The killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015 attracted media attention and widespread condemnation from political parties except for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For more than a week Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept silent over the incident and even after he spoke about it, he did not condemn it outright. BJP officials kept calling it an accident and a result of the genuine anger of the Hindus over the slaughtering of a cow.
Since the murder of Alkhlaq, attacks on Muslims related to cow slaughter or smuggling rumours have increased. In October 2015, amid protests spurred by rumours of cow slaughtering, a truck was attacked with a petrol bomb, killing one Muslim man in Jammu and Kashmir state. In March 2016, two Muslims were killed and hanged in the tribal state of Jharkahnd after being accused of smuggling cows.
This year, The Indian Express, an English-language daily, identified seven other incidents between March and May involving lynching of a member of a minority group, four of them instigated by cow vigilantes.
On June 22, three Muslims were killed in West Bengal state after being accused of cow smuggling. On June 27, a Muslim dairy owner in the state of Jharkhand was attacked by a mob after being accused of killing a cow; the man was rushed to a hospital in critical condition after the police managed to save him from his attackers.
When I say that mob lynching is not an apt description of such violence, I seek to underline the organisation behind most of these incidents. They usually appear to be sporadic in nature and often a spontaneous reaction of Hindus who are generally angry over the reports of cow smuggling and slaughter.
But these cases would not have been so frequent if it weren’t for the atmosphere of hate and suspicion against Muslims, created through a sustained political campaign. Engaging in ‘meat politics’ and calling for cow protection have been a favourite tool for many Hindu nationalist politicians. Even PM Narendra Modi has indulged in its use.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organisation affiliated with the BJP, has also had a role to play in whipping up nationalist Hindu sentiments and encouraging, even if indirectly, cow vigilantism. Other Hindu nationalist organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), loosely associated with the RSS, have gone further and declared: “Cow protectors are protectors. How can they be killers? Killers cannot be protectors”. The RSS never condemns or distances itself from the VHP; neither does the BJP.
Hinduisation of public spaces also helps to mobilise solidarity for groups targeting minority communities. Small groups signing religious or devotional songs or distributing religious pamphlets can be increasingly seen in local trains, parks and other public spaces. They often propagate anti-minority rumours and sentiments. Within Hindu communities, the formation of cow protection groups has intensified in recent years and has also contributed to the spread of rumours and hate speech.
These groups encourage various hateful beliefs about Muslims: that they are ‘cow eaters’, a threat to Hindu women, and members of terror sleeper cells. They spread ludicrous fears that the Muslim population is growing and will outnumber Hindus in India. This atmosphere of sustained hatred against Muslims makes attacks on them seem spontaneous and the product of mob anger. But few question why the mob is angry in the first place.
In addition, the general perception of the justice system as slow and ineffective is making popular the idea that the people should take justice into their own hands. The culture of acceptance of summary justice is harnessed by the Hindu nationalist groups to justify punishments for perceived crimes committed by Muslims.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘What is behind India’s epidemic of ‘mob lynching?’