The election results in Brazil last month came as another troubling reminder of the direction in which an increasing number of countries are careening. In nation after nation, a growing number of people are voting for leaders who stoke hatred against minorities and other oppressed groups, crush Opposition by left and liberal dissenters, wave the flag of an aggressive and exclusionary nationalism, and advocate belligerent militarism against other nations. In some countries such right-wing authoritarian leaders are being elected to form governments, while in others they build formidable oppositions.

As a consequence, the world has become a progressively more frightening and dangerous place to live in for minorities of various kinds – religious, national, racial, linguistic, ethnic, and sexual – as well as for left and liberal dissidents. As fear, violence and state bias become increasingly normalised for minorities in country after country, it is sobering to remember that India is still unique because of the rise of one particular kind of hate violence that targets its religious and caste minorities: lynching. In the past few years, India has seen several instances of lynchings in which frenzied mobs have targeted people mainly because of their religious or caste identity – for being Muslim or Dalit. This is part of a larger surge of hate crimes that is corroding social peace and trust across the country.

A hate crime is one in which crimes are committed against a person not because of what a person might have done, but because of who they are. In a communal lynching, a person is attacked for the alleged transgressions, real or imagined, past or present, of other members of that person’s community.

“In cases of xenophobic and communal lynching, one person’s body becomes a site of history,” Jurist Upendra Baxi told data-driven news portal India Spend, speaking of the nature of lynching as a hate crime. “The person is not lynched for his or her own conduct, but for the past conduct of others. In allowing this to happen the administration and the law proceeds to become a programme of revenge.”

Confronted with criticism for the rising graph of incidents of communal and caste lynching, the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi initially responded with denial, claiming that these incidents are statistically trivial. As news of such incidents grew, spokepersons of the ruling party described these crimes as routine breakdowns of law and order that have occurred under the watch of every government. They claimed it was vested interests that specifically associated the present Bharatiya Janata Party regime with lynchings in India. In 2017, in a reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha about the incidence of lynching, Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir did not report a single case of lynching for that year, and small numbers in earlier years. In July, Ahir affirmed that “The National Crime Records Bureau does not maintain specific data with respect to lynching incidents in the country.”

What the government and ruling party refuse to acknowledge is that incidents of lynching are not ordinary crimes, reflecting normal periodic failures of law and order. The large majority of these incidents are hate crimes, or crimes that target people because of their identity. In the 22 journeys the Karwan-e-Mohabbat made since September 2017 – during which we visited families of lynching and hate crimes in 12 states – we found a wave of these crimes had erupted in many corners of the country.

The scale of these hate crimes remains obscured and bitterly contested because of the official policy of the National Crime Records Bureau to not keep a separate record of hate crimes or lynching. Moreover, as Abhishek Dey of concluded last December after looking closely at five hate crimes that made the headlines in 2017, India is undercounting religious hate crimes by failing to invoke a crucial section of the law. This is Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, which is commonly used to gauge the prevalence of religion-based hate crimes in the country. It lays down punishment for promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, caste and community, and acting in ways that are prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony. If applied to all hate crimes, it would be a useful index to gauge the prevalence of religion-based hate crimes. But Dey found that this section was not applied in any of these cases he had investigated.

“We cannot speak of hate crimes, eyes closed, with conviction, if we do not have data,” Baxi told India Spend. “We have to understand the pattern of violence, the rise and fall, study the ebbs and flows and the surrounding circumstances. What do the data mean when perpetrators become victims? And when victims become perpetrators?”

This is why India Spend’s recent initiative – the Citizen’s Religious Hate Crime Watch – is significant. This fact-checker tracks those crimes that target an individual or group of individuals because of their religious identity. It was launched on October 30 to counter the deliberate obscuring of the nature and scale of hate crimes in India. The initiative is supported by the news portal NewsClick and Aman Biradari, the people’s campaign for secularism and compassion.

Relatives and neighbours of Rakhbar Khan, who was allegedly lynched to death in Alwar on July 20 on suspicion of cow smuggling. (Photo credit: HT).

What the tracker found

The Hate Crime Watch tracker is currently based on an analysis of 254 incidents of hate crimes motivated by religious hatred, which resulted in 91 deaths and 579 injuries between 2009 and 2018.

A striking finding of the data compiled by it is that as many as 90% of religious hate crimes since 2009 have occurred after Modi led the BJP to power at the Centre in 2014. This points compellingly to the conclusion that an environment has been created under Modi’s watch in which people feel safe, enabled, even encouraged to act out their hate and attack religious minorities. The permissive environment for hate attacks created by frequent hate speeches by senior leaders of the party, and Modi’s refusal to criticise these attacks except very occasionally and in general terms, means that communal and vigilante formations feel emboldened and encouraged to attack people of minority identities wth impunity.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, led today by a firebrand Hindutva leader of the BJP, also records the highest numbers of hate crimes. But the second-largest number of hate crimes have occurred in Karnataka, which is ruled by an alliance between the Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress. This is followed by BJP-ruled Rajasthan. As seen by Hate Crime Watch, around 66% of the cases have occurred in BJP-ruled states. But this in itself this should not be surprising as the BJP is in power in 20 out of 29 states. Sixteen per cent of hate crimes have been recorded in Congress-ruled states.

What is far more telling is that among the cases in which the details of the attackers’ political affiliations are known or reported, as high as 83% of the hate crimes were by attackers who were allegedly affiliated with Hindutva organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Yuva Vahini and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, among others; as well of the political parties of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Members of the Bajrang Dal were found to be involved in the largest number of hate crimes. Of the 30 cases of hate crimes in which Bajrang Dal members were alleged to have participated, the Hate Crime Watch shows that 29 took place after 2014.

Worst districts

The district with the highest numbers of hate crimes as reported in the Hate Crime Watch is Dakshina Kannada. This coastal Karnataka district was once famed for the peace between its Hindu, Muslim and Christian citizens. But over the last two decades, it has seethed with communal clashes and targeted bloodletting, as it grew into one of the key sites of communal mobilisation by organisations of the Sangh. Its cow vigilantism and attacks on even friendships between women and men of different religions in the name of “love jihad” helped create the template that has now been adopted by Sangh organisations in many parts of the country. The coastal Karnataka districts also voted entirely for the BJP in the recent state elections.

Alwar district in Rajasthan comes next. This is where self-styled cow vigilantes lynched Pehlu Khan in 2017 and Rakbar Khan in 2018. Like both these dairy farmers, a significant number of people who have been lynched in Alwar are Muslims from the neighbouring district of Nuh in Haryana. Nuh district has the second highest proportion of Muslim residents in India outside of Kashmir. Its Meo Muslims are impoverished, with arid land holdings, but devoted traditionally to dairying. These dairy farmers have been victims of attacks by cow vigilantes as well as targeted extra-judicial killings by the police. Both perpetrators choose to attack their targets usually outside Nuh, mainly in Alwar. After Alwar, come the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Shamli, all in the agriculturally prosperous western Uttar Pradesh, which has smouldered with religious and caste violence ever since the communal carnage in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in 2013.

Mother of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan along with her family members stage a sit-in demonstration to demand justice for him, in New Delhi on April 19, 2017. (Photo credit: IANS).

Primary target: Muslims

Hate Crime Watch demonstrates that the paramount target of religious hate crimes are Muslims. In particular, at least 87% of the victims of cow-related attacks tracked by Hate Crime Watch were Muslim. Muslims also formed a large proportion of persons who were attacked for inter-faith relationships. Hate Crime Watch data shows that the victims were Muslim in 64% of instances of violence related to inter-faith liaisons. Overall, Muslims, who comprise 14% of India’s population, were the victims in 62% of cases of religious violence recorded by Hate Crime Watch since 2009.

Christians are another religious group who have suffered hate violence on a scale many times higher than their share of the population. Christians constitute a little more than 2% of India’s population, but are victims in 14% of the cases of religious identity based violence. Their highest share, unsurprisingly, is in violence spurred by allegations of forced religious conversions. The victims were Christian in at least 78% of these attacks. These assaults tend to take the form of attacks on churches and prayer spaces, even those located within homes, and on priests, nuns and ordinary members of the community.

By contrast, Hindus, who comprise more than 80% of India’s population, were victims in only 10% of religious identity based hate crimes after 2009. The story is reversed if the identities of the perpetrators of violence are considered. In 86% of the cases of hate crimes in which the religion of the alleged perpetrator is known, the attackers were Hindus. The attackers were Muslim only in 13% incidents.

What were the triggers for these episodes of hate violence that targeted religious identities? Around 30% of the attacks that are included in Hate Crime Watch are in the name of cow protection. While 14% are to protest inter-religious relationships, 9% are spurred by allegations of religious conversions. In several of the remaining cases, the reasons are not confirmed.

Policewomen keep watch as Christians demonstrate outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi in 2015. (Photo credit: AFP)

The slow arm of the law

Hate Crime Watch also has only partial information about whether legal action was taken against the perpetrators of hate crimes. But the information that is available is disquieting. In at least 23 cases recorded in Hate Crime Watch so far, or about a tenth of the cases, the police had not filed even a first information report against the perpetrators. At the same time, in at least a fifth of the cases, or 53 cases, first information reports have also been filed against the victim. In cow-related hate crimes, the police, in at least a third of the incidents, had also arrested the victims of the attacks.

Hate Crime Watch has sourced its data mainly from news reports in the English language press. The actual numbers of hate crimes and of fatalities are likely to be higher, perhaps much higher, because the national press ignores many of these incidents, particularly those that are not fatal. This is also because the police often attempt to disguise these crimes – even when they result in fatalities – as ordinary murders and assaults, or even road traffic injuries, unwilling to acknowledge that these are motivated by religious hatred. (We hope to bring together a country-wide collective of voluntary fact finders who will both scan newspapers in other Indian languages, and also investigate incidents that are not reported, or those in which the police claim that the crime was not motivated by hate.)

Even so, despite the fact that Hate Crime Watch relies mainly on English language newspaper reports, its findings are intensely distressing. It is difficult for supporters of Modi to convincingly deny any longer the massive spurt of hate crimes during his stewardship of the country, or that religious hate crimes overwhelmingly target the country’s Muslim and Christian citizens. But despite this evidence, the rising tide of hate violence in India has not significantly caught global attention.

India sometimes creates its own specific cruelties. Untouchability and caste atrocities is one of these. Domestic violence is a worldwide malaise but India alone has innovated the cruelty of the burning of brides for dowry. In the same way, whereas politically encouraged bigotry and hatred against minorities is growing into a malign global epidemic, will India’s dubious contribution to this be its unique spate of communal mob lynching targeting its religious minorities and disadvantaged castes?