Last June, a vigilante mob of thirteen men in the Indian state of Jharkhand tied 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari, whom they accused of trying to steal a motorcycle, to a pole and beat him for a brutal eighteen hours. The attackers sought out retribution, not only by pummeling Ansari until his face was thick with blood and tears, but by forcing him to chant Jai Shri Ram – victory to Lord Rama, a Hindu god. Local police, despite being provided with grainy cell-phone footage of the attack that would soon go viral on social media, took Ansari, rather than his attackers,into custody the next morning. After Ansari succumbed to his injuries four days later, police opened an investigation against the men in the video, only to drop murder charges on the basis that Ansari’s death was due to “cardiac arrest.”
The searing injustice of Ansari’s case drove Indians into the streets and onto social media to demand that his attackers be held accountable. Ultimately, they succeeded: following weeks of intense pressure from civil society, police reopened the investigation. But the scope of the protesters’ concern was not limited to Ansari’s murder. As a protester in New Delhi noted, “the number of violent incidents targeting Muslims has exploded” in recent years, particularly since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, rose to power in 2014. Dozens of Muslims have been killed, but few of their killers have been convicted. Two fundamental factors of this increase in violence are the party’s dangerous disregard to the rule of law and the culture of impunity the BJP has fostered at the local level for perpetrators of vigilante attacks.
In the 2014 elections, the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, won a landslide victory on a platform of economic development and majoritarian populism, rendering Muslims a scapegoat for national problems in a Trump-like manner by accusing the incumbent Congress Party of “appeasing” the Muslim minority with its policies at the expense of the Hindu majority. The BJP has continued to employ divisive rhetoric throughout the last five years: The amount of hate speech used by politicians has increased by nearly 500 percent since the 2014 election. BJP members made 90 percent of these hateful comments.
Last February, Human Rights Watch drove some international attention towards the adverse effects of this rising Hindu nationalism in a 107-page report titled “Violent Cow Protection in India.” The report was centered on the issue of “cow vigilantism” –– a phenomenon in which mobs of Hindu Nationalists attack individuals (most often Muslims or Dalits, once referred to as “untouchables”) who are suspected of consuming, transporting, or selling beef and dairy products. In Hinduism, cows are sacred; for this reason, in many parts of India, cow consumption is illegal. Cow vigilantes, however, believe that authorities do not adequately prosecute cow consumption, and thus take the issue into their own hands. Since the BJP took power, these attacks have seen a massive spike: 97 percent of cow-related religious violence in India from 2010 to 2017 reportedly took place after the 2014 elections.
These attacks are not random outbursts of emotionally-charged or irrational violence. They are orchestrated carefully, often on messaging apps like WhatsApp, and represent a coordinated campaign of terror against India’s minorities. The ideology that fuels the attacks is not just Hindu nationalism or Islamophobia. It is the specific notion, propagated by the BJP, that the Indian legal and political system fails to hold minority populations (particularly Muslims) accountable for their criminal behavior, and that politicians often seek to “appease” Muslims at the expense of the Hindu majority.
Under this logic, vigilante justice is not only legitimate, but crucial. It is not terrorism, it is defense. A 2018 op-ed in the right-wing Swarajya Magazine compared animal rights activists who pushed for legislation to ban the slaughter of dogs and cats in the United States with “cow-rakshaks,” or cow vigilantes, which the magazine described as “basically an unofficial protective response to decades of cattle trafficking by smugglers” who are unfairly “demonized,” while animal rights activists elsewhere are lauded. The language used by the authors of the article is telling: Vigilantism is “protective,” defensive rather than offensive, and “unofficial” rather than “illegal.”
This logic is not just propagated by the editors of far-right magazines, it is espoused by the BJP – which has been complaining about political bias in favor ofMuslims since the 1980s. BJP lawmakers routinely ignore, condone, and even encourage violence against Muslims in the name of national protection and justice. For example, in November 2017, Adityanath, the BJP Chief Minister of the northern Uttar Pradesh state, said, “there is only one way to protect Indian culture: to protect [cows], Ganga, and [goddess] Gayatri…Only the community that can protect this heritage will survive. Otherwise there will be a huge crisis of identity, and this crisis of identity will endanger our existence.”
This rhetoric justifies vigilante violence by implying there is a communal duty to protect national heritage and values when authorities fail to do so. It is also a flagrant contradiction of the Indian Constitution, which lays out a “principled distance” between religion and state and emphasizes the pluralistic nature of Indian society, and of India’s Supreme Court, which issued directives to the government in July 2018 to curb violence through preventive and punitive measures.
But nothing is more emblematic to the BJP’s disregard of the rule of law in India than the way BJP politicians utilize their power at the local level across the country. In its cow vigilantism report, Human Rights Watch detailed how police forces in “almost all” of the cases they investigated “stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or even played a complicit role in the killings and cover-up of crimes.”
This behavior can, in part, be blamed on the biases of the policemen themselves: a survey of 12,000 Indian police officers across 21 states from this year found that half of the Indian police force consider Muslims to be “naturally prone towards committing crimes,” and over a third of the force finds cow vigilantism “natural.” However, the police are not acting as an independent entity. The same survey that detected anti-Muslim bias in India’s police force also found that one third of police officers felt that “political pressure” was the most significant impediment they faced in their efforts to investigate crimes. This political pressure bleeds into the issue of vigilante justice. According to Richhpal Singh, a former police official from the Western state of Rajasthan, “police face political pressure to sympathize with cow protectors, and do a weak investigation and let them go free.” In short, BJP politicians thwart accountability for the perpetrators of mob violence at the local level and create a culture of impunity that emboldens potential attackers.
This local-level corruption helps to explain why so few of the recent vigilante attacks have resulted in official charges, and it also helps to explain why the attacks continue to increase in frequency, particularly in certain BJP strongholds. The BJP has not only normalized vigilante violence, it has chipped away at the structures put in place to prevent it and hold its perpetrators to account.