From California to Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh to New York, groups impacted by a rising tide of mob lynchings of minorities in India are taking to the streets to protest.
The month of July witnessed a wave of demonstrations by people concerned that India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has inspired a huge increase in mob violence since taking power in 2014. “All of India’s religious minorities and oppressed classes are suffering attacks by the same Hindu supremacist elements,” said Arvin Valmuci, a communications director for Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI).
Politicization of cow worship is central to the violence. Laws in 21 of India’s 29 states criminalize the slaughter of cattle to one degree or another. Although most of the laws were passed decades ago, the BJP has made “cow protection” a core plank of its political platform.
In July, BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “Cow is revered as the mother in our country.” Meanwhile, three BJP-ruled states have enacted draconian penalties on cattle slaughter. In 2015, Maharashtra made slaughter, possession, or sale of beef punishable by five years imprisonment while Haryana made slaughter punishable by 10 years imprisonment. In March 2017, Gujarat made slaughter punishable by a minimum of 10 years and up to life imprisonment. Furthermore, in May, the Central Government’s Ministry of Environment imposed a national ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter. In July, India’s Supreme Court suspended the ban.
In June, however, minorities in India endured several horrific attacks by mobs of vigilantes who accused them of eating beef or slaughtering cattle. Among the victims of reported incidents were two Muslims who were lynched, two Muslims who were brutally beaten, and a group of six state government employees who were also beaten.
On June 6, near Dhanbad, Jharkhand, Ainul Ansari was stopped by a mob of 20 people who accused him of carrying beef and began beating him. Police arrived, stopped the beating, seized the meat, and sent it to a laboratory for identification. Ansari was hospitalized. “We planned to hold an Iftar party at our house,” said the victim’s wife. “Ansari was bringing mutton for the event, but the villagers mistook it for beef.”
On June 12, near Barmer, Rajasthan, a veterinarian and his five assistants (all employees of Tamil Nadu’s Animal Husbandry Department) were stopped by a mob of 50 people who accused them of smuggling cattle and began beating them. Three of the state employees were described as “severely injured in the attack.” According to The Hindu, seven police officers were disciplined “for dereliction of duty and reaching the spot late.”
On June 22, near Delhi, Junaid Khan was murdered while traveling on a train with friends and family. The 15-year-old Junaid and his brothers were confronted by a mob of 20 to 25 people who began harassing them.
“They flung our skull caps, pulled my brother’s beard, slapped us, and taunted us about eating cow meat,” said Shaquir. His brother, Hashim, said: “When Junaid and I asked why they were pushing, they pointed to the skull cap on my head. They said we are Muslims, anti-nationals, Pakistanis, that we eat beef. Then they pulled my cap, threw it down, and they also tried to pull my beard.” According to Shaquir: “They took out knives.” The mob stabbed all three brothers, killing Junaid. “They killed him in cold blood,” said Hashim. When the train stopped, the killers threw Shaquir, Hashim, and Junaid’s body off. Police later arrested several people for the murder, including two Delhi government employees.
On June 27, near Dumka, Jharkhand, Usman Ansari was assaulted by a mob of 1,000 people who accused him of slaughter a cow after someone discovered the headless carcass of a cow near his house. The mob began beating Ansari and set fire to his house. “The police struggled for more than two hours to rescue Ansari and his family members,” said Jharkhand Additional Director General of Police R. K. Mullik. “When the police tried to take him to hospital, there was resistance from the crowd.”
On June 29, near Ramgarh, Jharkhand, Alimuddin Ansari was murdered when a mob of 100 people stopped his vehicle, accused him of transporting beef, set his car on fire, and beat him to death. Police arrived, seized the meat, and sent it to a laboratory for identification. The victim’s wife, Mariam Khatoon, blamed the attack on a Hindu nationalist group affiliated with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “They were rogues owing allegiance to Bajrang Dal,” said Mariam. Her sister, Abida Khatoon, said: “They are targeting and killing Muslims while police are deliberately looking the other way.” Among those arrested was local BJP leader Nityanand Mahato.
Such lynchings are an ongoing problem throughout India. Summarizing the situation in 2016, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported: “There have been reports in the media of cow protectors allegedly assaulting Muslim men and women in trains and railway stations in Madhya Pradesh, stripping and beating Dalit men in Gujarat, force feeding cow dung and urine to two men in Haryana, raiding a Muslim hotel in Jaipur, aiding police in checking roadside food stalls and restaurants for beef in Haryana ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid, and an alleged gang rape and murder in Haryana of people the attackers claimed were eating beef at home.”
“The RSS is the parent of the BJP,” explained Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian Affairs. “In other words, the BJP is the political wing of the RSS.” He pointed to the BJP’s website, which states: “The Bharatiya Janata Party is… nurtured by the Rashtria Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS).” An infographic on the BJP’s “About the Party” page traces its origins to the founding of the RSS in 1925. “The BJP’s website prominently praises RSS leader Golwalkar for carrying on the ‘heroic tradition’ of nationalism,” said Friedrich. “What they don’t mention is Golwalkar’s blunt admiration for the genocidal policies of the Nazis.” He pointed to M. S. Golwalkar’s 1939 manifesto in which the RSS leader wrote:
“To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races — the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
Friedrich continued: “While the RSS and its affiliates are lynching minorities in the streets, Modi’s party is legislating people’s diets all across India. So-called ‘cow protection’ is a cover for a policy of anti-humanism which seeks to control society and institute totalitarianism. We must remember that when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, as revealed by members of his own administration, he architected the 2002 genocide which left thousands of innocent Muslims dead. It is tragically surreal but, in modern India, you can go to prison for eating a hamburger and become Prime Minister for committing genocide. That is why it’s so encouraging to see an international wave of protests against the pattern of violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalists.”
On July 9, Muslims joined Dalits (those historically considered “outcastes” by the Hindu caste system) for a protest in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. At the protest, Dalit activist Dr. Jayanti Makadia warned that Dalits are also being victimized by gau rakshak (cow protection) vigilantes. “This is not the issue of a particular community but a question of ensuring justice to everybody,” said Makadia. Explaining the importance of solidarity among affected communities, Mufti Abdul Qayyum Mansuri stated: “Today, Muslims are being targeted. Perhaps some other community will be targeted another day…. Efforts are being made to trigger clashes between various communities in the name of caste, creed, community and now also in the name of cow.”
On July 14, the Muslim community in Mau, Uttar Pradesh staged a demonstration which attracted several thousand people. Former MLA Imtiyaz Ahmad, who officiated the event, said: “This massive protest is conducted to draw government’s attention towards growing intolerance and mob lynchings carried out by some extremist outfits and individuals. Only within a week after Modi assumed the power, engineer Mohsin Sheikh from Pune was lynched by a mob. Since then, it was unstoppable…. Junaid was lynched while boarding in train.”
Other protests in July outside of India united Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Muslims, and Sikhs. In the United States, a wide range of groups stood in solidarity, including Alliance for Justice and Accountability, Dalit American Council, Indian American Muslim Council, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, Sikh Information Centre, Organization of Minorities from India, TwoCircles.net, and South Asian Solidarity Initiative.
On July 16, many of these groups participated in simultaneous protests in three U.S. cities — San Diego, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. Explaining his reasons for protesting, Sikh community leader Sandeep Singh said: “Today, we have gathered in San Jose against the RSS who have carried out the killings of innocent people, including the Dalits, Muslims, and Christians in India.” Suhail Syed, who helped organize the D.C. protest, said: “The reign of terror unleashed by Hindu supremacist cow vigilantes is clearly targeted at browbeating the nation’s religious minorities into the status of second class citizens.” Demonstrators bore signs with slogans such as “Beef Ban is Cultural Fascism,” “Shed Hate, Not Blood,” and “India: Hostage to Hindutva?” They also displayed pictures of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student who committed suicide in 2016 after being suspended from the University of Hyderabad for his political activities.
On July 23, another protest was staged in New York City. As one of the New York organizers, San Uddin, asked: “How can the government of India respond so casually to the mob lynchings of Muslims and Dalits?”
Indian legislation against cattle slaughter traces back to 1950. When the Indian Constitution took effect, it included Article 48, which says: “The State shall… take steps for… prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” While the Central Government has not passed any national law, 10 states in the 1950s (Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand) all passed laws criminalizing cattle slaughter.
In 1966, a gau rakshak committee led a mob of hundreds of thousands in an unsuccessful attempt to storm the Indian Parliament and demand passage of a national cattle slaughter ban. Subsequently, in February 1982, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Indian National Congress wrote a letter to the Chief Ministers of 14 states which had banned cattle slaughter. Praising the legislation, her letter demanded that “the ban be enforced in letter and spirit.”
According to India’s Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying, & Fisheries, “Kerala is the only major State, apart from some of the North Eastern States, which does not have an Act with regard to slaughter of cattle.” Laws in 13 of India’s 29 states completely ban the slaughter of all cattle — they are, according to data collected by The Hindu: Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. Five states ban cow slaughter but allow slaughter of other cattle with a special government certificate. Three states allow slaughter of all cattle with a certificate. All states requiring certificates to slaughter, however, restrict the age of slaughtered animals to anywhere from 10 to 20 years — far past the point of viable food use. Only eight states in India have no restrictions on cattle slaughter.
Furthermore, laws in at least eight of the states which ban all cattle slaughter place the burden of proof on the accused, thus making them guilty until proven innocent. Laws in at least seven states deny bail to the accused.
Violence related to cow protection has been a feature of Indian society for a long time, but the country has undergone a massive spike in incidents since 2014. Journalism website IndiaSpend, which conducted the first statistical analysis of cow-related attacks and lynchings, documented and analyzed all reported incidents since 2010. “Of 63 attacks recorded since 2010, 61 took place under Mr. Modi’s government,” reported IndiaSpend.
Further data analysis reveals several shocking trends. Of 28 people killed, 24 were Muslim. Out of 63 attacks, 32 victims were Muslim, five were Dalit, and one was Christian. In 13 of 63 attacks, police pressed charges against the victims. In 23 of 63 attacks, the attackers were identified as members of Hindu nationalist groups. Of 63 attacks, 32 occurred in states governed by the BJP. Finally, 2017 has seen a 75% increase in attacks versus the same period in 2016.
Before his election as Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi vigorously focused the attentions of his voter base on the issue of cow protection.
In April 2014, during a campaign speech, he denounced “people who proudly massacre animals.” As he claimed: “Across the countryside, our animals are getting slaughtered. Our livestock is getting stolen from our villages and taken to Bangladesh. Across India too, there are massive slaughterhouses in operation.” Furthermore, he warned against “people who slaughter cows, who slaughter animals, who are destroying our rivers of milk.”
In previous years, Modi took a more militant tone. In May 2012, he spoke on the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, a 16th-century Hindu king. “Rana Pratap dedicated his life to gau raksha,” stated Modi. “He fought wars and sacrificed young men to protect the cow…. To make money, plans are being made to slaughter gaye maa [the mother cow], and it is at moments like this that you remember Rana Pratap.”
Modi’s political allies have imitated his militant stance. In April 2017, for instance, Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh bragged: “Not a single incident of cow slaughter has taken place in the last 15 years.” He then promised: “Anyone who does so will be hanged.” Later that same month, while addressing a joint conference of RSS and BJP members, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath stated: “Just by raising the slogan of ‘gau mata ki jai’ [victory to mother cow], cows cannot be protected. You must also make honest efforts from your side for cow protection. Only then would cows survive.” In 2015, while a Member of Parliament, Adityanath launched an initiative to declare the cow as “Rashtra Mata” (Mother of the Nation).
One of the earlier mob lynchings which occurred under Modi’s rule was the September 2015 killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. At night, a mob “wielding sticks, swords and cheap pistols” invaded Akhlaq’s home and accused his family of slaughtering a cow. The mob dragged the entire family outside and beat Akhlaq and his son. Akhlaq died after he was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with bricks. Speaking about the incident in June 2016, Adityanath said, “All the benefits given to Akhlaq’s family should be withdrawn and they should be charged for keeping cow meat in their house.”
Adityanath has previously courted controversy for other remarks advocating the BJP platform. In 2015, he promised to invade mosques, stating: “If given a chance, we will install statues of goddess Gauri, Ganesh, and Nandi in every mosque.” In a 2009 speech during his campaign for Parliament, he condemned conversion of Hindus to Islam. According to Outlook India, he then encouraged revenge for any acts of violence against Hindus. Referring to Muslims, he declared: “If they kill one Hindu, there will be 100 that we….” As he paused, the crowd shouted: “Kill!” In 2005, stating his ultimate goal, he said: “I will not stop till I turn Uttar Pradesh and India into a Hindu Rashtra.”
Adityanath is a leading and rising voice in the BJP, but his positions have been denounced by Amnesty International India as “provid[ing] a license for others to abuse human rights.” In March 2017, the group’s executive director, Aakar Patel, remarked: “Adityanath has been one of Uttar Pradesh’s most polarizing politicians, given to hateful rhetoric that incites discrimination and hostility against minority groups, particularly Muslims.”
“Adityanath exemplifies the totalitarian intentions of India’s ruling elite,” said Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of OFMI. “The elite have politicized the ancient superstition of India, Brahmanism, in order to subjugate and dominate the groaning masses of the country. Lynchings over beef are only a symptom of a much deeper disease. Today, Muslims and Dalits are being targeted for supposedly disrespecting the cow. But for centuries, the Mulnivasi — the common people of India — have been repressed, enslaved, and constantly lynched with total impunity. The BJP is the ugliest face of this system which treats the Mulnivasi as subhuman, but the principle of dehumanization is propagated by all of India’s major political parties.”
“Lynching basically is a principle that was used against the Untouchables and the backward classes,” explained Indian politician Prakash Ambedkar in July 2017. The grandson of renowned Dalit civil rights champion, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, he added: “But now, this lynching culture is coming back again.”
Crimes against Dalits remain a fixture of Indian society. In its most recent annual report, the International Dalit Solidarity Network stated: “Reports of brutal violence and atrocities committed by dominant castes against Dalits continued to plague India in 2016. Gang-rapes, rapes, and sexual violence against Dalit women were continuously reported.”
Meanwhile, those who attempt to document caste discrimination consequently suffer persecution. For instance, filmmaker Divya Bharathi recently created “Kakkoos,” a documentary about the widespread practice of manual scavenging — caste-based employment of Dalits to clean human excrement by hand. Subsequently, she faced nearly 2,000 calls threatening her with rape and death, she was slapped with criminal charges by police, and she remains in hiding.
Violence against all oppressed groups has been increasing at such a rate that large coalitions of prominent Indian individuals are coalescing to speak out in unison. Among them include 114 military veterans who wrote an open letter to Modi on July 31. On August 4, 101 Christian intellectuals and community leaders also penned an open letter to Modi.
“We are witness to unprecedented attacks on society at large by the relentless vigilantism of self-appointed protectors of Hinduism,” declared the letter by the military veterans, who included high-ranking retired officers from the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy. “We condemn the targeting of Muslims and Dalits…. We condemn the clampdowns on free speech by attacks on media outlets, civil society groups, universities, journalists and scholars, through a campaign of branding them anti-national.”
The letter by Christian leaders accused the State of working in partnership with those committing violence against minorities. “Official machinery often seems working in tandem with the ‘vigilantes,’” stated the letter. The authors lamented a rise in “street lynching, victims charged as accused, stage-managed trials; all on the basis of one’s religious and caste identities…. The government… has minimized and dismissed the terror wreaked on the weak and the marginalized by the violent nationalism of the mob. Victims have been Dalits, specially their youth and their women, Tribals and religious minorities.”
In the letter, leaders described a “steady shift we see in our country from a pluralist, secular democracy to a Hindu Rashtra…. Media seems mute, silent in self-censorship, coerced by the state, or leashed by its corporate ownership.”
Voicing similar concerns in April 2017, HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly stated: “Instead of a government that took office on the promise of universal development, it now appears to be one unwilling to protect those most vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, atrocities continue unabated. On July 16, for instance, Christian Pastor Sultan Masih was gunned down outside his church in Punjab. His family alleges the RSS is responsible and says he was previously threatened. On July 27, two Muslim women were assaulted in Madhya Pradesh. In the presence of police, a mob of vigilantes chanted “gau mata ki jai” as they beat the women on suspicion they were carrying beef. Police arrested the women but, according to news reports, “even after they were arrested, the women were thrashed by the mob for nearly half an hour before police finally took them away.” And in another tragic incident in Agra, Uttar Pradesh on August 2, a Dalit woman became one of the latest victims of caste violence. Sixty-year-old Maan Devi was assaulted by an upper-caste mob, accused of being a witch, and beaten to death.
“On the eve of August 15, the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, we must remember that the country gained independence but not freedom,” said Valmuci. “The time for protesting has only just begun.”