India’s mob violence problem


At least 29 people have been killed across India since May in violence fueled mainly by messages on WhatsApp. The latest incident took place in a village in north Maharashtra where five people were killed by a mob on July 1 after rumors spread on social media that they were child-traffickers.

Three others lost their lives in the eastern state of Tripura last week. One victim was a man trying to dispel such rumors on behalf of state authorities. His lynching came just hours after a Uttar Pradesh resident, who had been selling crockery in remote areas of the state for the past 20 years, was killed after a mob of more that 300 people attacked him and some others on suspicion of kidnapping children. Earlier, a mentally-challenged man was beaten and left with serious injuries by a mob in Agartala, Tripura’s capital.

So far, there have been 13 incidents of lynching related to rumors circulated through WhatsApp about suspected child kidnappers.

A WhatsApp message, accompanied by morbid photographs of mutilated children, can lead to suspicion of outsiders and an enraged mob can take the law into its own hands. But as far as India is concerned, this is only part of the problem.

Any sincere effort to tackle the menace should begin with an inquiry about when lynching in its brutal form started and how governments at the center and in states have handled it.

The 2015 murder of 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was the beginning of vigilante justice. An angry mob dragged Akhlaq out of his home in Bishara, a UP village, and beat him to death, accusing him of eating beef. Since then several people have fallen victim to murderous violence by “gau raksha samiti” (cow protection group) volunteers. The data website IndiaSpend has found that from 2010 to 2017, 28 people were killed in 63 such incidents in which mobs hand out summary justice to those on the wrong side of the beef question. At least 97 percent of the 63 cow-vigilante attacks took place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. About 86 percent of those killed were Muslims, with 2016 the worst year for mob lynching since 2010.

In March, a Jharkhand fast track court convicted 11 men, including a district BJP leader and local “gau raksha samiti” members, for lynching a meat trader. But this has been the only conviction despite a series of such murders across north India since 2015.

Strangely, instead of taking prompt legal action against the vigilantes, many linked to extremist Hindu groups affiliated with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the police, too often, have filed complaints against the assault victims, their relatives, and associates under laws banning cow slaughter.

The attitude of political leadership only makes matters worse. For example, it took more than a week for Modi to break his silence over the Akhlaq lynching and even then he did not condemn it outright. His supporters including some ministers have openly justified such killings. On Wednesday, Jayant Sinha, a member of Modi’s cabinet, welcomed, with garlands and sweets, eight of the 11 men who were recently released on bail after being convicted of the 2017 Jharkhand lynching of a meat trader and posed with them for pictures.

Taking a cue from their political masters, the forces of law and order turn a blind eye to such killings, or enable them. Naturally, mobs feel empowered, as they know they enjoy impunity.

This means that the only way to put an end to the mob lynching, by suspicious villagers or “cow- protectors”, is to call it a crime as India’s Supreme Court said on Tuesday and enforce the law, and deliver exemplary punishment to all perpetrators without treating some of them as soldiers in an ideological crusade.