No religious freedom in India? What US report says about lynchings and mob violence

The annual Religious Freedom Report released by the US State Department last week raised concerns about the growing mob violence in India. Making a note of lack of religious freedom in India, it said attacks on religious and caste-based minorities in India have increased with the rise of Hindu extremism.

Raising questions about the government’s inability to curb atrocities against Muslims, the report also made the crucial observation that senior officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have, sometimes, made inflammatory speeches against minority communities.

The “exclusionary extremist narratives”, the report says, includes “the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities”. The “campaign of violence” involves intimidation and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities.

“Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumours that victims had traded or killed cows for beef,” it notes.

Also read: Cow vigilantes return: All you need to know about what’s happening in Bulandshahr

The report also cites reports by non-governmental and not-for-profit outfits, in claiming that the Indian government often fails to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalised communities, and dissenters.

Backdrop for criticsim

Made public on Friday, June 21, its findings are based on an examination of attacks on minorities during 2018.

It comes a year after the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) flagged Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal—two Sangh Parivar groups with RSS links—as militant organisations in its handbook. In the wake of vapid misinformation and fake news propagated over WhatsApp, BBC also attributed the phenomenon and corollary violence to the rise of virulent nationalism last year.

It also arrives two years after journalist Gauri Lankesh’s assassination by men with alleged links to right-wing group Sanatan Sanstha, and within weeks of the first anniversary of Dalit rights activists Rona Wilson, Soma Sen [and others]’s imprisonment.

More importantly, the report arrives in the wake of 24-year-old Tabrez Ansari’s death in Jamshedpur at the hands of a right-wing mob, who tied him to a pole and beat him mercilessly, on suspicion of having stolen a motorbike.

The video of him begging for his life and his assailants demanding he chant “Jai Shree Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” has since gone viral; five people were reportedly arrested and two police officers were suspended for the lynching after a case was lodged against the accused, for inciting “communal sentiments”.

Government response

And yet, our foreign ministry has dismissed the report on religious freedom in India, issuing a stiff rejoinder to the US criticism on the eve of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to New Delhi; Pompeo met officials and laid the groundwork for bilateral talks between President Donald Trump and Modi on the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit.

“India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion,” Raveesh Kumar, the ministry’s spokesman, said in a statement. The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights and religious freedom of all citizens, including its minority communities, he stressed.

“We see no locus standi for a foreign entity to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” Kumar said.

Why it matters

Muslims make up 14% of India’s 1.3 billion people, while caste census data says Dalits account for nearly 50% of the population but remain among the worst-off.

Even 70 years after independence, and some 50-odd years since affirmative action was introduced to bridge the caste gap, Dalit boys are punished or paraded naked for entering a temple, Dalit men are lynched for plucking fruits off upper-caste orchards, while first-generation learners like Dr. Payal Tadvi are subject to casteist slurs at the workplace and driven to commit suicide.

Forest-dwelling Adivasi communities now face eviction from lands they have inhabited for generations, and remote indigenous tribes still remain completely cut off from access to public healthcare and education.

While their condition has not really improved as it should have by now, Muslims in India have become the primary targets of a more vicious and recent form of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva. Not only are their lives at risk, but their culture, diet, identity, and history are being constantly revised as India rides on a wave of saffronisation.

Also read: Triple talaq back on the table: Arguments for and against it

White supremacists, Hindu nationalists are quite alike

Even though the criticism is warranted, it is quite unnerving when it comes from the US, especially when it accuses another nation of Islamophobia. Trump is quite openly disdainful of people of colour, especially those hailing from the African-American, Mexican, and Muslim communities.

The administration he presides over is hardly the beacon of inclusion nor benevolent towards immigrants. It famously instituted travel and visa bans on multiple predominantly-Muslim countries, repealed crucial aid for children of immigrants, and tightened the rules for applying for citizenship.

Trump threatened to build a wall across the US-Mexico border citing national security concerns. Now, there are reports of migrant children separated from their families for months, detained in concentration camp-like facilities at the border.

The US State Department, the very same that released the abovementioned report, is reticent to advocate greater gun control in the US, or condemn white nationalism and supremacy that breeds a culture of hate speech and racially-motivated hate crime in Trump’s America.

As Human Rights Watch correctly notes, caste-related violence and discrimination against Dalits in India is a form of “hidden apartheid” just as rabid racism and related terror in the United States is symptomatic of a neo-apartheid.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Hindu nationalismMinority communitiesReligious violence