The recent episode of mob lynching in Rajasthan has reopened the festering wounds of rising religious violence in India. Majoritarian fundamentalism and violations to freedom of religion continue to increase in India, posing a threat to its strong tradition of religious diversity, mutual respect for religion and co-existence.
On July 20, cow vigilantes in Rajasthan’s Alwar district attacked 28-year-old Akbar Khan, a Muslim man transporting two cows, breaking two of his ribs and causing multiple other injuries using a blunt weapon. It took the police about three hours to ferry the victim to a nearby hospital, which was only five kilometers away, where he later died. Instead of transporting Khan to the hospital with haste, the police had instead chosen to first stop for a “tea break” and take the victim’s cows to a shelter. Some have also alleged that Khan, who was already injured, was also later assaulted by the police.
To protest his murder, as Al Jazeera reported, Khan’s family placed his body on a road near the Alwar-Delhi highway and refused to bury him until the government had assured it would act to punish his killers. The incident has triggered much rage on social media. Shashi Tharoor, a Member of the Parliament (MP) and Congress leader, tweeted: “It seems safer in many places to be a cow than a Muslim.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The political angle of the Alwar lynching developed with Aslam, Khan’s friend who had managed to escape the mob, claiming that the attackers bragged: “The MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) is with us. No one can even touch us.” The said MLA is Gyandev Ahuja of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ahuja is the same MLA who had justified the brutal murder of Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer from the same area who was lynched by “gau rakshaks” (cow protectors) in 2017. “We should not take the law into our hands. But we have no regret over his death because those who are cow-smugglers are cow-killers; sinners like them have met this fate earlier and will continue to do so,” Ahuja said.
Responding to the recent Alwar lynching, Indresh Kumar, an official of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), proclaimed that “If the sin of cow-killing ends, then this problem [of lynching] will be solved.” His views were validated by the Union Minister in Modi’s council, Giriraj Singh. During Rama Navami last year, Singh had also shown support to Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad fanatics who were arrested for communal violence.
Members of the ruling party have long tacitly or directly endorsed acts of violence against India’s minority communities, especially Muslims – who form 15 percent of the country’s population and are its largest minority group. Earlier in July, another ministerial colleague in the Modi administration garlanded eight men released on bail after being convicted for the lynching of a meat trader.
With Hindutva politics taking center stage under the BJP government, the long history of plurality in India is being brought into question. India’s minorities face increasing instances of hate, violence, and intolerance. According to Indiaspend, cow-related mob violence has increased sharply — 97 percent of the attacks since 2010 took place after BJP’s ascent to power in 2014. The common factors in these assaults were that they were committed on the pretext of safeguarding “Hindu values” by self-proclaimed cow protectors and the attackers were linked to right-wing groups.
The cow is considered a sacred animal for many Hindus and cow slaughter is banned in a majority of Indian states. However, cows are a source of income to many in India. Akbar Khan sold milk. Cow-related violence has triggered bitter tensions between the Muslim and Hindu communities. Furthermore, sustained political campaigns have created an atmosphere of hate and suspicion against Muslims – who are often negatively depicted as “cow eaters,” members of terror sleeper cells, and perpetrators of “love jihad” – a term used by Hindutva fringe groups and their proponents for supposedly lustful, evil Muslim men who feign love, “lure” Hindu women, and convert them as a part of their conspiracy to turn India into a majority-Muslim nation. They also spread fears that the Muslim population in India is growing and will outnumber and dominate the Hindus in future.
Leaders of Hindutva groups and political blocs, including the BJP, have publicly declared India to be a country of Hindus, encouraged fanatical Hindu nationalists, and legitimized and in some instances instigated hate crimes against minorities, thereby posing a challenge to India’s multireligious constitutional commitment. The Supreme Court had to intervene on the issue to annul a nationwide ban on cattle-slaughter that the BJP had sanctioned. It has also urged the parliament to bring in a separate law against lynching, as mob lynchings continue to occur in different parts of the country.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has expressed concern over violence, often led by vigilante groups who claim to be BJP supporters, against religious minorities and other marginalized communities in India. “Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s director for South Asia.
Correspondingly, India ranked the 15th most dangerous country to practice a minority faith in the 2017 World Watch List – a sharp fall from 31st four years ago. Around 400 individuals have been killed in anti-minority acts of violence since mid-2014, with hundreds of others beaten, stripped, injured, and humiliated. The clamp-down on religious minorities is manifested by threats, assaults, social boycotts, desecrations of religious symbols and places of worship, forced conversions (termed as ghar wapsi), and other hate crimes. Activists and critics of the government who raise concerns over challenges to civil liberties are labeled “anti-national.”
Many BJP leaders continue to publicly promote Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism. Modi’s silence on the issue and on repeated cases of violence, aggression, and discrimination against minorities in the name of Hinduism by purportedly radical Hindu mobs, is deafening. It is no secret that Modi relies heavily upon Hindu nationalist organizations for electoral support. However, what is frightening about his silence is that it could be read as implicit approval of the mobs leading the charge against minorities. This turn toward imposition of religion by self-appointed custodians of Hinduism and the government’s reluctance to act against them is likely to damage India’s global reputation, which has always hinged on inclusiveness and the peaceful coexistence of its diverse faiths and communities.
With the upcoming elections in India next year, it is also of importance whether the civil society would continue to support a regime that blatantly or implicitly encourages communal violence. Such violence is not only inhumane but also antithetical to Hinduism’s vibrant, pluralistic traditions, and counterproductive to Modi’s development agenda.
Nazneen Mohsina is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.