On 17 July the supreme court of India condemned the epidemic of mob lynching in India, and asked the Indian parliament to draft legislation that would stop people from taking the law into their own hands.
Within hours of the judgment, in the provincial state of Jharkhand, Swami Agnivesh, a spiritual leader and former minister known for promoting communal harmony in the country, was brutally attacked. The assailants were allegedly members of the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) of the prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Most Indians see the 78-year-old Agnivesh as an elegant and soft-spoken seer in saffron robes, his head wrapped in a turban; yet on Tuesday afternoon, the Swami was kicked and punched by young men chanting “Jai shree Ram” (victory to Lord Ram) – his bare head on the ground, his turban flung at a distance as he pleaded with them to show mercy.
In an interview with a news agency, CP Singh, a minister from the same BJP-ruled state, justified the attack. “He talks against Hindus,” he said, “makes anti-national comments, supports Kashmiri separatists and Naxals.” Singh speaks the language of the mob, a mob that has been given the responsibility of creating a new order in India, where the minority – Muslims, Dalits and anybody who speaks on their behalf – are attacked with impunity.
In India, killing cows and the consumption of beef is banned in most states. Since Modi and his party assumed power in 2014, this beef ban has been used by Hindu nationalists to justify their attacks on innocent Muslims in public.
A report by the data-based news organisation India Spend found that “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) – and they comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97% of these attacks were reported after Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.”
One would have expected the prime minister to call for an end to this violence. Yet a week after the attacks in Hapur, Jayant Sinha, one of the most important ministers in Modi’s cabinet, honoured eight convicts accused of lynching and killing a Muslim man. This is not an isolated incident. In 2015, soon after the conservative BJP came to power, a legislator from the party honoured the body of someone accused of a similar assault with the national flag.
This is encouraged by Modi’s government, which routinely disseminates fake news, targeting and demonising Indian Muslims. Modi is creating a dangerous precedent before the next general election, setting the tone for an India whose syncretic values and democratic principles are under threat.
Modi was head of the state of Gujarat when hundreds of Muslims were killed with impunity in the riots of 2002. As he gears up for re-election, that legacy looms large over the whole country.
• Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and writer. She is the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.