Two days before Christmas 2018, when 70 members of the New Life Fellowship Church in the tiny Hindu-dominated village of Kowad were happily rehearsing performances, they had no idea their celebrations would be cut short by bloodshed.
That was the day a mob of 15 people – armed with knives, sticks, bottles and stones – launched a sudden attack on the church, which is located on the border of the Indian states of Karnataka and Maharashtra.
The episode left seven worshippers severely injured while others escaped with minor wounds. Victims included women and children, and but the damage wasn’t just physical – months later the emotional toll is still apparent.
“Christians in the area are now terrified and hesitant to hold prayers. People are worshipping in their houses. But we’re determined to continue our work here. We may not have public gatherings in the near future but will conduct prayers individually in our houses,” Mohan Naik, the pastor in charge of churches in the district, told the Post.
Worryingly, the Kowad attack is not isolated – it is part of an upswing in religious hate crimes in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist. The government’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not record religious crimes separately, but trackers such as the Hate Crime Watch – a data-driven multi-organisational initiative – indicate a sharp spike in hate crimes since the prime minister came to power in mid-2014.
The tracker began recording these incidents in 2009; from then until 2013, the number of hate crimes every year were still in the single digits. But there were 92 incidents in 2018 alone, a 400 per cent increase from 2014 and the highest number in a decade. Notably, 66 per cent of these crimes occurred in states governed by Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
According to Hate Crime Watch, an overwhelming majority of victims were religious minorities – Muslims, Christians and Dalits – while more than half of the perpetrators were Hindu radicals. Three-quarters of the victims of all hate crimes in the past 10 years are Muslims – India’s largest minority – and 90 per cent of these crimes took place during Modi’s tenure.
The attacks took place across India but the majority of them occurred in its most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which has a 20 per cent Muslim population.
Of India’s 1.35 billion people, nearly 80 per cent are Hindus while there are about 172 million Muslims – the world’s third-largest population behind Indonesia and Pakistan – and roughly 28 million Christians. To make matters worse, the lower house of parliament led by Modi has the fewest Muslim lawmakers since India’s independence in 1947.
In February last year, the federal government was also forced to admit during a parliamentary session that the number of incidents of communal violence jumped 28 per cent between 2014 and 2017.
Halt the Hate, a monitor run by Amnesty International’s Indian arm, captures an identical trend of increasing hate crimes in the country.
“In the recent past, there have been a number of grave human rights abuses that have been taking place in India,” said Asmita Basu, programmes director at Amnesty India. “These are making India an unsafe place for marginalised communities and human rights workers. If not urgently remedied, these violations threaten to leave behind a disturbing legacy.”
Modi and the RSS
Modi’s political career has long been punctuated by accounts of religious intolerance, stretching back to before he became premier of Hindu-majority India.
In 2002, when he was chief minister of the country’s westernmost state, Gujarat, a violent Hindu-Muslim riot claimed more than 1,000 lives. Though never legally prosecuted, Modi was accused of doing little to stop the violence.
In his youth, Modi was trained by the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP.
Members of various RSS affiliate groups, if not BJP cadres, are often blamed for either peddling or inciting right-wing violence under the Modi administration. Critics say radicals are emboldened by law enforcement agencies’ failure to hold suspects accountable.
“What is disturbing in most incidents since Modi came to power is the police forces appear to be complicit with the perpetrators,” said John Dayal, a journalist turned activist and general secretary of the All India Christian Council.
“Hindu radicals have always been active and violent regardless of who’s ruling. But with the BJP coming to power the heightened impunity is what is alarming. The lack of punishment and immunity for the perpetrators has now vitiated the atmosphere,” he added.
A survey conducted by broadcaster NDTV found that divisive, incendiary language used by high-ranking lawmakers increased by 500 per cent under Modi, compared with the previous five-year period.
The survey was conducted by picking comments from nearly 1,300 news articles and 1,000 social media posts made by politicians at the central and state level. It found that 90 per cent of the lawmakers using such language belonged to Modi’s party.
For example, in 2017, Vikram Saini, a member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly representing BJP, said: “I had promised that I will break the hands and legs of those who do not consider cows their mother and kill them.”
Another prominent parliamentarian, Anantkumar Hegde, known for his radical comments, said in 2018: “As long as we have Islam in the world, there will be no end to terrorism. If we are unable to end Islam, we won’t be able to end terrorism.”
The Modi administration officially distances itself from criminal occurrences and insists it exhorts state governments to rein in the perpetrators. Besides heaping the blame on local administrations for failing to maintain domestic law and order, the federal government frequently chides the media for what it perceives to be unfriendly coverage.
In public, Modi rarely censures hate crimes in harsh terms, instead issuing softer denouncements. BJP staunchly denies any indirect involvement.
When a Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was beaten to death in 2015 by a mob on the suspicion he stole and slaughtered a calf – a notorious incident now known as the Dadri mob lynching – Modi took 15 days to respond.
“It was an extremely sad incident. The BJP does not support such incidents. The opposition is playing a communal card by blaming us with the Bihar election in mind,” Modi told the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika. Modi, who actively uses Twitter and rarely misses a chance to respond to major events, was slammed for his lengthy silence and failure to condemn the violent incident in tough language.
In several of the hate crimes, individuals transporting beef were lynched by extrajudicial groups who call themselves “cow vigilantes”. Many lynchings are filmed and posted on social media, cultivating a sense of fear within minority communities.
Cows are considered sacred by Hindus and slaughtering them is banned in most Indian states.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, these cow protection groups have killed 44 people, chiefly Muslims, and injured over 280 people in dozens of incidents between May 2015 and December 2018.
“We are extremely concerned about the increasing incitement to communal hate. It has led to an environment where minority communities, particularly Muslims, tribal groups and Dalits, have come under attack by a mob claiming to defend cows from slaughter or to punish inter-community relationships,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the Human Rights Watch director for South Asia.
“The prejudice has spread so that there is rising discrimination, with perpetrators – many claiming to be BJP supporters – believing that they will not be prosecuted for these crimes,” she added.
The question in the minds of Modi’s critics and opponents is whether this upswing in hate crimes will continue if he gets re-elected when India goes to the polls in April and May. Though pundits considered the Modi regime to be an unstoppable juggernaut a few months ago, the outcome of key state elections last year displayed that the powerful leader could still face a defeat.
The BJP was defeated in three Hindi-speaking states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – in December in what was widely considered a bellwether for the upcoming parliamentary election.
Rajeev Gowda, a national spokesperson for Modi’s opposition party, Congress, said the communal polarisation was “tearing [India’s] social fabric apart”.
“Previously, we used to have occasional communal riots which were only sporadic,” said Gowda, who added that the absence of a firm crackdown through legal proceedings had emboldened the country’s radical elements and spread the fearful atmosphere among minority communities.
If Modi secures another five-year term, Gowda said, the situation “will only go from bad to worse”.