases of mob lynching across nine states, and at least 217 persons had been arrested.” The report added that 14 other states had failed to provide data.
In a statement in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) on July 19, union home minister Rajnath Singh condemned mob lynchings, adding that the onus lies on the state governments to control the menace and that the union government had already issued advisories to the state governments (law and order is a state subject in India). Two days after Singh’s statement and less then a week after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Akbar Khan became the latest victim of a Hindu lynch mob in BJP-ruled Rajasthan. Condemning the killing, a Congress Party spokesperson said the latest incident “has once again proved that the BJP is working overtime and aggressively to transform Hindustan [India] into Lynchistan. The nation is also witnessing how BJP rather than enforcing Supreme Court’s judgment for a need of a strict law on lynching is actually now lynching the judgment and the Constitution.”
It does not look like India is going to witness the ebbing of the “lynching epidemic” anytime soon. If anything, the bloodthirsty among Indians have of late found yet another group of persons to target: suspected child-lifters. Indiaspend reports that as of July 23, following child-lifting rumors spread through WhatsApp, there have been 69 mob attacks since January 2017 in which 33 persons have been killed. Twenty-four of the victims were killed in the current year, compared to only one such attack being reported earlier in 2012.