Every day in India, the police register 293 cases of crimes against children on average, according to the last available national crime bureau data. Only a handful of such cases feature in news reports.
But as the murder of a two-and-a-half-year old child in Aligarh showed last week, the crimes that now get the most attention, particularly on social media, are those in which the accused are Muslim.
Why is this so?
The Kathua case
Hindutva activists have been particularly angered by a campaign last April, when images of Bollywood celebrities holding placards asking for justice for a child flooded social media. The campaign sought to draw attention to the obstruction of justice in the case of the rape and murder of a eight-year-old girl in Jammu’s Kathua area.
The child belonged to the nomadic Muslim Bakkarwal community, while the eight accused were Hindu; four of them were policemen. As a consequence, the crime, which allegedly took place inside a temple in January 2018, was initially covered up.
The police chargesheet later noted that the crime was part of a plot to dislodge the Bakarwal community from the area, where it had been locked in tensions with local Hindus over the use of land, among other things.
The area’s communal faultline was so deep that many Hindu residents, instead of asking for a speedy trial, held protests demanding that the accused be released. The leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then part of the state’s ruling alliance, extended their support to the protestors.
It was only after lawyers linked to Hindutva groups tried to physically obstruct the filing of the chargesheet that the case found national attention, sparking off the social media campaign.
The campaigners, including Bollywood celebrities, tweeted messages with a hashtag that included the child’s name. They rued the fact that the crime had taken place in a devisthan, a sacred place. Though Hindutva activists took offence to the reference to the temple, the campaign was not about politics: it was entirely focused on the safety of women and children.
The Kathua campaign has so incensed Hindutva activists that since then, whenever a crime against a child has been reported in which Muslim men are the alleged perpetrators, they have gone on a frenzy, unleashing copy-cat campaigns, complete with placards and hashtags.
Each time, they have made sure to foreground the religious identity of the accused.
Influential voices, including some from Bollywood, have amplified these messages. But they have chosen to overlook the fact that unlike the Kathua case, there has been no communal friction in the backdrop to these crimes. In none of the cases have the families of the children alleged so. The religious identity of the alleged perpetrators has had no relevance at all.
The Hindutva campaigners also chose to ignore another key difference: while the Kathua case had initially seen a cover-up, the cases they are campaigning for had seen prompt action by the police. No one had tried to shield the accused – neither political leaders, nor Muslim protestors.
On the contrary, when a seven-year-old child was abducted and raped by a Muslim man in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in June last year, Muslims in the town participated in protests asking for death penalty for the accused. They even declared that his body would not be given space in the community burial grounds.
Despite that, Hindutva activists tried to communalise the case by running hateful social media posts.
The same month, a seven-year-old child was raped and strangulated in a border village in Barmer, Rajasthan. The child was Dalit, the accused was Muslim. Within hours, the police had arrested him, with the help of the villagers, most of whom were Muslim.
The child’s family was satisfied with the pace of the investigation: the chargesheet had been filed within a week and the first court hearing was held five days later.
Their Muslim neighbours even held a small protest and submitted a petition to the administration asking for the accused to be sentenced to death.
Despite the complete absence of communal strife in the village, the Barmer district president of the BJP staged a protest, trying to raise temperatures in the area. He wrote a letter to the Rajasthan chief minister, alleging that Muslims were committing widespread atrocities on Dalits in border villages. Dalit leaders rubbished his arguments: Dalits were being oppressed not by Muslims but by Rajputs, they said.
The Aligarh case
Last week, the same cycle repeated itself after a two-and-a-half-year-old child was found murdered in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Hindutva activists feverishly tweeted with a hashtag bearing the child’s name, resolute on underlining the religious identity of the accused, who happened to be Muslim.
Even journalists fell for it. Veteran journalist Mrinal Pande crossed swords with television news anchor Bhupendra Chaubey, who had tweeted identifying the accused as Muslim.
The hate campaigns are not limited to social media. In Aligarh, Hindutva organisations like the Bajrang Dal have been trying to organise a mahapanchayat in Tappal, the village where the child’s family lives, to create communal fissures, even where they do not previously exist.
Violence against children is distressingly high in India. We need to put the spotlight on the perpetrators, whatever be their background, whichever community they belong to. But make no mistake: the Hindutva campaigners are not concerned about crimes against children, only crimes by Muslims.
Much of this is reminiscent of the “Black Rape Scare” in the United States in the first part of the last century – the attempt to create panic over sporadic cases of sexual violence against White women by Black men to channel racial hate in the United States.
In India, the aim of the Hindutva activists is similar: stoking majoritarian resentment against religious minorities and keeping alive communal strife.