A populist Prime Minister has legitimized India’s more militant groups, and targeted attacks against religious minorities are on the rise.
By Eliza Griswold
On April 1, 2017, Irshad Khan, a slight twenty-six-year-old with glossy black hair and the faint shadow of a beard and mustache, helped his eighteen-year-old brother, Arif, and their father, Pehlu, load two cows into the bed of their white Mahindra pickup truck. The Khans were heading from a cattle market in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, to their village of Jaishingpur, a four-hour drive away. Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, or Dalits, live side by side in the village, harvesting mustard from fields of yellow flowers. The village, home to six hundred people, is relatively well-off, and has grown more prosperous, as Delhi has mushroomed into a megacity of twenty-seven million and the price of land surrounding the city has skyrocketed. Some Muslim families in the village, including the Khans, are wealthy traders who transport goods like sand and vegetables to the cities around Delhi.
That afternoon, Irshad climbed into the truck alongside his father and brother. Cows are sacred to Hindus but Irshad had made this trip dozens of times since he was a boy. He’d heard rumors of potential trouble for Muslims at roadside checkpoints, where members of a militant Hindu youth group called the Bajrang Dal were intimidating Muslim traders in the name of protecting cows. Still, Irshad wasn’t nervous. “We had no fear at all,” he told me recently. “We were coming from a government-organized fair, and buying and selling cows is a legal business.”
The militant Hindu nationalism that the group espouses is not new. Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Gandhi, on January 30, 1948, was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., a violent right-wing organization that promotes Hindu supremacy. Members of the Bajrang Dal are the movement’s foot soldiers, deployed in instances of mob violence or for targeted attacks against Muslims and other religious minorities. Founded in 1984, the group was part of a movement to destroy the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque located in Ayodhya, India, which was built by the emperor Babur. (The mosque was ultimately demolished during a violent R.S.S. rally in 1992.) Since its early days, the group has formed some twenty-five-hundred cells across the country. I first reported on these cells, called akhadas, in 2005, in Dharavi, Mumbai, Asia’s largest slum, where, in the name of protecting cows, the militants recruited impoverished Hindu boys to their violent cause. Paul Richard Brass, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington, has called the Bajrang Dal “a somewhat pathetic but nevertheless dangerous version of the Nazi S.A.”—or the Brownshirts, the Nazi Party’s first paramilitary organization.
For much for the past thirty years, the Bajrang Dal has either been banned or has lurked at the margins of Indian society. But in 2014 Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the B.J.P., a right-wing political party that was an offshoot of the R.S.S., was elected Prime Minister. Since then, the militant group has been legitimized and grown exponentially more powerful. In the past seven years, according to Factchecker.in, an organization that tracks hate crimes, there have been a hundred and sixty-eight attacks by Hindu extremists, in the name of protecting cows, against Muslims and other religious minorities. The attacks left forty-six people dead. “It’s really a very, very bad moment for Muslims in India,” Salman Khurshid, India’s former foreign minister and the author of a forthcoming book, “Invisible Citizens,” on the systematic oppression of Muslims in the country, told me. He laid out several setbacks for Muslims in Indian history. “First, in 1857, the failure of the war of independence,” he said, citing the brutal British repression of a popular uprising, in which Muslim and Hindu soldiers rose up together against the colonialists. Then partition, when British India divided into two independent states, predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, and more than a million people died in sectarian violence. Khurshid cited the destruction of Babri Mosque as a third example. And then told me, “the next big setback is the rise of this government.” Under Modi, incidents of communal violence rose twenty-eight per cent between 2014 and 2017.
When Irshad and his family got stuck in traffic in Alwar, about halfway home from the cow market, a gang of eight men surrounded the Khans’ truck and demanded to know what was in the back. “Cows,” Pehlu said, and handed one of the men the official papers to prove that the cows were legal. “We’re Bajrang Dal, and we don’t care about these papers,” the man replied, tearing them up and throwing them on the road. Then the men pulled the Khans from the truck and passed them around, angrily asking questions. The Khans had driven by a police station about half a mile back, and they were still almost within sight of it. Irshad thought that if they could just hang on for a few minutes and keep the militants talking, the police would arrive to help them. But the minutes passed, and the police didn’t come. Instead, dozens more men pressed in around them and began beating them; Irshad felt a stinging cuff to his ear, and then the blows became heavier and more regular, drawing blood. Arif fell to the ground and curled into the fetal position. Pehlu, who was dressed in all white and had a small beard, a sign of religious devotion, was beaten unconscious.
Eventually, the police broke up the crowd and carried the Khans to a local hospital. An angry mob of villagers followed and surrounded the building. A kindly doctor locked Irshad and his brother in a room for their protection, and the boys recalled listening to the sound of feet as the villagers clambered onto the hospital’s roof. “We could hear them shouting they wanted to kill all three of us,” Irshad told me. Over the next two days the boys began to recover, but, on April 3rd, Pehlu died of his injuries. When the news of his death spread, the boys said that the mob returned and demanded his body so that they could desecrate it. The doctor hid the corpse in the hospital basement, and a police unit moved the boys to another hospital for their safety. When the brothers were in stable enough condition to go back to Jaishingpur, hundreds of people arrived from their village and neighboring ones to escort them home.
This spring, Modi is up for reëlection, and campaign season in India has sometimes sparked violence between Hindu nationalists and Muslims in the past. The B.J.P. is especially anxious this year, because of a series of unexpected losses in recent state elections. In Rajasthan, India’s first Minister of Cows, who presided over a sanctuary for the animals, was soundly defeated. These electoral losses have little to do with a backlash against right-wing Hindu nationalism. Instead, they reveal growing dissatisfaction with the failure of Modi and the B.J.P. to deliver on the economic development that they promised five years ago. In 2014, most Indians voted for Modi in the hopes that he would lift their economic status. In fact, India’s economy is the fastest growing in the world, and more than two-hundred and seventy-million people have risen out of poverty over the last fifteen years. Yet, under Modi, growth is lower than promised and India is facing its highest rate of unemployment in forty-five years. Over the past several weeks, Modi has announced a new round of economic measures designed to placate frustrated voters, including delivering cash handouts to struggling farmers.
Some analysts worry that he will try to distract voters from the slowing economy by doubling down on nationalist rhetoric. “With little to show in terms of economy or development, Modi’s only remaining platform is nationalism,” Tanweer Alam, a political analyst, told me. Many critics argue that the rhetoric espoused by Modi and the B.J.P. has also intensified tensions in Kashmir, where the Indian government is struggling to quell a year-long spike in violence. In February, forty Indian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber, who blew himself up by driving into a paramilitary convoy. The bomber claimed to be a local man named Aadil Ahmad Dar, who, in the past year, had left home to join the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, which is based in Pakistan. It was the most lethal attack in the region in decades, and Modi responded by threatening “a befitting reply,” and then launched air strikes against northern Pakistan. Pakistan subsequently shot down at least one Indian jet, further heightening tensions.
The B.J.P.-controlled national government has passed several laws in recent years that have made life more difficult for religious minorities. In several states, local governments have also passed “anti-conversion” laws that make it illegal to forcibly convert people to a new religion. The ostensible purpose of the measures is to shield Hindus from aggressive Christian proselytizing, or to protect them from Islam. But conversion has historically also provided members of lower castes a way out of the caste system’s repressive strictures. The Bajrang Dal also cited the statutes as a justification for attacks against Muslims and Christians. In 2016, in Uttar Pradesh, the Bajrang Dal falsely accused a pastor of forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity, shaved his head, and paraded him through town on a donkey. The United States has generally remained silent regarding the repression of minorities in Modi’s India. In 2015, when Modi was selected as one of Time magazine’s hundred most influential people in the world, President Obama wrote a glowing tribute and said nothing of the militant nationalism that helped bring Modi to power. Despite President Trump’s public support of religious freedom, he has not criticized the oppression of religious minorities in India. Modi has made several high-profile visits to the U.S., including a state visit in 2017.
For the international community, the dominant narrative of India under Modi has been a story of economic success, not an account of religious violence and repression. “Do you really think that American businessmen care what is happening here?” Amitabh Kundu, one of India’s leading economists, asked me, in his office in Delhi. “It will take moderate Hindus to push back against this rabid Hindutva.” Kundu is the author of a study, published in 2014, that documents the socioeconomic status of India’s Muslims, who make up roughly fifteen per cent of the population. Kundu has documented that, although caste-based discrimination has fallen considerably in the last few decades, discrimination against Muslims is on the rise. Despite an influx of people into urban centers across India, the rate of Muslim migration to large cities is decreasing, because they are largely shut out of the labor market. Their names are also frequently removed from voter rolls. In 2018, Hindu nationalist groups called for a ban on public prayer by Muslims in parks in Gurgaon, which led to vicious mob attacks in the name of enforcement.
After speaking with Kundu, I visited Sarim Naved, a young Muslim lawyer, in his windowless, basement office in a law firm in south Delhi. Naved works on human-rights cases involving mob killings, and police brutality, against Muslims. He had left a job at a high-profile bank and committed himself to advocacy in part because he had grown up in an era of rising Islamophobia in India. “If you’re a Muslim, you’re born political,” he said. He was a child in 1992, when the Babri Mosque was demolished, and images of its destruction have stayed with him. “People say that there was once a political left in India, but my generation has never seen it,” he said. “We’ve only seen Hindu nationalism.”
On a recent afternoon, I visited Irshad and Arif, the brothers who survived the mob attack, in their home village with local human-rights activists.They still live in their father’s large compound, which is set in a warren of muddy roads lined with neem trees. In an open courtyard, a buffalo grazed on a tether; a goat and three kids pressed their heads against a wall, trying to warm themselves in the winter sun. Irshad dragged his bed into the sunshine so that we could sit down. Irshad and Arif told me that the attack had ruined their lives, not only because they had grown up wealthy and were now facing poverty but also because of the shame associated with being attacked by a mob. “People look at us with contempt,” he said. Some people had tried to help. Behind him, a green and yellow John Deere tractor, which had been a gift from supporters, sat in the center of the courtyard beyond a patch of spinach. Irshad said he was grateful for the tractor, but the mustard harvest was seasonal, and couldn’t support the family year-round. They had lost their cows in the attack, and their father’s dairy business was now closed. Irshad had abandoned working as a trader. The roads were too dangerous, he said, regardless of what he was transporting. Cows, or a rumor of cows, are now enough to get him killed. He left the village only for work as a driver, when he could find it, earning around seventy-five dollars a month.
Last July, the pattern of killings of Muslims grew so dire—in 2018, there were thirteen fatal cow-related lynchings—that the Indian Supreme Court demanded that the legislature formulate laws against the practice, which it has yet to do. Last month, Human Rights Watch released a hundred-and-four-page report documenting the violence, and the inaction—and abuses—of the government officials charged with investigating the crimes. “Lynching has become a nationalist project,” Mohammad Ali, a prominent Indian journalist who is currently working on a book about the phenomenon, told me. He said few perpetrators are punished, which has created a culture of impunity. Killers are lauded in some quarters as heroes for defending the faith and eradicating Muslims.
The Khans’ case was rare in that Pehlu, who briefly regained consciousness before dying, was able to identify several of his attackers by name, none of whom were charged. Instead, nine other men were indicted for Pehlu’s murder. Although Irshad knew it was dangerous, he decided to return to Alwar to testify at the trial. As he approached the town, he said a car pulled up behind him and masked men inside started firing at his vehicle. They missed, and he escaped, fleeing back to Jaishingpur. He never made it to court, and all nine of the men accused of killing his father were let go on bail. This impunity is especially troubling given the evidence. A video of the attack, recorded by one of the perpetrators, was posted on a YouTube channel related to the Bajrang Dal. It quickly accumulated more than six hundred thousand views.
At the Khans’ house, Shabnam, Irshad’s wife, walked into the courtyard carrying their third child, an infant son, who screamed at the presence of strangers. She told me that their life had grown more chaotic with Pehlu gone; they missed his income, yes, but also the quiet order that he instilled in the family. “There’s no one to bind the family together now,” she told me. She had first heard of the attack a few hours after it happened. A police officer called from a nearby village to inform her and, soon after, someone sent her the YouTube video.
I asked her if it was still online; she nodded, and one of the local human-rights activists pulled out his phone and brought up the YouTube channel. We scrolled through it, looking for the attack. There were dozens of similar videos showing killings of Muslims, which were deeply disturbing both for their violence and for the obvious pride that the attackers took in being Internet stars. In one, a man wearing white pants and a bright pink sweater beat a Muslim man to death with a stick and sets him on fire, accusing him of committing “love jihad”: falling in love with a Hindu woman. After recording the murder, the attacker turns to the camera and says, “I am appealing to all Hindu sisters that don’t get into the trap of these jihadis. These people will win your heart and satisfy their lust.” In the another, a Bajrang Dal member leans into a truck’s open window. “What is your name?” he shouts, slapping the driver. “Mubarak,” the driver replies. The cameraman slaps him again. “Say ‘Mubarak Muslim,’ ” he demands. Finally, we found the video of Pehlu’s murder. It begins with Pehlu sitting on a curb, his palm upturned as he pleads with someone off camera. Then one of the attackers knocks him backward, and he disappears from the frame.
(Courtesy: The New Yorker)