SITAMARHI, India — Last fall, 13 people in the state of Bihar were arrested for being part of a mob that burned an elderly Muslim man to death. Within a month, all were released on bail, despite photos that appear to show them participating in the crime.
For Akhlak Ansari, the slain man’s son, the suspects’ swift release was a blow. People who get caught for minor crimes, such as violating Bihar’s prohibition on liquor consumption, are detained for at least three months, he said. “But for murder, they have given bail to everyone,” Ansari said.
In religiously motivated hate crimes, the accused are often released on bail, and the prosecution of suspects can take years — conditions that worsen the sense of division in communities struck by these acts of hate and exacerbate a climate of fear for the victims and their families, experts say.
Under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in 2014 and is running for reelection this spring, reports of hate crimes by extremist Hindu groups have increased. Data cited by a Human Rights Watch report last month said that 90 percent of such recorded crimes have happened since 2014.
These crimes target mostly Muslims, often by radical groups in the name of protecting cows, which are considered sacred by Hindus. Nearly 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu.
Harsh Mander, a rights activist who has spent decades working to heal divides between Hindus and Muslims, recently created a team to assist the families of hate-crime victims in fighting court battles in the slow-moving judicial system. On a recent afternoon, his team visited Ansari in the town of Sitamarhi, in a remote corner of Bihar state.
“Without justice or the promise of it, it is impossible for the survivors to heal or move on,” he said.
Zainul Ansari was killed on a fall day last year, when a religious procession in Sitamarhi during a Hindu festival turned violent. The crowd — which police estimated numbered a few thousand — clashed with the procession as it tried to detour into a Muslim neighborhood. A rumor that Muslims had thrown stones at the procession had enraged the crowd. The 82-year-old was on his way home when he came upon the mob, who beat him with sticks and then set him on fire.
“I don’t understand why the mob would burn him,” Akhlak Ansari said.
The crime devastated the family and shook the Muslim community. Sitting outside Akhlak Ansari’s house, his cousin Nanhe Ansari said that before the attack there had not been conflict between the Hindus and Muslims in their village. But he thinks there has been a growing distance between the communities since Modi came to power.
“There is no hatred towards us as individuals, but there is animosity towards Muslims as a community,” Nanhe Ansari said. “In a riot-like situation, any Muslim can become a target.”
Modi has condemned attacks by self-proclaimed “cow vigilantes,” saying that violence had no place in the country.
A neighbor listening to Nanhe Ansari speak said that he had begun taking the longer route into the city of Sitamarhi to avoid passing by the Hindu areas. One of Akhlak Ansari’s uncles pleaded with the younger men milling around to avoid fights with Hindus.
The Human Rights Watch report, which detailed hate crimes carried out by Hindus against Muslims, concluded that not only had law enforcement authorities failed to protect the victims, but they also impeded investigations into the crimes.
In eight of the 11 cases researched in the report, police “initially stalled investigations, ignored procedures, or even played a complicit role in the killings and coverup of crimes.” In several cases, the police even filed legal complaints against the victims. The report slammed the “failure” of the government to “take adequate steps to prosecute those responsible.”
Delayed police action was highlighted by the national media in the Ansari case. The first arrests were made almost a month after the crime.
Local police denied charges of negligence. NH Khan, one of the state’s top police officials, said that the investigation had been prompt and that the suspects were charged with murder.
In one of the earliest and most infamous cow vigilante cases, a Muslim man was beaten to death by his neighbors in 2015 because they suspected that he had eaten beef. But four years later, the trial has yet to begin, despite that the case is in a special “fast-track” court empowered to adjudicate quickly. The man’s family left the village after the killing and have not returned.
Akhlak Ansari said he briefly considered moving elsewhere. “But this has been our home for generations,” he said. “Where can we even go?”