Protests in India Against 'Cow-Protecting' Vigilantes Succeed in Breaking Prime Minister's Silence
On June 29, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi gave a long-awaited (though mild) admonishment of violent “cow protection” vigilantes who have been let loose in the streets of India, on its trains, buses and village and city public spaces, lynching Indians (almost always Muslims or Dalits, members of the lowest caste). Modi, who is normally outspoken, has previously been mum on the spate of killings, conveying an overall climate of immunity to murderous mobs. What appears to have broken this studied silence are the spontaneous protests that finally erupted all over India and coalesced on July 28 when citizens, including celebrities, in 12 cities took over public squares and promenades after a spontaneous call by Delhi-based filmmaker Saba Dewan in a Facebook post.
Though they took some time in coming, the protests appear to have had their desired effect, temporarily at least. Not only has Modi spoken, but the normally distanced Indian commercial television channels have given space to this democratic expression of outrage.
The immediate provocation was the lynching of a Muslim teenager named Junaid Khan on a train, shortly after it departed from Delhi. The men who stabbed Junaid also left his brothers seriously injured. The incident occurred on June 23, the last Friday of the holy month of Ramzan (Ramadan), when the auspicious Alvida Namaaz (prayers) are read and which has a special significance for the devout.
At SabrangIndia, we reported the train incident following an unusually prompt press release from the Communist Party of India, whose politbureau members had visited the site of the incident. We commented in our report that India would soon need its very own “Lynch Calendar.” What we could not report until three days later was that on the same Friday, some 1,088 kilometers away in Chatra Jharkhand, 24-year-old Mohammad Salman was shot and killed in cold blood by men in uniform who simply entered his home, shoved him outside and ordered their subordinates to commit the crime.
In the same eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, there have been a spate of horrific killings, including lynchings, that still haunt public memory—particularly the March 2016 hangings of dairy farmers Mazloom Ansari and 12-year-old Imteyaz Khan in a deserted public village. What has faded away from the current outrage and even the media commentary is the fact that the National Commission for Minorities (a statutory body set up specifically to protect the rights of minorities) had been compelled to send a team to investigate.
The report of the Commission severely indicted the Jharkhand police and the political class for failing to “rein in the cow protection groups who are taking law into their own hands.” The NCM also recorded in its report that “Deep and widespread communalisation of sections of the Jharkhand police force, and slogans like ‘go to Pakistan’ were frequently used by the local police against the Muslims, pointing toward a larger communalisation of the state police.” That report was from May 2016. Today the NCM stands discredited with political appointments by the Modi government who have put into position representatives who have no background in terms of autonomy and rights and are simply toeing a majoritarian government’s line.
Noted activist Shabnam Hashmi returned her 2008 NCM Award on Tuesday, making a strong public statement. She said in her open letter:
“I am returning it [the award] in the memory of the innumerable innocent victims lynched by marauding mobs. Mob Lynching of Muslims and Islamophobia have taken over India. Even before the community can mourn its dead, the next incident takes place. There is an atmosphere of fear and terror. Under the present Government, the marginalization of minority groups has become the norm.
“The design of turning India into a Hindu Rashtra [nation], which began decades ago with calling Muslims dirty, having too many children and being illiterate moved on to excluding them from residential spaces, targeting them as terrorists, has now reached its pinnacle where all public spaces and all means of livelihood are becoming unsafe for the Muslim community.
“Similar to Hitler’s Germany, Muslims are being projected as the biggest enemy of the state and the people of the country. There is legitimization of the communal ideology by the State and the media, [which] has led to acceptance of prejudices and stereotyping without questioning them in popular consciousness, deep infiltration of hate in the minds and hearts of ordinary people and apathy on the part of a large section of the society especially ‘educated’ middle classes.”
The list of assaults is gruesome: The Muslim Maulvi (cleric) who was beaten in April 2017, on a day supposedly important for devout Hindus (Ram Navmi, the birthdate of Lord Ram), in Jharkhand; the beating death of cattle farmer Pehlu Khan from Mewat while he was on agrarian business in Alwar Rajasthan in April 2017; or the lynch mob murder of political activist Zafar Hussain of the Communist Party of India, also in Rajasthan. Each of these murders is happening in the name of faith by the mob proponents of the Hindu nation, who believe the cow to be more precious than human life. The militarized march to a Hindu nation is laden with such dutiful tasks as cleansing the nation of the “dirty,” be it Dalits, Christians, Muslims or Communists.
Countries around the world need to better understand this: If the protests on June 28 drew Indians out of a numb fear that appeared to have gripped even opponents to this ideal, they need to continue and intensify. At the first instance of such an episode in September 2015, a similar dam of protest had broken. Writers led by the eminent Nayantara Sahgal returned their national awards in a powerful protest that embarassed the Modi government and put it on the defensive. Dozens of writers in over a dozen Indian languages, all winners of awards and powerful cultural commentators in their own right, followed by filmmakers, joined in this powerful symbolic protest. But life went on, and the killings continued. It would be tedious to list all the dead, and the circumstances in which they were lynched—most for rumors or frenzied hysteria about transporting cows or bullocks or eating beef, some for marrying a Hindu.
What is crucial to emphasize is the chain of command of culpability in this climate of impunity and lynchings. They began after the Modi government came to power and were aided and abetted by those in power within the government who spewed venom against Indian Muslims and Christians even while holding senior constitutional posts. They were further emboldened when governments run by the same party Modi represents, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed unconstitutional “beef laws” to curtail the slaughter, consumption and transportation of beef. They got greater pats on the back when their parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), spoke of the Holy Cow and its protection. The nail in the coffin was the recently introduced ban on the sale of cattle passed by the Modi government.
Indian newspapers have extensively reported recently, as they also did a year ago, that despite Modi’s apparent regrets about the lynchings, in his previous position as Gujarat chief minister, he was a firm proponent not just of cow protection, but against beef exports. The Indian Express recalls Modi statements of 2013, 2012 and 2014, when he attacked the previous Congress-led government for allowing the export of beef. That politicians indulge in the proverbial doublespeak, before and after a campaign, is only part of the problem. The other is more substantive.
As I have argued:
“For years now, since distributions of trishuls through trishul diksha programmes, since violent arms trainings by the RSS and Bajrang Dal, since the terror unleashed by the Mobs on the Street—ever available at the blow of the metamorphical whistle—be it the Mob that lynched Christians (there were over 75 attacks between 1999 and 2002 documented by the All India Christian Union and published by Communalism Combat) or the Mob that attacked Naroda Patiya or Gulberg Society or Odh or Sardarpura villages (Gujarat 2002) or the Mob terror unleashed in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat and Meerut (September 2013)—we have been arguing, with and to the political class and law enforcement agencies: treat Mob terror and Bomb Terror on Par. Do not look at these equally debilitating and vicious kinds of violence that impact innocent lives, differently.”
When there is the terror of the mob attacking a neighborhood, or lynching people, there is a section of the populace, including law enforcement, that participates through its silence, simply looking on. It is this majority participation, through the silence of complicity, that ensures selective outrage and token utterances from the powerful. No wonder then that the Modis, and the Venkaiah Naidus and even law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad only speak selectively and occasionally. Do some Indian lives matter more than others?
Unfortunately it seems that they do. The killers of Mohammad Ayub in Gujarat, lynched on the eve of Modi’s visit to his home state, were given bail by the higher courts; the killers of Mazloom Ansari and Imiteyaz in Latehar also got out on bail six months ago. On the other hand, those accused, even falsely, of acts of bomb terror do not get bail, often until the final acquittal. They remain incarcerated. This imbalance, even prejudice or bias—privileging mob terror over bomb terror—must stop. The Indian establishment must look at them as two sides of the same coin, or else we are perpetrating an injustice of our own.
That the numbness has finally broken is a good beginning, even if it comes somewhat late. It needs to go further, however, to assert, again and again, in public discourse, that mob terror is as vicious as bomb terror, and to ensure that every police station, every district collector, every railway policeman functions as the Indian Constitution requires him to, with equality before the law and non-discrimination as his credo.
To end with hope, it’s worth reproducing this Facebook post from a mother, which went viral on Thursday. With the picture of an Indian woman holding the holy book of India, its Constitution, she writes:
NOT IN MY NAME
Junaid was lynched by a mob of cruel human beings. I don’t care what religion those lynchers belonged to. Nor do I care what religion Junaid belonged to. I only care about one thing. A group of mean, cruel human beings killed a teenager and assaulted three other young men brutally!
Junaid was 16.
My elder son will turn 16 next year.
My heart breaks for Junaid’s mother.
Not only did a group of cruel human beings kill Junaid, another group of cruel human beings egged them on. Junaid was also killed by those cruel people who witnessed the insanity & chose to remain silent.
There are some cruel people who justify this lynching.
Yes! Hate allows for all sorts of justification.
There has been a long list of these lynchings. It has become so common that no one talks about it. Nobody asks questions about what happened to the perpetrators. Whether they were caught & given the strictest punishment or whether they were released to unleash more violence!
I cannot fathom how anyone can kill unarmed, innocent human beings!
I cannot fathom how people can justify this horrific violence!
Instead of taking law into their own hands why are police complaints not made?
Is it because the lynch mob knows that there is no reason behind what they have done?
All they want to do is to kill in the name of hate.
Whichever religion, ideology, language, ethnicity you belong to, lynching done in any name cannot be condoned!
We’ve suffered so many riots, terrorist attacks, pogroms, lynchings but we haven’t learnt anything.
The bottom line is that innocent human beings become the target of that hate. They are usually poor. They are usually those who are incapable of fighting back. It is really too, too disheartening.
Innocence dies when hate rules!
I cannot be a part of those who encourage hate.
I was with the Ekta Manch marching from Parel to Azad Maidan singing “Hum hongey kaamyaab….” to promote brotherhood between fellow citizens of all faiths in 1993 after the horrendous riots followed by the heinous bomb blasts in Mumbai.
I marched to the Gateway of India to protest the utter failure & crass mishandling of 26/11 by the then Congress Govt in the State and the Centre in 2008.
I supported the Anna Hazare anti corruption movement when he waged the civil battle against the UPA 2 Govt at the Centre.
I was vocal about women’s safety after the horrendous rape & murder of Jyoti Singh as well as Pallavi Purkayastha as well as the sickening hacking of Swathi.
Today I stand firmly against the lynch mentality that has an active political patronage in our country.
I do not belong to any political party. I am a citizen of one of the finest democracies in the World. That is why it is so important for all of us to respect & protect the tenets of our Constitution.
I, as a proud citizen of India, do not conform to the views of anyone who actively or passively supports this lynching.
My allegiance lies with the Constitution of India.
If the Govt or any other body does anything to undermine the basic tenets of democracy in our country, I will vocally oppose it.
I so wanted to be a part of the peaceful civil protest at Carter Road today but I can’t. But I will not be a part of this hate!
I do not want my children to inherit this hate.
I will not have the blood of innocents on my hands.
NOT IN MY NAME!