A rising tide of hate is surging through India, of toxic hate speech and attacks targeting religious minorities, mostly Muslims. A permissive environment that tacitly or openly encourages hate speech and assaults is openly, even aggressively fostered by the majoritarian anti-minority ideology of the country’s elected political leadership. Muslims are systematically demonised by them as people who slaughter and eat the cow held sacred by many Hindus, as sexual predators, and as people sympathetic to terrorist violence. Most hate attacks on Muslims are never publicly condemned by Prime Minister Modi, who is otherwise extremely voluble on Twitter and public addresses. This has fostered wide 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 credible news data portal, found that 97% of reported hate attacks in the name of the cow after 2010 occurred after Prime Minister Modi was elected to office in 2014. About half the attacks were on Muslims, but 86% of the persons 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. 8% of persons killed were Dalits.
Of course, minorities have been attacked in the past as well. Grave incidents of mass violence against minorities have 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 persons from the targeted community are now not safe anywhere, at 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.
Many countries in the world are witnessing the rise of authoritarian and chauvinistic political parties, which legitimise hatred against minorities, and suppress liberal and leftist dissent. In some countries, such parties and leaders are elected to power, such as the United States, Turkey, Hungary and India. In others, like France and Germany, they may not have succeeded in capturing power but their broadening electoral appeal reflects a rising and intensely worrying constituency for hate in growing numbers of countries across the planet. A major target of these parties (in countries in which Muslims constitute a minority) are Muslim citizens and immigrants. Other minorities are also targeted such as people of colour, other religious, ethnic and sexual minorities. Liberal defenders of these targeted communities, in the media and civil society, are typically attacked, intimidated and gagged by these governments.
A dominant challenge of our times, therefore, is to craft instruments to fight this kind of politics, of what I call ‘command hate’, as this is bigotry and hate that are fostered, encouraged and legitimised by the elected leaders of countries like the United States and India.
Convinced that the politics of hate can be effectively fought only with a politics of love, in an article calling for a resounding people’s response, I wrote, echoing Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela, “Darkness can never be fought with darkness, only light can dispel the enveloping shadows. And so also a politics of hate can only be fought with a new and radical politics of love and solidarity. In battling ideologies that harvest hate, we can win only equipped with this love. We need to garner across our land a plenitude of acts of love.”
The test is much greater because the hate that we must fight is not just ‘out there’ but within ourselves or those we are close to, reflected in our resounding silences and our political choices. I wrote, “We must resolutely fight…governments and policepersons who betray their constitutional duties; and the hate attackers, ensuring that they be tried and punished under the law of the land. But I believe our greatest, hardest battle will have to be with the bystander. With ourselves. And with our own. We need to interrogate the reasons for our silences, for our failures to speak out, and to intervene, when murderous hate is unleashed on innocent lives. We need our conscience to ache. We need it to be burdened intolerably.”
To speak in this way to our collective silences, I proposed a journey of shared suffering, of atonement and of love, called Karwane Mohabbat, or a Caravan of Love. I proposed that we travel across the country, to meet families who lost their loved ones to hate lynching violence, attempting a garland of empathy across the land. With pain and shame, to seek from them our collective forgiveness, an atonement, to try a little to share their suffering. And to speak to them of our solidarity and love, and our resolve that justice must be done.
Within just a month after my appeal was published, the Karwan (Caravan) set off on September 4, 2017. Entirely crowd-funded, and with an exceptional group of volunteers – writers, journalists, social workers, teachers, lawyers – we intersected India from east to west over a month, traversing Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat.
As we travelled, I wrote an update late every night as we tried to catch a few hours of sleep. The Karwan found everywhere minorities living with fear, hate and state violence, resigned to accept these as normalised elements of everyday living. We encountered widows, mothers, fathers and children, numbed with incomprehension of the loathing and violence that snatched from them their loved ones. I asked later, “How could parents of two teenaged boys in Nagaon, Assam come to terms with the lynching of their sons by a mob from their neighbouring village, accusing them of being cow thieves? Why would they gouge their eyes out and cut off their ears? Why would complete strangers stab Harish Pujari fourteen times near Mangalore, pulling out his intestines, only because they mistook him for a Muslim when he was riding pillion behind his Muslim friend?”
Dalits are viciously attacked by upper caste neighbours to crush any assertion. Single women remain vulnerable to incredible medieval cruelty by family and neighbours, branded as witches. Christians in tribal regions are subjugated by violence targeting their priests, nuns and places of worship, and by-laws criminalising religious conversions. But the foremost targets of hate violence by lynching and police killings are Muslims, and it is they who have most abandoned hope.
Against Muslims, the hate weapon of choice is public lynching. We read of the lynching of Blacks in America as public spectacles, watched by white families in picnics. In today’s India, this same objective of lynching as public performance is accomplished with the video camera. Most lynch attacks are filmed by the attackers, with images of their victims humiliated, cringing, begging for their lives. In a particularly horrifying incident in Jharkhand, in a busy market square in Ramgarh, a mob stops the car of a Muslim man. A huge pile of red meat – the size of the body of a full cow – appears on the street, the mob claiming that they ‘seized’ this from the car. He is filmed as they beat him to death. Laughing faces of attackers appear in the video. They upload the videos even as they lynch the man and torch his car. His young son on his mobile receives the video of his father being lynched even as the lynching is underway.
We found that lynch videos are widely and avidly shared among young Hindu activists. Probably as evidence of what they see as their valorous exploits. As proof that the state will protect them. As public exhibitions of the humiliation of their enemy communities. And for drafting new recruits to militant Hindu supremacist formations.
We witnessed consistently that families hit by hate violence were bereft of hope of either protection or justice from the state. The police in almost all the 50 families we met during our travels in eight states registered criminal charges against the victims and treated the accused with kid gloves, not opposing their bail or erasing their crime altogether. A lynch mob, for instance, attacks a vehicle transporting cattle, killing some of the transporters. The police register criminal cases of illegal cow smuggling, animal cruelty and rash driving against the victims. It obliterates completely the fact that the men were lynched. Or in other cases, it mentions anonymous mobs who are never caught. The families of people attacked by lynch mobs sometimes do not even file a complaint with the police, because far from getting justice, the police would register criminal charges against them.
Even more worrying, we found that the police has increasingly taken on the work of the lynch mob. There are tens of instances in both states in which the police itself kills Muslim men, charging them to be cattle smugglers or dangerous criminals, and claiming that they fired at the police. In Gujarat, policemen publicly lynch a tribal man charged with cow slaughter on two market squares until he soils his clothes with his excreta and then dies. And unlike other lynchings, this has barely registered in the national conscience.
And we found in all these local communities profound and pervasive failures of compassion. We encountered very little acknowledgement, regret or remorse amongst the upper-caste Hindu communities in any of the states we travelled. They remain convinced that somehow their Muslim and Dalit neighbours deserved their cruel deaths to lynch mobs or police bullets.
It is this same sentiment that motivated the latest hate killer, who sought to communicate a public message of hate against all Muslims in a carefully planned video-graphed ghoulish hate murder on December 6, 2017, in a small district town Rajsamand in Rajasthan. A man in his 30s lures a Muslim man he does not know and probably never met earlier into a secluded plot, hacks him with his pick-axe, douses him in petrol and burns him alive. All of this – including the desperate screams of the hapless man – he gets recorded by his 14-year-old nephew on a video camera. The killer then faces the camera and launches a vicious anti-Muslim rant. This he follows with two more videos in which he continues his harangue. In one of the videos, he carries 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 graduated to becoming 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 before a camera a Muslim for what he perceived to be crimes of the entire community.
The social media exploded with posts of support to the killer, and a fund-collection drive. A WhatsApp group, which includes the Members of both Parliament and the state legislature, both of the ruling 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 the venom that circulates openly in the social media, and in hate speeches of senior political leaders including ministers of the ruling party.
Hindus and Muslims have lived together peacefully for centuries, but today wedges of hate are being driven to deliberately divide them. 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 through all of the large majority, the near-absence of public remorse or compassion.
Harsh Mander, human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher, works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. He is Director, Centre for Equity Studies, and founder of the campaigns Aman Biradari, for secularism, peace and justice; Nyayagrah, for legal justice and reconciliation for the survivors of communal violence; Dil Se, for street children, and ‘Hausla’ for urban homeless people, for homeless shelters, recovery shelters and street medicine. He was Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case for twelve years from 2005-17. He is Special Monitor of the statutory National Human Rights Commission for Minority Rights. He convenes and edits the annual India Exclusion Report. He worked formerly in the Indian Administrative Service in Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh for almost two decades. Follow him on Youth Ki Awaaz here.