In early 2015, ISIS burnt to death Muaz al Kassasbah, a Jordanian Air Force pilot who had crash-landed in ISIS territory in Syria. The gruesome lynching – Muaz was burnt alive inside a steel cage – was shot on video, and shared on social media. While this was not the first public execution video released by the terrorist group, it was regardless one of its more horrific ones. Muaz had gotten married only about 3 months before his murder. He was only 26-years-old. We greeted this piece of news with sadness, rage, shock, even indifference at the banality of ISIS violence. But we told ourselves that this horror would pass, since the whole world appeared to be united against ISIS and it would eventually be defeated. Indeed, ISIS has officially been defeated, and its organisation more or less destroyed. But as the Sri Lanka blasts in April showed, they can still coordinate their operations and their violent ideology is still capable of inspiring mass suicide-murder attacks.
A few days ago, I happened to catch a roadside ‘pakoda’ seller listening intently to Modi’s speech to the Indian diaspora in Japan. I stopped at his stall for a couple of minutes, listened to a varnished speech given – from Japan – to slavering Indian fans, and then looked at the content face of the man whose radio I was listening to. “Isn’t he wonderful?”, he seemed to ask me, “Everything he is doing is for the nation, he doesn’t even care about his wife!” I discovered that he has a wife and a 12-year-old son, who goes to school. I decided against asking him how he would react if one fine morning, his wife left him and their son to “do something for the nation”, as that would be too personal.
Instead, I told him I wished his son a bright future. He beamed at me, and after returning a wan smile, I walked away. I couldn’t judge the man too much. This was, after all, an indication of the kind of influence charisma and PR can have on ordinary humans. I have had to deal with much more educated and well-off relatives who have told me it was okay for the government to hide India’s terrible (un)employment numbers because “any party would do that with elections coming up”. “Give him another 5 years and see how he changes the country,” I was lectured.
Less than 5 weeks into that blessed second term, we have been given the magical taste of “New India”. Tabrez Ansari, a migrant worker in Pune from Jharkhand who had come home on a vacation, was accused of being a “bike thief”, arraigned by a bunch of thugs, tied to a lamppost, and brutally beaten up while being made to chant Jai Shri Ram and Jai Hanuman. Someone from the mob had the good sense of recording the assault on video, to later be shared on social media.
While this wasn’t the first video of Muslim killing shared by Indian Lynchers Anonymous, it was one of the more heart-rending ones. Tabrez was left to die after having sustained critical injuries. The police came to the scene late, and – wait for it – arrested Tabrez for a theft he could not have committed (you couldn’t possibly die with a stolen bike in your pocket), didn’t take him to hospital for four days after he was brutalized, instead keeping him in custody.
He succumbed to his injuries by the time he was taken to a hospital. He was just 24, had gotten married a little over a month ago, and he had only come home to take his wife back to Pune with him. We have greeted this piece of news with sadness, rage, shock, even indifference at the increasing banality of Hindutva violence. But we wouldn’t know if this horror would pass. Not when the ‘Messiah’ tells us from the clouds that we should be more worried about the reputation of Jharkhand than the fact that Muslims are being lynched with impunity under a ruling ideology that wants to shove a Hindu Rashtra down our collective gullet. Because he has used this deflection tactic to win elections before, with the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom and Gujarat’s asmita (pride); and the 2019 Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot-Chowkidar gimmick.
Faux-statesmanlike, trite and generalised assertions about how “no person has the right to take the law in their hands” have been trotted out by the ‘Messiah’ in the aftermath of mob violence before as well. Just that back then we weren’t being told how another 5 years of this would “change” India. Now that idea of “change” seems and sounds a lot more sinister.
Has India become “Lynchistan”? More specifically, has the Messiah era bestowed upon us the unique honour of being a gang violence capital? One research suggests there is no clear answer, although there appears to be a clear trend (latest 2017) that cow-related violence has risen since 2014. No prizes for guessing who the victims have primarily been. IndiaSpend data suggest that the overwhelming majority of victims of cow-violence are Muslims. Aamir Aziz, who gave us the beautiful, poignant “Acche Din Blues“, laments in “The Ballad of Pehlu Khan“, “Bas khata itni si thi, ke yehin paida huye, aur Musalmaan the. (His only fault was that he was born in India and a Muslim.)” He asks us not to forget the names of all those who have been killed or maimed in the name of protecting ‘gau-Mata’.
Starting with Mohd Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015. He eschews non-vegetarian fare when he is mobile. His mother is too scared to allow him to have any. I myself know from experience the bitter taste of the intolerance some upper caste Hindu vegetarians show towards non-vegetarians. A fellow upper caste man like me might be spared any physical (or even other forms of) violence (Hindutva still needs votes from those whose names sound Hindu). A Muslim man or woman can’t be so sure these days.
But Tabrez’s killing had nothing to do with cows. For what it’s worth, cow thugs don’t have anything to do with “protecting” cows either. The population of cows had been happily rising till 2012, and at last count, it stood at around 123 million (pg 28). So, Tabrez’s killing had to do with a goddamn bike. No, I am kidding. He initially told them his name was “Sonu“. When they demanded his real name, he couldn’t hide it.
Islamophobes often accuse Muslims of taqiya, an act of dissimulation sanctioned by the Quran, which they see as evidence (read: another reason to hate them) that Muslims are untrustworthy by virtue of their religion and that most of them are always scheming to destroy ‘kafirs’, despite claiming the opposite. It’s another matter that taqiya is supposed to be for occasions when your life is in danger of being a Muslim. It’s still another matter that these verses are from a time when wars were being fought by Muhammad and his followers in Arabia with the dual motive of staving off persecution of Muslims and spreading Islam far and wide. Life is complicated. But always trust ignorant bigots to take things out of context and oversimplify to justify their hatred and violence. It’s clear Tabrez failed his taqiya test. Who knows if he even knew about taqiya? Even if he did, under duress, he couldn’t apply his knowledge. One wishes he could. One so wishes he could.
Tabrez was killed because he was a Muslim. When it’s not about cows, it’s about ‘Jai Shri Ram’. If not, it’s about “stolen” bikes. It could be topis, burkhas, beards, eyes, ears, nose; just about any bloody excuse can be used to gang-murder a Muslim in India. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, “there will always be something else”. The ‘reason’ violent bigots want to kill you is simply that you exist and you are different.
Indians, many of them Hindus, have protested and voiced their outrage at Tabrez’s murder in which the Jharkhand police were complicit. That small sliver of hope we have left that humanity has not died. That India is the India we want, not the Lynchistan in which decent humans troubled by signs of fascism and outraged by terrorist violence are deemed “anti-national”.
All those years ago, the Messiah had appealed to foreign companies to “Make in India”, even though there was little planning, lesser implementation to compete with China and Southeast Asian countries in providing skilled labour to manufacturers. That grandiose initiative might have turned out to be a dud, but the clarion call was given to Hindutva fanatics by Him and His minions, albeit using the dog whistle, to “Lynch in India” has, by all accounts, engendered grand success. Complete with all the ISIS-style impunity, chutzpah and gore. And so we roll.