When WhatsApp Becomes Deadly Weapon for Mob Lynching in India


In the last few years, the vigilante groups have become active in small towns across India. — File photo

India has seen a series of mob attacks on minority groups since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept national elections in 2014. Most of the attacks by so-called cow vigilantes from Hindu groups have targeted Muslims.

ALWAR /NEW DELHI — Deadly rumours about cow smugglers and child kidnappers have gone viral on social media, especially WhatsApp, prompting vengeful mobs to kill more than two dozen innocent people since April in India.

In the latest incident, a Muslim man transporting dairy animals to their village in neighboring Haryana state was beaten to death by a mob in the western state of Rajasthan over allegations of smuggling cows.

The lynching of Akbar Khan on Friday came despite calls by India’s highest court for immediate steps to stop deadly mob violence across the country.

The mob intercepted two men on foot who were bringing two cows with them at around midnight in a forested area in Alwar district of Rajasthan and began punching and beating them with sticks, said police officer Mohan Singh. One managed to escape while the other, the 28-year-old Khan, was taken to a hospital, where doctors declared him dead on arrival.

Singh said police got a tip about the attack and immediately reached the area. “However, the attackers fled as they saw us approaching, leaving behind the injured man and two cows,” he said.

Cows are considered sacred in Hindu-majority India, and slaughtering them or eating beef is illegal or restricted across much of the country. But Singh said police could not verify the allegation that the men were smuggling cows at all.

In a similar case last year in the same district, Pehlu Khan was killed and 14 others brutally beaten after being accused of taking cows for slaughter. The men had bought the animals at a cattle fair and were taking them home. The men accused in the case, whom Khan had named in his dying declaration, walked free last September.

Attacks on minorities

India has seen a series of mob attacks on minority groups since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept national elections in 2014. Most of the attacks by so-called cow vigilantes from Hindu groups have targeted Muslims, who make up 14 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion people. Hindus make up about 80 per cent of the population.

The victims have been accused of either smuggling cows for slaughter or carrying beef. Last month, two Muslims were lynched in Jharkhand state on charges of cattle theft.

In all, at least 25 people have been killed by mobs in different parts of India over issues ranging from cattle theft, eating beef and rumours of child kidnapping this year. About 20 of them have been killed by cow vigilante groups, mostly believed to be tied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party.

Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, which is governed by the BJP, condemned the incident. “Strictest possible action shall be taken against the perpetrators,” she said in a tweet.

But Ashok Gehlot, the general secretary of the opposition Congress party, was less than convinced. “The Prime Minister remains silent on such cases and the states order customary inquiries wherein the actual accused are hardly arrested or punished. Lynching and the NDA government are running parallel to each other. The comments of the ministers motivate the mob,” he said.

In the last few years, the vigilante groups have become active in small towns across India. Even lower-caste Hindus who carry out undesirable tasks such as skinning dead cattle have faced mob violence. Indian broadcasters reported that police arrested two people in the latest lynching case.

Earlier this month, Jayant Sinha, the Harvard-educated junior aviation minister in Modi’s cabinet and a former partner at McKinsey & Co, was seen garlanding eight murderers who were part of a lynch mob that authorities said beat an unarmed Muslim man to death. In what is being called the year of the lynch mob in India, dozens of people have been beaten to death, often in cold blood, by crowds of bored young men who alternate between booting someone in the head and taking a selfie. Suggestions of whom to kill rip so fast through villages via social media, that no one seems able to stop them. In this atmosphere, some conclude that Sinha, who apologised for his act, might actually end up win ning votes for his manoeuvre.

Universal fear

Last week, the Indian Supreme Court asked the Modi government to consider enacting a law to deal with mob violence, fuelled mostly by rumours that the victims either belonged to members of child kidnapping gangs or were beef eaters and cow slaughterers. But soon after, Rajasthan’s home minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, said there was “no real need for a new law against cow vigilantism”.

Yet other messages in India have preyed on a universal fear: harm coming to a child. Some of the false messages on WhatsApp described gangs of kidnappers on the prowl. Others included videos showing people snatching children.

Modi had earlier criticised the cow-protection vigilantes and urged a crackdown against groups using religion as a cover for committing crimes. But rights groups say government officials, including Modi, have been slow to strongly condemn the attacks and that police action against perpetrators has been grossly inadequate. — Agencies

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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