If any further proof were needed that the Narendra Modi government gives out signals approving mob violence and vigilantism, it came on July 6, when Civil Aviation Minister Jayant Sinha was photographed greeting and giving garlands to eight men convicted of lynching a Muslim cattle trader last year.
The men, and the mob they were part of, killed Alimuddin Ansari in Ramgarh after suspecting he was carrying beef – a suspicion that haunts all Muslims who work in the meat trade. India’s ban on beef has given rise to Hindu cow vigilantes looking for a pretext to attack Muslims.
The eight men dragged Ansari out of a car and killed him. Last week, they were released on bail pending their appeal. Sinha, who maintains the men are innocent despite the conviction, greeted them warmly.
These photo-opportunities are not accidental. Since this government came to power, whenever Muslims or Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) have been lynched, it has failed to express disgust and outrage. The odd minster might make a pathetically anodyne remark – too many days later and under media pressure – about how “the law must be maintained” but none of these remarks have conveyed genuine revulsion at innocent people being killed.
The worst offender has been Modi himself. Despite more than a dozen people being killed since May, he has held no press conference to condemn the lynchings or to reassure Muslims (and other victims) that he will protect them. No statement. No speech. Worse, no visit to the family of the victim.
The only time he has spoken out was to utter two trite comments after the lynching of a Muslim teenager last year. He tweeted: “As a society, there is no place for violence”, and “No person in this nation has the right to take the law in his or her own hands”. Not exactly a stinging indictment of his cow vigilante and Muslim-baiting supporters.
The resounding silence from his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is intended to convey to its hard-line supporters that lynchings are fine; please continue. And they have. From Muslims and Dalits, the latest to be lynched have been ordinary migrant workers. As a result of crazy rumours spread on social media, innocent men have been killed on suspicion of being child kidnappers in the past fortnight.
In reaction to the latest spate of lynchings, the government has blamed WhatsApp for easing the spread of rumours. Conveniently, it has forgotten that, for the past four years, it has allowed an atmosphere of hatred towards minorities to build up, tearing apart the country’s social fabric.
Why blame WhatsApp? If hatred is spreading, it is because of the culture of impunity that has been created. Mobs are not scared of punishment because they feel that, if they are lynching Muslims, the government is happy to turn a blind eye. They know the BJP’s cow protection policies are simply a stick to beat Muslims with – find any poor Muslim on the street, accuse him of carrying beef or of taking a cow to slaughter and you are free to murder him. Often, local police stand by while a man is lynched. They, too, presumably understand the zeitgeist.
Modi has totally failed to provide any moral leadership amid this medieval cruelty. Every month, on state-owned radio, he has a cosy fireside chat with ordinary Indians, called Mann ke Baat (From the Heart). They send him their questions and he responds. He has talked about everything from the value of yoga and meditation and the problems of farmers to how students need to cope with exam stress.
Modi is famous for being a great communicator. His oratory can move vast crowds. He is the master of the catchy phrase. The BJP is renowned for its mastery of social media to get its political messages across and influence the public. So why has no one thought it a good idea to counter propaganda and hate crimes with a special campaign?
The BJP has been playing a clever double game: covertly indicating a certain solidarity with its criminal supporters while publicly simulating mild dismay at their crimes. Sinha’s smiling manner with convicted murderers has ended even that genteel little hypocrisy. ( SCMP )