MUMBAI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence Thursday and delivered a speech condemning a recent spate of lynchings in India. Hours later, a news alert announced that yet another man had been killed by a mob for carrying beef.
This was the second beef-related lynching in a week, and one of many since Modi came to power in 2014. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to a number of far-right Hindu organizations, has been widely criticized for allowing such attacks to continue with little impunity. The violence happens in the name of protecting cows, which Hindus consider sacred.
Taking the podium in Ahmedabad on Thursday, Modi said, “Today, when I hear that someone is killed in the name of a cow — whether he is innocent or guilty is something the law will decide — no person has the right to take the law into his own hands. I appeal to the people of the country: Violence is not a solution to the problems.”
Modi’s speech intertwined criticism of vigilantism with support for cow protection, and he told of a childhood memory of watching a cow cry after accidentally trampling a young child. It represented a rare condemnation of the extremist flanks of his party’s core support base, widely thought to be responsible for a vast number of lynchings in India, which often target Muslims.
Although such vigilante attacks happen frequently, Modi has spoken out against them only once before; in 2016, he blamed “antisocial elements” after seven lower caste dalits were flogged for allegedly skinning a cow.
This time, he spoke in response to the escalation of lynchings in recent weeks, which prompted nationwide protests Wednesday. Thousands of people gathered in more than a dozen Indian cities, holding signs that read, “Stop cow terrorism” and “Not in my name.”
The protests were organized after images of Junaid Khan, 16, who was brutally killed in what appears to be an Islamophobic attack, circulated on social media. The death was particularly shocking because it happened during Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and a time of celebration for Muslims.
“When I heard about Junaid Khan’s incident, it shook me up,” said Rahul Roy, one of the organizers of the protest in New Delhi. “One after the other, news of lynchings had been coming in. In north India, there is a sense of impunity — that you can attack Muslims and get away with it. It is fairly clear that the state is not going to act.”
The latest lynching, in the eastern state of Jharkhand on Thursday, led to the death of a 50-year-old man who was suspected of buying beef at a market, according to local news accounts.
An analysis of English news reports by IndiaSpend, a data journalism nonprofit organization, found that cow-related attacks, which had been relatively infrequent, have increased sharply under Modi’s regime. Between 2010 and 2017, 84 percent of those killed were Muslims. In a recent attack, a police officer was beaten to death outside the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. Altogether, 28 Indians have been killed in beef-related attacks since 2010, nearly all of them since Modi took power three years ago.
Prominent social scientist Shiv Visvanathan said Modi’s development-focused government has often turned a blind eye to rising sectarian violence, and left the shaping of society and culture to the BJP’s far right.
“Under Modi, the frequency and cultural framework within which violence is taking place has increased. And it is one particular species of violence. In each case, there is no proof that beef has been consumed, just the suspicion seems adequate,” he said.
“This is a very contemporary event despite its primordial character. And it is not just the beef eater” who is targeted, Visvanathan said, but also the suspected cattle thief, “the child lifter, the spy — a paranoid politics has emerged and all these [vigilante] groups think they control law and order.”