A nation once proudly secular, India is now witness to vigilante mobs targeting Muslims, often in the name of protecting cows – an animal sacred to India’s Hindu majority and sanctioned by Islam for Muslims to eat. Is India witnessing another divide?
Eid celebrations ended on a very different note for Mohammed Atharuddin Munne Bharti and his family this year. Instead of enjoying the post-festivity haze induced by the heaps of fatty savoury and sweets usually served on Eid, Bharti found himself trying to talk himself out of a potentially deadly fix.
Two days after the Muslim festival ended on June 28, Bharti was driving his father, his mother, his wife and their two children to Samastipur when they encountered a traffic jam on National-Highway 28 in Bihar.
When Bharti learned there had just been a riot up ahead, he rushed back to his family, hoping to turn the car around and avoid getting caught in any danger, but it was too late.
Bharti saw a group of four or five men in saffron-coloured scarves – a colour associated with right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations – armed with batons approach his car.
“Honestly, at first glance I couldn’t figure out what they wanted from me,” Bharti tells TRT World. “They surrounded us. They were hitting the ground with the batons. I could see black smoke rising at a distance and I could sense the danger.”
“My wife’s niqab [veil] could be seen on the car seat and my father has a beard. The hooligans knew we were Muslims.”
The men threatened to set Bharti’s car on fire and coerced him into chanting praises in the name of the Hindu deity Lord Rama. Bharti would do anything to protect his family, and so recited the Hindu religious invocation “Jai Sri Ram” so they would be allowed to leave unharmed.
Bharti is a journalist with NDTV, a prominent private centre-right television news station in New Delhi. He comes across religion-related hate crime stories frequently in the newsroom, but his own tryst with vigilantism shocked him.
He recalls the days of his youth as being less sectarian. Bharti traces the recent upsurge in religion-inspired hate crimes to the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque by right-wing Hindu activists, including supporters of the now-leading Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena in Uttar Pradesh, in December 1992. The event fueled sectarian riots in which over 2,000 people died.
Theoretically a secular state, India has recently been rocked by violence triggered by religious intolerance which has been on the rise since BJP’s Narendra Modi won elections in 2014.
“Earlier, there was no feeling of different religions among friends, but now I feel the pain,” Bharti says.
Even now, Bharti says he firmly believes in the “Ganga-Yamuna culture” – a popular term used to describe the peaceful coexistence of Hindu and Muslim identities in India. “We cherish our culture and wonderful legacy. We will fight to preserve it.”
But the religion-inspired vigilantism Bharti experienced is hard to sweep into the Ganges. If the sporadic incidents of religious hostility are not sufficient indicators of increasing violence, the American think tank Pew Research Center report on religious restrictions released in April 2017 places India fourth worst in the world.
According to the IndiaSpend which collates statistics from English media in India, the country has witnessed a remarkable surge in incidents of communal violence in the three years of BJP rule.
Most of the cases occurred in states governed by the Hindu nationalist party.
India’s beef with cows
An order of India’s apex court, dated September 6, directs the central and state governments to take steps to stop cow-vigilantism.
For Hindu nationalists, however, the cow has become an unwilling vehicle for riling up religious emotions. Modi used his election campaign to whip up hysteria against the slaughter of cows, or what he called the“pink revolution” – a term for the increase in meat production in the country.
Today “beef” is used as a curse word and phrases such as "cow vigilante" and "lynch mob" are now common parlance, joining "pink revolution", "love jihad" and "gharwapasi" on the growing list of fiery sectarian vocabulary.
IndiaSpend says 24 of the 28 people killed over cow-related violence in the country between 2010 and 2017 were Muslims. Most of these attacks occurred after Modi took office and continue; the most recent one was on October 13 in which a group of men thrashed a man because they suspected he was carrying beef.
A week before Bharti’s ugly encounter with the saffron mob, Junaid Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim boy was stabbed to death on June 22 on a packed passenger train in northern India, barely 30 km from the capital New Delhi.
Junaid, his brother and cousin encountered a dozen men who first engaged with the boys verbally, calling them “beefeaters” and “Pakistanis” on account of their beards and prayer caps. The attack soon became violent, Junaid’s father tells TRT World, recounting what his eldest son Hashim witnessed.
The attackers then knifed the teenager to death. His brother and cousin were also stabbed but they survived.
Junaid’s family lives in a little-known village called Khandawali in northern Haryana state.
“Junaid studied at a madrassa, he wanted to become an imam,” his father Jalaluddin, who drives a taxi, tells TRT World.
“Junaid memorised the Quran; he was a ‘Hafiz’ [someone who can recite the Quran by memory]. As a reward his mother gave him 1,500 rupees [$23.23] and the boys [Junaid and Hashim] had gone to New Delhi to spend the money on some Eid shopping,” Jalaluddin recalls.
“The train was full of passengers, but no one came to my children’s rescue. They knifed him, they killed him brutally.” Jalaluddin asks, “Why do they hate us so much?”
Police have arrested one man but he is yet to be sentenced by the court. The Indian Railways approached Jalaluddin to offer compensation for Junaid’s death.
While authorities attempt to calculate the price of Junaid’s death, Jalaluddin and his family grapple with a grief interlaced with the shock of losing someone so young so violently.
Jalaluddin ends his phone call with TRT World to “drive the taxi in town,” with promises to talk later.
A country on the crossroads
Sanjay Kumar, the director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), describes the rise of “mutual distrust” among communities as “depressing.”
“This is actually disturbing sections of minorities because these aren’t one or two incidents, it's a pattern,” Kumar says. “There is anxiety and fear, particularly among Muslims.”
Muslims constitute 14.23 percent of India's estimated population of 1.3 billion. The community remains a “minority” in the country – Hindus being the majority – despite India being home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia.
Pew predicts India will have around 311 million Muslims by 2050, making it the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world.
As the number of Muslims increases, analysts point to how many Hindus feel the Muslim community does not grasp Indian nationalism the same way.
The same kind of compassion towards Muslim community is not there anymore as it used to be 20 years ago and “tolerance level” with regards to the community has gone down, Kumar says.
Maulana Kalbe Rushaid, a scholar who had contested parliamentary elections in 2014, says Muslims remain marginalised in India and politicians continues to escape blame.
“In my view both the Hindus and Muslims of India are very sensible. There have been some shameful incidents [of hate-crimes] but only a few threads of the fabric of Hindustan are broken and it largely remains intact,” he tells TRT World.
India is a youthful country – 50 percent of the population is below the age of 25. The youth are more progressive and hold a different point of view.
Sharadha, who recently graduated from the University of Delhi and aspires to become a journalist, believes India’s image is being hurt with the rising incidents of hate crime.
“As far as I know, the constitution guideline certainly does not include forcing others to accept your [food] preferences and beliefs,” Sharadha says.
“I would like to follow my country’s constitution, not the manual of some self-proclaimed guardians of the nation.”
Milking cows for political gains
Critics of all religious stripes and colours have questioned the beef ban, calling it food fascism, and slammed the government for its silence over lynching incidents.
The day Bharti was threatened by the Saffron mob – June 28 –Indians held a #NotInMyName protest in several cities, expressing solidarity against hate crime, triggered by Junaid’s death.
Modi denounced the mob attacks the next day.
"Killing people in the name of gau bhakti [cow worship] is not acceptable ... No person in this nation has the right to take the law in his or her own hands in this country," Modi said in his speech.
The statement did not go well with right-wing nationalists.
Upping the ante against Modi and the BJP, cow protection advocate Pawan Pandit demands Modi withdraw his statement or prepare to “face the consequences in elections.”
“Modi’s statement has hurt the sentiment of Hindus in the country,” Pawan Pandit tells TRT World.
Pandit, 32, was in the obscure world of software before he quit his profession to work as a full-time advocate to safeguard cows. Born to a Hindu-Brahmin family in Haryana, Pandit’s cow advocacy slowly gained momentum between 2006 and 2011. He founded the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal in March 2012, which claims to work for the protection of cows and is present in almost all states of India with over 10,000 active volunteers.
Pandit says protecting cows should not be seen as a Hindu-Muslim issue.
“If you go into Indian history, every religion banned cow slaughter at some point of time. Even [Mughal emperor] Babar was against it”.
He argues protecting cows is not an easy task. “Our volunteers risk their lives while dealing with cattle smugglers.”
Pandit accuses BJP and its ideologue the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of more words and less action when it comes to safeguarding the “cow as the mother.”
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP are playing politics of convenience and trying to appease the section of people who say that beef is their food.”
“We are doing this because the government has failed to protect cows. If the government is serious then they should bring a centralised law for cow protection and declare it a national animal,” Pandit demands.
There is a counter demand for a stringent anti-lynching law but the government has a not taken up legislation on this.
“The state governments can take action against person or persons involved in such incidents under existing laws. I don’t think there is a need for a separate law,” Minister of State (junior minister) for Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir said in Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian parliament.
A watchful media
Every evening Samir Abbas hosts Big Bulletin, a primetime debate on ETV Network, part of one of the largest private television news stations in India.
He says that in the digital era fake information is planted through social media to create communal hatred “but we are trying our best to filter information and broadcast facts.”
But the ideological shift in media institutions is a matter of concern. “Some media organizations are acting like the government’s mouthpiece and are trying to deny the existence of mob lynching incidents.”
While India remains communally charged, the approach to 2019 will be crucial when the country will hold its next general elections.
“I fear that this [hate crime surge] is not going to subside in the next couple of years; this might escalate and widen a little bit,” says political analyst Sanjay Kumar, raising the spectre of religion-inspired hatred taking over the next election cycle as a prod to voters.