Are Cow-Related Hate Crimes Against Muslims Only a 'New India' Phenomenon?

Lynching of Muslims under the pretext of cow-protection is over a century old. The increased frequency and reporting can be, in part, attributed to availability of internet and not necessarily a fundamental shift in the fabric of Indian society.

The lynching of Muslims, especially on the pretext of “saving cattle” has apparently been on the rise in recent years. There have been dozens of such killings in the last few years, apart from the attacks on Muslims for reasons other than alleged cow slaughter, or lynching of non-Muslims – especially Dalits and tribals – on flimsy charges. However, ‘cow protection’ has been central pretext under which Muslims have been reportedly lynched over the last few years.

A common theme in most of these attacks has been the sheer imbalance of numbers. Three or four persons are usually attacked by a mob of dozens or hundreds. The attackers are often surrounded by a large horde of sympathetic observers, some of whom even record pictures and video of the lynching. It could also be argued that there is an element of voyeurism involved, which might in fact embolden the perpetrators. Another common feature is that most lynchings have occurred in remote areas, on highways, or in the countryside. The network of law and order is generally lax in these areas and even a set of enthusiastic police personnel might not reach the location on time to prevent violence.

Strikingly during these attacks, cows are often not actually involved. In Dadri, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched for possessing cooked meat, which might have come from a buffalo. There are many other cases, where victims were killed without any proof of possessing cow meat or being accompanied by a cow. In the name of cow-protection, almost all cattle, farm and poultry animals are being ‘protected’ by Hindutva forces while inflicting one-sided violence against Muslims.

The standard narrative among the liberal and ‘secular’ circles has been that the increasing consolidation of BJP has led to increasing fearlessness and radicalisation among its cadre. A number of semi-independent ‘cow protection’ organisations and rackets have sprung up across India, which receive protection from local politicians and hence are able to kill, maim and injure with impunity.

Vigilante groups have been established to ‘protect cows’. Credit: Reuters/Files

A historical perspective

However, such a narrative is based on assumptions which have not been questioned properly. Firstly, it is assumed that BJP is uniquely anti-cow slaughter and uses it as a emotional symbol in unprecedented ways. This assumption is completely false, as it is the Congress party which has implemented cow protection across India over the last seven decades.

Secondly, it is also assumed that lynchings were not as frequent in pre-2014 era. While this assumption may be true, some historical research is also necessary. For instance, it may be that lynchings did take place, but were classified differently.

Thirdly, an increase in Hindu-Muslim polarisation by BJP should have meant increase in lynching of Muslims only and one cannot explain the rise of lynching of individuals on charges such as ‘child-theft’.

As far as the first assumption is concerned, a cursory reading of various cow protection laws as passed by Congress party are enough to dismantle any notions about BJP being unique in this respect. Since early 1900s, Congress has been peddling cow protection nonsense, encouraging Hindus to protect cows, even if it means snatching it from Muslims violently.

Attacks on Muslims on the issue of cow slaughter started as early as 1890s, as Mohammad Sajjad discusses in his work, Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours. The Congress also joined this movement quite early. One cannot and should not forget M.K. Gandhi’s famous statement in Hind Swaraj: “A man is just as useful as a cow no matter whether he be a Mohammedan or a Hindu.” Even if it was supposed to be a statement against killing humans for ‘cow protection’, the wording is very telling of the prevalent cow-protectionist sentiments.

It is in this context, and the context of Congress mobilisation for ‘Home Rule’, that the massive Baqrid attacks of 1917 on Muslims in east UP and West Bihar that Sajjad discusses can be understood. Such attacks on Muslims have occurred almost every Baqrid before (1926, 1928, 1934, 1937, 1938, 1939) and after partition (1947-1951, 1953, 1955, 1966, 1968). The 1946 attacks on Muslims of south Bihar was also on the eve of Baqrid, in which thousands of Muslims were killed.

To put it briefly, the Congress-made Constitution itself mandated cow protection, against the protesting voices of tribal and Muslims members in the Constituent Assembly. The years after the partition were as dangerous for Muslims who wished to carry out ritual sacrifice on the eve of Baqrid. With their new found power, local Hindu outfits that had a large intersection with and encouragement from the Congress party, hounded Muslims across the nation.

Congress leader and Bihar’s first chief minister S.K. Sinha, for instance, was an avid cow protectionist and famously said, “Gaay ki azaadi hi Bharat ki azaadi hai (Freedom for the cow is freedom for India)”. Asghar Imam Falsafi, in his booklet, Hamari Durgat, collects dozens of such reports from Urdu newspapers of Bihar and across the nation for five consecutive Baqrids after independence (1947-1951), where Muslims had been killed and rarely received any help from the authorities.

The most targeted during this period were Muslim butchers, who were killed, lynched or made to disappear. Most of these incidents were not covered in English or Hindi dailies, or they would be covered as riots, rather than one-sided massacres. There are innumerable reports where Muslims have been arrested by local authorities for inciting violence, when in fact, they had been attacked for slaughtering cattle. The situation has not changed even today.

Darul Uloom Deoband, an otherwise staunch Congress supporter, also published a report in 1950s, criticising its sudden change in policies vis-a-vis cow slaughter. In short, most provinces implemented cow protection laws during Congress rule very early on and authorities started using these laws against Muslims. In fact, the only state where BJP has implemented it is Maharashtra, where Congress had implemented it only partially.

Frequency of lynching

The second point concerns the frequency of lynching before the BJP led-NDA government came to power. It has to be noted that BJP’s rise to power coincides with the arrival of internet revolution in India. Smartphones and cheap internet have become a common phenomenon only after 2010. The rise of cheap communication channels means that images from remote areas can be reproduced with unprecedented ease. The lynching of Pehlu Khan on a Rajasthan highway, for instance, could not have been reported in a similar fashion, if there was no video footage of the event.

A clipping of a 1934 press report on killing of two Muslims. Credit: Special arrangement

Some media reports can illustrate this point further. A report from 1934 is similar to those on lynching we read today. Some Muslims were bringing cattle for a marriage feast, they were assaulted and killed in a remote area. A report from 1950 is also quite similar, more importantly, it is on Baqrid, and there were deaths at the hand of an uncontrollable mob. A report from Aurangabad in 1968 is also bizarre, where a rumour about the stabbing of a cow led to large scale arson and violence, which led to death of at least one person.

The wording of these three reports is crucial. In the absence of video evidence, it is only the version of the police and the local community that is available for the press to report. While most of these reports give the impression of lynchings, none of them have been termed as such. In fact, most of these one-sided killings are called ‘disturbances’, ‘trouble’, ‘riots’ or some other such neutral term, which hides the possibility that Muslims might have been killed by large mobs in cold blood, as is clearly the case in the Patna district attack.

A press clipping of a 1950 report on rumours starting mob violence. Credit: Special arrangement

The lack of photographic evidence means it is difficult to even visualise the original event, let alone prove its veracity. It is also conceivable that many lynchings were not reported at all if they took place in remote areas, and often travellers and passers-by were caught in unknown territory. One can only wonder how many individuals who ‘disappeared’ were actually lynched. If bodies were not found, no case would have been registered.

Even if casualties were reported, police and media reports were often cast in language of conflict. It would be made to appear as if two groups were fighting, even if a mob assaulted one or two individuals. Reports also state ‘provocation’ from Muslims as the reason for Hindus to ‘react’.

Social media and mobile phones have accelerated the process as well. In the decades before hand held mobiles, it would take hours or days for messages to spread about ‘evil deeds’ of a Muslim butcher. However, post-mobile revolution, only a few minutes are needed. Hence, mobilisation is quicker.

Lynching of non-Muslims

Finally, the third point raised above was related to non-religious lynching, especially on the grounds of suspected child-theft. The reports of such lynchings have increased as well, and if it was merely BJPs religious polarisation over the last four years which had increased the lynchings, then non-Muslims should not have been targeted. In Bihar, more than half a dozen people were lynched on the pretext of being ‘child thieves’. Not even a single Muslim has been killed for beef eating (one or two assaults have been reported, but no deaths). This follows the pre-internet era pattern. Since 1990s, there has been a lull in communal attacks against Muslims in Bihar. After the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, as Muslims were being killed across India, Bihar remained peaceful. That seems to be continuing over the past four years too.

A 1968 press clipping. Credit: Special arrangement

However, lynching and mass executions of others, especially lower castes, including at times, Muslims, on different pretexts has continued unabated and apparently has been on rise. This indicates that rather than a real rise in lynchings, it is the reporting of these crimes which has become more prevalent.

Based on the arguments above, it can be said that the understanding of lynching needs a strict re-appraisal. Its reporting in pre-internet era, as well as of the importance of cow protection movements in the Congress era needs examination. The lynching of Muslims across India under the pretext of cow-protection is over a century old and has been carried out by organisations that have received state patronage. The role of internet in contemporary lynchings is very crucial. The increased frequency and reporting can be, in part, attributed to availability of internet and not necessarily a fundamental shift in the fabric of Indian society necessitated by BJP’s coming to power. If this problem is believed to be new, then a real solution for this extremely perturbing issue may not be found.

Sharjeel Imam is a computer science graduate from IIT Bombay and is currently pursuing his PhD in modern history from JNU. He is working on partition and Muslim politics.