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Silent complicity

In India, hate crimes are invisible and under-reported

Ever since the country's traumatic partition, India has never been as divided as it is today. The growing gulf of resentment, suspicion and hostility among its peoples will take generations to bridge. And, yet, this profound challenge to the country's domestic peace, fraternity and unity is not matched by even enough acknowledgment, let alone resistance.

India is swiftly transforming into a republic of hate and fear, especially for its religious minorities and disadvantaged castes. The response of the ruling establishment to rising hate crime is cynical, combining strategic silences and official denial with tacit encouragement and incitement of hate speech and violence, and patronizing vigilante groups and militias.

The culpable silences that surround mounting hate crimes are societal, political and official. Troubling is the scarcity of compassion and solidarity with victims of hate crimes. That the political conspiracies of silence around hate crime span the ideological spectrum was reflected in the Gujarat elections of the winter of 2017. Except for the independent candidate, Jignesh Mevani, all political parties chose to avoid mentioning Muslims and the violence.

The dogged official silence and the denial by the State strike hardest at India's constitutional values. An otherwise voluble prime minister responds to hate attacks with strategic silences and unspontaneous anguish. Instead, we hear rationalizations by chief ministers and senior ministers and runaway hate speech by the entire gamut of the ruling establishment, from ministers and legislators to 'fringe groups', which are actually mainstream. All combine to legitimize, nurture and embolden pervasive social bigotry and hate violence.

This coalesces with barefaced official denial of the scale of hate violence. In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha on December 27, 2017, the Union home minister claimed that in 2017, until July, there were just two cases of mob lynching in the country, one in Maharashtra and one in Rajasthan. This patently false claim has not been challenged within or outside Parliament, even though on its veracity hinges hopes of the security of the country's vulnerable minorities.

This conforms to the claims of the government and its supporters who maintain that the numbers of hate crime are inconsequential, and that a few stray incidents are blown out of proportion by vested interests to defame the government. This denial was especially remarkable in a frightening year scarred by hate attacks so gruesome that they penetrated even the generally reticent mainstream media.

Official denial is aided because although India's National Crime Records Bureau collates information on a wide range of crimes, it does not count hate crimes. This helps make these crimes invisible, thereby erasing any State accountability for these. This contrasts with mandatory duties that have been established in democracies with diverse populations like the United States of America and the United Kingdom, where the State is required to publish regular reports on hate crimes. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation counted 6,121 hate crimes in the US in 2016. Another official body, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, reported that the number of hate crimes was many times higher, at around 2,50,000.

In India, if we are to hold our governments to their constitutional duty to control hate crimes and ensure justice for the victims, we must not only demand that the NCRB count and report hate crimes but also that the State fund a well-staffed independent agency to do the same. But there is likely to be no political will for this in the present administration (nor sufficient resolve in the Opposition to compel it to do so).

This places high duty on the independent media and civil society to estimate the numbers and nature of hate crimes. A national newspaper did establish a hate crime tracker, which listed over 150 hate crimes, but it was pulled off. A credible non-profit data media portal, IndiaSpend, collated cow-related mob attacks after 2010 reported in the English-language press. It found that 97 per cent of these occurred after Narendra Modi assumed office in Delhi, 86 per cent of the persons killed were Muslim and 8 per cent Dalit. It reports further that 2017 recorded the highest death toll (11) and the most number of incidents of hate violence (37) related to cows and religion since 2010. A civil society coalition, Citizens against Hate, studied 30 such cases of lynching and vigilante violence, and confirmed that an overwhelming majority of these attacks were against Muslims, and, sometimes, against Dalits. Many attacks relate to alleged smuggling, slaughter and eating of cattle. Inter-faith couples and their relatives have been the target of many attacks, but some Muslims have been lynched without attributing any specific offence to them.

The United Christian Forum for Human Rights recorded 216 incidents of attacks on Christians in 2017, including violence against priests, nuns and shrines. There have also been many hate attacks on Dalits in 2017, including the burning of a Dalit settlement in Saharanpur, a Dalit boy being thrashed for sporting a moustache and the lynching of a Dalit man for attending a garba dance - both in Gujarat villages - and attacks on African nationals and people from India's Northeast.

I am convinced that the numbers of hate crimes recorded by all these agencies are only a tiny fraction of those that actually occurred. In September 2017, we undertook a journey for atonement and solidarity to families struck by hate violence in eight states, which we called 'Karwan e Mohabbat'. We visited 55 families, but our discussions with communities revealed that the actual numbers of hate crimes would run into thousands. We have, therefore, resolved to continue this journey through this new year, visiting families bereaved by hate attacks in at least one state every month, beginning with Bengal in January and Odisha in February.

There are many reasons why hate crimes in India are so invisible and under-reported. Most sections of both mainstream media and civil society organizations self-censor reporting hate crimes and extending humanitarian and human-rights support to the survivors, partly in fear of official retribution if they were to report the truth. The police are neither trained nor motivated to distinguish hate crimes from ordinary crimes, and rarely charge them under criminal sections associated with hate crimes. Hate crimes, such as communal taunts, pulling beards, harassing women in burkas, or communal and caste bullying in schools, public transport and workplaces have become so common that these are mostly endured, never reported. Survivors and victim families have little faith that they will secure justice from state administrations that are nakedly hostile to their minority residents. Therefore, unless there are deaths, they do not file or pursue police complaints. The police most often side with the hate criminals, and frequently register criminal charges against the victims instead, charging them as cow smugglers and killers, criminals, love jihadis or missionaries making dubious religious conversions. Worse, we have found instances in which the police described men lynched by mobs as cow smugglers killed by rash driving, thereby erasing the lynching entirely from the record.

If India is to pull back from becoming a land in which people live with dread only because they worship a different god, or are born to disadvantaged castes, or look different or eat differently, then we must fight to shatter societal, political and official silences and denials. We must restore compassion to and solidarity with public life. We must compel parties that claim commitment to secular democracy to not compromise with majoritarian politics. And we must fight the official denial of hate violence, beginning with developing a robust tracking of every hate crime in the country.

Opinion

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