Modi government seems to believe it can issue statements with utter disregard for the truth and people will believe them.
Home minister Rajnath Singh’s robust denial (during the no-confidence debate in the Lok Sabha) that mob lynching has got any worse under BJP rule comes hard on the heels of union minister for minority affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, declaring earlier this month that there have been “no big communal riots” in India over the past four years. Both are wrong, of course, but it is instructive to analyse how wrong they are.
Since the ascent of the BJP to power, the forces unleashed by the dominance of Hindutva have resulted in many incidents of violence. In one grim reckoning, more than 389 individuals have been killed in anti-minority acts of violence since mid-2014, and hundreds of others injured, stripped, beaten and humiliated. Particularly haunting is the story of 15-year-old Junaid Khan, returning home on a crowded train after buying new clothes for Eid, who was stabbed repeatedly because he was Muslim and thrown off the train to bleed to death on the tracks. Headlines have spoken continually of riots and killing, Hindu against Muslim, of men being slaughtered because of the mark on a forehead or the absence of a foreskin.
Following the BJP’s victory in the 2014 elections, a wave of Hindu triumphalism has swept the land. In its wake have come new laws to protect cows and vociferous demands for their strict enforcement. Gau-rakshak or cow protection societies have been revived, and many have taken it upon themselves to compel compliance. In the process, not only have they taken the law into their own hands, but they have perpetrated grave crimes, including murder, in the name of protecting the cow. Seventy cases of cow-related violence have been reported in the last eight years, of which 97 per cent (68 out of 70) have occurred during the four years of BJP rule and a majority of these have occurred in BJP-ruled states. A hundred and thirty six people have been injured in these attacks and 28 killed: 86 per cent of the victims were, of course, Muslim.
Many of the incidents are well known: the case of a dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, transporting cattle legally with a licence, being beaten to death on 1 April 2017 while his tormentors filmed his pleas for mercy on their mobile phones is particularly egregious. A cattle-herder in Haryana, Mustain Abbas, was murdered and mutilated a year earlier for doing his job, herding cattle. Truckers, cattle traders and alleged cow smugglers have also been killed by ‘gau rakshak’ groups. A 16-year-old Kashmiri Muslim boy was murdered for having hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting cattle. It seems safer in many places these days to be a cow than a Muslim.
In 2015, when a Muslim, Mohammad Akhlaq, father of a serving Indian Air Force havildar, was lynched by a mob in Uttar Pradesh on suspicions of having killed a cow, the authorities launched a forensic investigation into whether the meat in his refrigerator was beef (it was not). The fact that the man had been killed and his son nearly beaten to death was equated with an unfounded allegation of beef consumption, as if the latter ‘crime’ could extenuate the former. Worse, when a man who was part of the lynch mob died of natural causes a few weeks later, his coffin was draped with the Indian flag and a serving union minister who attended his funeral hailed him – an unspeakable act, and coming from a high office-holder of the secular Indian state, an unacceptable one.
Muslims have not been the only targets of the cow vigilantes, of course. There are also Dalits. But the communal colour that marked each of these incidents speaks to the inaccuracy of the ministers’ statements. Perhaps they would take refuge behind the assertion that these were isolated incidents rather than mass communal violence. Yet they speak of a pervasive pattern that has deeply affected society across the country. And when another minister is accused of condoning such incidents by garlanding members of a lynch-mob, society shivers. (He says these individuals were framed and are out on bail, but regrets having garlanded them: the damage, though, is done.)
There is a tragic vocabulary to the analysis of communal violence in our country. A “major” communal incident is one that results in more than five deaths or leaves over 10 people injured. An incident that results in one death or 10 injured is termed as “important or significant”. Naqvi spoke of “big” communal riots, but “big” is not a term of art in our national lexicology, and it cannot be defined. “Major”, however, is surely “big”, and three “major communal incidents” have been reported during the BJP rule – Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh in 2014, Hazinagar, West Bengal in 2016 and Baduria-Basirhat, also in West Bengal in 2017.
When we move from “major”, however, to merely “important”, the number of “communal incidents” in the last four years rises to 2,920, in which 389 people were killed and 8,890 injured. My source is Rajnathji’s own government: these figures come from a reply by the home ministry to questions in the Lok Sabha. According to the government, Uttar Pradesh (UP), somewhat predictably, reported the most incidents over the last four years, a staggering 645. UP also reported the most deaths in these communal incidents (121) between 2014 and 2017, followed by Rajasthan (36) and Karnataka (35). The venues for communal rioting on the BJP’s watch have ranged from Ballabgarh, Haryana, in 2015 to Bhima-Koregaon, Maharashtra, this year.
The home ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) collects and maintains nationwide crime records, which naturally includes riots. NCRB data confirm that over 2,885 communal riots were reported between 2014 and 2016. Many others may not have been recorded as communal; as many as 61,974 riots were reported in 2016 under Sections 147 to 151 and 153A of the IPC (the latter records cases relating to “promoting enmity on ground of religion, race and place of birth”). In 2016, 869 communal riots were reported, the largest number in Haryana (250). The figures for 2017 haven’t been released yet. More than halfway into 2018, I dread what they are likely to reveal.
We have a government that seems to believe it can issue statements with utter disregard for the truth and people will believe them. This is the only explanation for the two ministers’ breathtaking assertions. It matches the Prime Minister’s claims on the economy and the government’s blandly disingenuous PR pronouncements on everything from electrification to women’s empowerment. But facts and figures matter. And the numbers simply do not add up to the picture the government seeks to portray.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.