Jai Shri Ram: the three words that can get you lynched in India

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  • Organised violence against Muslims has increased sharply since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power
  • Mob violence, fanned by the policies of the right-wing nationalist government, often comes accompanied by a Hindu chant: ‘Victory for Lord Ram!’

Raksha Kumar29 Mar, 2020

In a February 2020 photograph, relatives and neighbours wail near the body of Mohammad Mudasir, 31, who was killed in communal violence in New Delhi. Photo: AP
In a February 2020 photograph, relatives and neighbours wail near the body of Mohammad Mudasir, 31, who was killed in communal violence in New Delhi. Photo: AP

As the night grew darker in the Bhagirathi Vihar neighbourhood of Gokalpuri in northeast Delhi, about 30 men on motorbikes approached the house of a local Muslim man named Musharraf, whose family had decided to stay indoors after communal violence had flared in nearby areas on February 24.

The men, all chanting “Jai Shri Ram”, began pounding on Musharraf’s door, according to his neighbours. When nobody from the family opened the door, the mob splashed kerosene on the house and threatened to set it on fire. To stop them, Musharraf came out of the house. He was promptly lynched, said his brother Munjid. Media reports say his body was thrown in the gutter.

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New Delhi, India’s capital, had been simmering since December 15 as many took to the streets protesting a law passed by the nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which could disenfranchise Muslims in India and make them second-class citizens. But on February 23, the flames of religious tensions grew large enough to engulf most of the northeastern part of the city, killing close to 50 people and grievously wounding 250 more.

Mobs whimsically lynching Muslims was not limited to the violence in Delhi, but is common since the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party came to power several years ago.

Most of the lynchings of Muslims have been carried out by organisations that have overt backing of the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu fundamentalist group that is the parent organisation of the BJP.

A group of men in New Delhi chanting pro-Hindu slogans beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters
A group of men in New Delhi chanting pro-Hindu slogans beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters

DISTORTED MEANINGS

The “Jai Shri Ram” chant, which was once a greeting among people irrespective of religion, has been appropriated by Hindu fundamentalists, who now interpret it to mean “Victory for Lord Ram!” rather than its original “Hail Lord Ram”. According to Hindu scriptures, Lord Ram is considered to be the “ideal” example for Hindu men to follow.Coronavirus Update NewsletterGet updates direct to your inboxBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

The implication of making Muslims chant “Jai Shri Ram” is that India is a land for Hindus only, and that Muslims must praise Hindu deities if they want to survive in the country.

Activists say this belief has been perpetuated by the Modi government’s policies that marginalise minorities. In 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a four-centuries-old mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya, claiming the mosque sat on the spot where Lord Ram was born.

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Last year, India’s Supreme Court noted that the mosque should not have been brought down, but ended up granting permission to Hindu organisations to build a Ram temple on the disputed site anyway.

In a recent report by the Mumbai-based Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, 107 incidents of mob violence occurred in 2019, claiming 68 lives and gravely injuring 120 more – nearly a 30 per cent increase over the 84 incidents reported in 2018.

Significantly, 16 incidents were reported last year where mobs demanded that their victims chant “Jai Shri Ram”.

Security personnel patrol a road in New Delhi on March 1 following sectarian riots over India’s new citizenship law. Photo: AFP
Security personnel patrol a road in New Delhi on March 1 following sectarian riots over India’s new citizenship law. Photo: AFP

A BROKEN SYSTEM

There has not been a single conviction in any of the country’s lynching cases.

“This lack of fear of the consequences not only emboldens the attackers but also signals that the system is broken,” said Irfan Engineer, who co-authored the report by the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism.

In September 2015, when the first major case of the lynching of a Muslim was reported in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the country was shocked. Mobs had entered the house of Mohammed Akhlaq and alleged that he had stolen and slaughtered a calf, storing the meat in his refrigerator. For his “crime”, Akhlaq was killed by a mob of about 150 people.

Although many Indians expressed outrage on social media over the lynching, no street protests occurred.

“If such incidents had happened in the past, people would have taken to the streets,” said Engineer. “None of that happened, and the right-wing organisations understood that they had shifted the definition of what ‘normal’ is.”

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A court later found that the meat in Akhlaq’s fridge could have been mutton. Nineteen men were charged in the case, but all are out on bail. In September 2018, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was seen in an election rally with one of the leaders of the mob, Vishal Singh Rana.

Since Akhlaq’s case, reports of mob violence have appeared regularly in newspapers, with one website, Quint, keeping a running ledger of all lynchings since 2015. But details of the violence are thin on the ground, beyond the mere counting of the episodes.

“They have now become news that would perhaps raise an eyebrow or two, nothing more,” said Neha Dabhade, a Mumbai-based researcher who works on communal violence.

Mob violence has also been carried out by right-wing groups, such as Yuva Sena, a student group affiliated with the right-wing political party Shiv Sena, and Shir Ram Sena, another group arrested by the RSS.

Last August in Kalyan, near Mumbai, a group that forced a Muslim man to chant “Jai Shri Ram” belonged to the Bajrang Dal, the militant wing of the RSS. One man was detained in the case.

For vulnerable communities, like the wife and family of Musharraf who was beaten and lynched by a mob in Gokalpuri, there seems to be little recourse besides attempting to start anew. The dead man’s brother Munjid said they were moving to their ancestral village in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

“We cannot live in a city that makes us feel unsafe,” said his brother Munjid. “Moreover, this city will now remind us of Musharraf.”This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Mob violence grows under Modi