A rising tide of hate is surging through India, of toxic speech and attacks on religious minorities, mostly Muslims. A permissive environment that tacitly or openly encourages hate speech and assaults is actively, even aggressively, fostered by the majoritarian anti-minority ideology of the country’s political leadership. Muslims are systematically demonised as sexual predators, as being sympathetic to terrorism and as people who slaughter and eat cow, which is held sacred by many Hindus. Most hate attacks on Muslims are never publicly condemned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is otherwise extremely voluble on Twitter and public addresses. This has fostered widespread social legitimisation of anti-Muslim prejudice, hate speech and hate crimes.
Vigilante mobs, who style themselves as cow protectors, lynch people transporting cattle with impunity, visibly supported in many instances by the local police. India Spend, a news data portal, found that 97 per cent of reported hate attacks in the name of the cow since 2010 occurred after Modi was elected to office in 2014. About half the attacks were on Muslims, but 86 per cent of the people killed were Muslims. This means that if vigilante attackers learn that their victim is Muslim, there is a much greater chance that he will be killed. Eight per cent of those killed were from the Dalit community of untouchables.
Of course this is not the first time in India’s history that minorities are being attacked. Grave incidents of mass violence against minorities recurred through the 70 years of India’s freedom. But these attacks, often deadly and brutal, were still bound by geography and by time – they occurred in a particular area, had a beginning and an end.
The current spate of lynching, by contrast, communicates a deadly warning that people from the targeted community are now not safe anywhere, any time. They can be attacked in their homes, on trains, on public roads or at work. As a result, a sense of fear has settled into Muslims of every social class and region, the ever-lurking idea that they are unsafe, that they must adjust to second-class citizenship.
To protest against this, and to declare solidarity with Muslim and Dalit victims of hate attacks, I recently undertook with other peace workers what we described as Karwane Mohabbat, or a Caravan of Love. Travelling through eight provinces, from east to west India, we met the families of those killed in hate attacks, sought forgiveness and shared in their suffering. We discovered that such attacks had become commonplace across India, and very few are being reported.
In almost every one of the 55 families we met on our journey, police registered criminal charges against the victims, accusing them of being cow smugglers and openly protecting the attackers. In some cases, police even killed the victims of hate attacks. Muslim victims held little hope about any possibility of justice in the current climate. Another troubling feature of many lynch attacks was the filming of the attacks by the perpetrators, or their supporters. They uploaded and widely circulated these gruesome videos on social media, effectively turning lynching into a public spectacle – as public entertainment.
It signals first that perpetrators regard hate attacks to be righteous acts of masculine valour. Second, they feel assured of their impunity, that they would not be punished even when their faces appear in these videos. And third, they communicate a fearsome message to the targeted community, as the victim implores for his life, about their status in a new triumphantly majoritarian India.
It is this same message that the latest hate killer sought to communicate in a carefully planned and filmed, ghoulish hate murder on December 6, 2017, in the small district town Rajsamand in Rajasthan. A man in his 30s lured a Muslim man into a secluded plot, hacked him with his pickaxe, doused him in petrol and burned him alive, all of it – including the desperate screams of the hapless man – recorded by his 14 year old nephew on a video camera. The film shows the killer facing the camera and launching a vicious anti-Muslim rant. This is followed up with two more videos in which the killer continues his harangue; one of which shows him carrying his mentally challenged daughter.
I went to Rajsamand days later as part of a human rights fact-finding team. The man killed was Afrazul, a 48-year-old migrant worker from Bengal. Afrazul’s story is similar to that of 100 million circular migrants in India, who travel for many months each year to distant lands in desperate efforts to earn money for the survival of their impoverished families. From the age of 14, Afrazul led this life of hard and lonely toil. More recently, he became a petty labour contractor.
It seems likely that the killer, Shambhulal Regar, had probably never even met Afrazul before the day he murdered him. It is likely he called him on his mobile phone to the vacant plot owned by his family on the pretext of offering him a petty construction contract. He apparently killed him for no other reason than that he was Muslim: to slaughter a Muslim on camera for what he perceived to be crimes of the entire community.
Social media exploded with posts of support for the killer and a fundraising drive. A WhatsApp group, which includes members of parliament and the state legislature from the ruling Hindu nationalist party, celebrated him as a hero and a lion of the community.
Regar may have been a lone wolf hate killer. But he was indoctrinated by venom that circulates openly on social media, and in the hate speeches of senior political leaders, including ministers of the ruling party.
Wedges of hate are being driven to deliberately divide Hindus and Muslims. With each new hate attack, India as a humane and inclusive republic is being unmade. Even more culpable than both this upwelling of hate attacks and partisan state action is the resounding silence of the large majority, the near absence of public remorse or compassion.