While the Indian government last week was busy issuing a furious rejoinder to a US State Department report on vigilante lynchings, another young Muslim man who’d been beaten succumbed to his injuries.

National outrage has erupted over a video of the lynching of 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari.

Ansari, who’d worked as a welder in another state, had gone to his home state of Jharkhand to celebrate Eid. On June 17 a mob caught him and accused him of trying to steal a motorbike. He was tied to a pole and beaten for nearly 18 hours and was forced to worship Hindu deities by chanting “Jai [Hail] Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman.” 

He was handed over to the police bruised and bleeding. Video footage shows that, four days later, he was finally taken to the hospital where he died.

Once described by Nobel laureate V S Naipaul as a country of a million mutinies, India is now witnessing a spate of lynchings. About 265 cases have been reported nationally since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. About 59% of the victims have been Muslims. About 58% of perpetrators have been identified as Hindus. 

This represents a 10-fold rise in the last five years in hate crimes against minorities, a trend that critics see as directly related to the rise of Modi’s Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Ansari’s was the 14th case of hate crime in Jharkhand since 2016, according to an online watchdog site, factchecker.in. Saket Gokhale, a former journalist who also works for the opposition Indian National Congress, said the incident “established a clear link of the lynch mobs with PM Modi’s own party. The police inaction in a BJP-ruled state demonstrates state support and condonation of the lynching.” 

Cow vigilantism

Among majority Hindus, who follow the ancient caste system, those who are born into the “lower” castes have been oppressed for centuries. Collectively called “Dalits,” they have been targets of the rising hate attacks, alongside religious minorities like the Muslims, who number some 200 million and account for 14% of the population. The phenomenon is similar to the attacks on people of color by white supremacists in the US.

Mob lynching and especially the persecution of Muslims came to the forefront in 2015 when Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim man in his 50s, was killed by a mob from his village in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. The mob suspected Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf and stored its meat.

Later, an official inquiry revealed the meat was not beef. One of the accused in the case died in 2016 and residents of his village wrapped his body in the national flag.

Since then more such stories have surfaced with a rise in cow vigilantism. Alimuddin Ansari, a trader, was dragged out of his cab and beaten to death by a mob of at least 30 cow-vigilantes in broad daylight at a busy marketplace in Jharkhand in 2017.

He was suspected of transporting “banned meat,” or beef. Union Minister Jayant Sinha garlanded those convicted in Ansari’s lynching.

In June last year, 38-year-old Mohammad Qasim was attacked by a frenzied crowd in Hapur district of BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh for alleged cow theft and slaughter. He succumbed to his injuries and died.

In July, the 28-year-old Rakbar Khan was beaten to death at Alwar in Rajasthan on suspicion of cow smuggling. Then, a police inspector and a student were shot dead in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr in December after violence occurred over the discovery of cow carcasses. These are only a few among the 13 deaths that took place in 31 incidents of cow-related violence in 2018.

US slams Modi

The US States Department Report on international religious freedom released by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 21 stated that Hindu groups had used “violence, intimidation, and harassment” against Muslims and low-caste Dalits in 2017 to force a religion-based national identity.

Pompeo was in India on June 25, ahead of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. However, the report was not part of the deliberations between Pompeo and either Prime Minister Modi or Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.

“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 said.

The report, which examined the attacks on minorities during 2018, accused some senior officials from Modi’s ruling BJP of making “inflammatory speeches” mainly against Muslims.

However, the Modi government in its reply said: “India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and pluralistic society with a long-standing commitment to tolerance and inclusion.” 

Modi, who had been silent on the lynching, finally condemned it in Parliament in the inaugural session after general elections. He said: “The Jharkhand mob lynching is saddening but why blame the entire state? Violence whether in Jharkhand, West Bengal or Kerala should be dealt with equally.

“We have no right to defame the whole of Jharkhand. Isolate the criminals and take action. Law and judiciary are completely competent. For that, we will do whatever necessary and won’t back down.” 

Umar Khalid, an Indian left-wing activist, traced the polarization of society by the BJP, with the help of its ideological flank, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the 1980s and ’90s.

He said: “Under the leadership of BJP veteran LK Advani this polarization was done through mass rallies resulting in riots. Now under Modi, the modus operandi has changed to smaller everyday incidents, which the state wants to call ‘spontaneous’ cases of hate crimes due to religious fanaticism.”

Khalid also blamed the lack of a strong opposition able to hold the central government accountable. Many opposition politicians fear the consequences of being tagged as pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu in the Hindu-majority country. 

With the increase in cow vigilantism and mob lynchings across the country, the Supreme Court in 2018 asked the state and central governments to set up fast-track courts, curb hate messages on social media, give compensation to victims and enact a law to define and curb mob lynchings.

While governments at both levels have failed to act on those directives, there’s one exception: In a bid to curb cow vigilantism in the opposition-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, the Congress government on Wednesday did propose an amendment to the anti-cow slaughter law of 2004 .

The proposal would institute jail terms of six months to three years and fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees for people convicted of vigilantism. 

Gokhale is among those who say the issue must be dealt with more aggressively. He has submitted a special procedures report to the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Rights and to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about the Jharkhand lynching. 

“With the BJP infringing on institutions in India and damaging any opposition, there’s a need for greater international recognition for the routine crimes against minorities in India,” he said. “As a signatory to the Geneva Convention and as a member of the UN, the Indian government is obligated to honor its commitments to the protection of the marginalized. It’s unfortunate that we have to now seek international support.”