Attacks on Muslims and Christians Continue to Rise in India
Last month, a 10-minute video went viral on Indian social media of a Hindu right-wing mob beating a Muslim man tied to a lamppost with sticks and forcing him to chant praises to Hindu gods. The young man cried and pled for mercy. The mob reportedly beat him for 12 hours.
The victim in the video was 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari from the east-central state of Jharkhand, who was returning home in the evening on June 17 when a group of men caught him for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. The mob beat Ansari until the morning, when police intervened by arresting Ansari on allegations of theft instead of sending him to a hospital, according to media reports.
For four days in jail without medical treatment, Ansari’s health worsened. When police took him to the nearby hospital on the fourth day, he was declared already dead.
“He had to die because he was a Muslim,” said Ansari’s uncle, Mohammad Masroor Alam.
“It has become a common practice in our country where a Muslim man is killed brutally by a mob on allegation of slaughtering cows, theft, etc… There was no criminal record against him either in the local police station or in Pune (a city in Central India), where he worked as a daily wager. If the police had acted responsibly, he wouldn’t have died.”
It was found later that the local police recorded that Ansari confessed to theft but didn’t mention the assault on him in their case diary, according to media reports. Local officials have opened a probe into the mishandling of the case.
Ansari’s case is one among hundreds of mob violence attacks against minorities and Muslims in particular, which have spiked in India since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Many Muslims and Dalits, low-caste Hindus formerly called untouchables, have been lynched in public on accusations of possessing beef or slaughtering cows, considered holy by the majority Hindu population.
Christians are attacked on accusations of trying to convert Hindus to Christianity, which like Islam is seen as a foreign religion by many Hindu nationalist groups.
Experts say Modi’s re-election in May has further emboldened the Hindu right-wing groups carrying out religiously-motivated hate crimes.
“There is a sense of encouragement among such people now,” said Harsh Mander, a well-known activist in India and founding member of Karwan-e-Mohabbat, a solidarity campaign for victims of hate violence, including lynching. “In the first five years, the Hindu nationalist BJP government created an atmosphere of bias which facilitated violence against minorities, and since they have been re-elected, the situation is worsening,” he said.
A few days after Ansari was lynched, another Muslim man, a madrassa teacher in West Bengal, was beaten and thrown out of a train by a far-right Hindu mob for refusing to chant “Jai Shree Ram” (Hail Lord Ram). He survived.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, more than 266 similar hate crimes have been reported, with Muslims as victims in the majority of the attacks, according to Factchecker.in, a website tracking crimes related to religious hatred in India. During the five-year period before 2014, the total number of cases based on religious hatred was only 22, which indicates a 10-fold rise in the cases of religious violence since 2014. More than 10 such cases have been reported on the site since the BJP returned to power two months ago.
Modi has largely remained silent on the growing attacks against minorities, but after Ansari’s lynching, he tweeted that though Ansari’s death “pained” him, it’s not fair to “insult” the state by calling it a hub of lynching. Critics believe that by not harshly condemning the attacks, he is emboldening the lynch mobs. There are also lynching cases where the accused are linked to the BJP.
“Grinding their dignity into dust”
The attacks are often very brutal. Mander, who has met over 29 victims’ families living in 14 states, recalls a murder that happened near the national capital last year where 45-year-old Mohammad Qasim was lynched by a Hindu mob on suspicions of slaughtering cows. According to Mander, the incident was particularly horrifying because children from nearby areas took part in the violence.
“He was attacked so badly that there was no part of his body which was not injured,” Mander said. “His body was pierced through screwdrivers.”
A video of his lynching was circulated online where he was seen pleading for water during his last hours. Police dragged him with ropes “like an animal,” Mander said.
In a similar incident which happened last year, a man named Rakhbar was lynched in Rajasthan on suspicions of slaughtering cows. Akbar, Rakhbar’s cousin, said, “when we got the body after post-mortem, we found that he was beaten so brutally that there were multiple fractures on his body. His penis was also crushed.”
One change in the most recent attacks is that now rather than attacking alleged cow slaughterers, attacks are being reported where Muslim men are targeted and prodded to hail Hindu gods.
Calling the slogan “Jai Shree Ram” a war cry, 49 celebrities, including Bollywood directors, actors, historians, and social activists wrote a letter to Modi on July 23 expressing their concern over the rising hate crimes based on religious identity. They argue that the Hindu mob attackers are defiling Ram with their violence in his name. The letter stated that “Ram is sacred for the majority community, stop defiling the name of Ram.”
"You have criticised such lynchings in Parliament Mr. Prime Minister, but that is not enough! What action has actually been taken against the perpetrators?" the letter writers ask.
“The physical attacks, the lynching, the insults, the coercive use of the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chant to humiliate Muslims is a part of grinding their dignity into dust,” said Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government and former President of the 100-year-old All India Catholic Union.
Since the BJP has come to power, there have also been many attacks where Muslims have been asked to prove their loyalty to India, by such methods as chanting Hindu slogans, or go to neighboring Muslim-majority Pakistan.
“The final straw is the constant testing of the Muslim’s loyalty and patriotism. It is routine for schoolboys, working men, and even police officials to question Muslims friends and colleagues if they feel warmth towards Pakistan,” Dayal said. “Calling them ‘Pakistani agent’ is now normalized on TV debates.”
Amit Sengupta, a senior journalist who has covered several cases of mob lynching of Muslims in Jharkhand said that these cases are “clear cases of organized and planned murders as public spectacles, with the entire state machinery first looking the other way, and later trying to help the murderers by diffusing their cases so that they are not arrested, and, if arrested, given quick bails because their cases are weak from the side of the administration and the police.”
“One killing in an area is used to polarize the entire area, and communities are fed with vicious propaganda through rumors and aggressive Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] processions in sensitive areas with the cops allowing such polarization,” he added.
Attacks on Christians
While the hate crimes against Muslims are more prevalent and brutal in nature, attacks on Christian minorities have also been rising since 2014.
In a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Pastor Ranjeet and about 40 people in his church were attacked during a prayer meeting in February by 15-20 upper-caste local Hindus carrying batons.
“They started beating us badly without giving any warning and accused us of converting people in the village,” Ranjeet said. “They didn’t even spare women and children.”
He also said that they were asked to chant “Jai Shree Ram”. The attackers were alleged members of the Bajrang Dal, a right-wing Hindu group declared a militant religious organization last year by the CIA. “Since then, the prayer meetings in our village have stopped because we are scared that it might happen again.”
According to the data collected by the United Christian Forum (UCF), which runs a toll-free helpline number to help provide legal aid to Christians facing targeted violence for practicing their faith, there has been a consistent rise in the number of attacks against Christians since the BJP came to power. They recorded 148 incidents of violence in 2014, 183 in 2015, 216 in 2016, 254 in 2017 and 292 in 2018. So far this year they have already recorded more than 115 cases.
“In 2018, we witnessed, on an average, 20 incidents a month,” said A.C. Michael, a member of UCF from Delhi. “This year, the figure is touching 30 a month.”
The cases are spread across the country, with Uttar Pradesh at the top.
Most of the cases against Christians follow a similar pattern: a mob sometimes accompanied by the police arrives at a church service, shouts Hindu slogans, beats up the congregation (including women and children) and then the pastors are arrested by the police on allegations of converting people to Christ illegally, Michael said.
“It is amply clear that there are some forces which are working behind this well-planned act of hatred against a particular community to create polarization,” Michael added.
According to Patsy David, a Christians rights activist working in the region, the Hindu right-wing groups don’t like the growing population of Christians in rural areas — even if Christians still number less than 2 percent of the country’s religious landscape.
The changing nature of violence in India
Violence between Hindus and Muslims, often categorized as communal violence, is nothing new in India. Rioting between the two communities played a large part in the country’s pre- and post-independence history, and the partition of Hindu-majority India away from what’s now Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Thousands of Muslims were massacred in the western Indian state of Gujrat in 2002 when Modi was the state’s chief minister. Similarly, thousands of Hindus were forced to flee the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley after targeted violence against the community erupted in the region in the nineties.
But experts believe the mob violence based on religious identity is different and more dangerous than what India has witnessed in the past.
“The recent cases of mob violence have broken all boundaries of time and geography,” Mander said. “The cases of hate violence are spread all over the country. Today, you can be attacked anywhere anytime, maybe while walking on the road.”
Mander compares the attacks to the past lynchings of African-Americans in the U.S.
“The way the whole incident is video graphed and uploaded on the Internet by the perpetrators seems as if they are doing a performative action of heroism to send a message to the Muslim community that they are second-class citizens,” he said.
Denial and prejudice characterize government response
Last month, a report by the U.S. State Department on religious freedom around the world criticized India for failing to act on mob attacks on religious minorities and marginalized groups.
“Despite Indian government statistics indicating that communal violence has increased sharply over the past two years, the Modi administration has not addressed the problem,” the report stated. It also mentioned that the "inflammatory speeches" made by some senior officials from Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party encourages the communal tensions.
Irked by the criticism, the Modi government rejected the report, saying in a statement to the media that it “sees no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens' constitutionally protected rights.”
Last year, while condemning mob lynching, the Indian Supreme Court recommended the parliament to enact a separate law to punish offenders who participate in lynchings. "It has to be curbed with an iron hand… no citizen can take the law into his hands or become a law onto himself,” said the apex court. But no such law has been enacted yet.
Experts also believe that police are prejudiced against the victims in many cases, like Ansari’s. The government investigation into the police conduct in his case found that the police knew about the mob the night they began attacking but didn’t show up until the next morning. Even the doctors who attended to Ansari neglected his injuries and made superficial observations, the probe found.