Indians have taken to the streets in several cities across the country to protest against mob killings.

Thousands of people, including church groups and representatives of civil society, have gathered in cities across India over the past ten days to protest against mounting religious intolerance and to express solidarity with the victims of the violence, under the banner “Not in My Name”.

The protests in Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Patna and Lucknow were sparked by the mob killing of Junaid Khan, a 15-year-old Muslim boy who was travelling home on a train last Wednesday (28 June). Saba Dewan, a film-maker from the Indian capital, New Delhi, was so distressed by the news that she rallied a few friends and created an events page on Facebook, which spread quickly. The protests continued into this week with a rally in Mumbai on Monday (3 July).

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Dewan said: “Over the past few years, as one was watching and witnessing the systemic violence that is being unleashed on Dalits [India’s lowest caste], Muslims and minorities, there was a rising sense of disquiet about what the hell was happening. There was discomfort that the government has chosen to stay quiet about the attacks on Muslims.”

Extremists emboldened

Muslims have been particularly targeted for eating or buying beef, following the government’s “beef ban” in May, which prohibited the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, India’s main religion, but “millions of Indians, including Dalits, Muslims and Christians, have long consumed beef. It is one of the cheapest meats available, making it an attractive source of protein for India’s poor”, reports Forbes.

Hindu extremist groups have been emboldened since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014 with a landslide majority, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm. They have interpreted this political success as a “mandate” to advance their cause of creating a Hindu state, according to UCAN.

Michael Williams, president of the United Christian Forum told UCAN: “A small group in India believe that every Indian should follow a particular culture and lifestyle dictated by them. It cannot exist… Not in my name and not in my constitution. Do not fight this war in the name of India and Indians. You are not protecting the constitution of India by killing innocents.”

‘Threat’ to culture and identity

Although the protests were sparked by violence against the Muslim community, other minorities face oppression as well. In the Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, India ranks 15th. Their churches, symbols and festive holidays have been threatened, as have their lives. On average, more than 15 Christians were attacked every week in India in 2016, according to Open Doors. For some of them, their ‘offence’ was leaving Hinduism to become a Christian.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the country’s constitution, seven Indian states have so-called “anti-conversion laws” in place. They make conversion from Hinduism a punishable act if done through “force, allurement or appeasement”. Daniel John, a member of the All India Catholic Union, told UCAN that in reality “any activity, such as providing education, healthcare or a simple sermon” could be interpreted in this way.

In an interview with Crux, Thomas Menamparampil, Archbishop of Guwahati in north-eastern Assam state, noted that “the Christian presence is minuscule in the country – about 2.3 percent of the population – and the Hindu majority is alarmed when they hear the word ‘conversion’, seeing it as a threat to their community’s culture and identity”.

At a meeting in Brussels last month, Dutch MEP Peter Van Dalen spoke of his concern regarding religious freedom in India. “Since Narendra Modi rose to power with his nationalist party in 2014, the situation has become worse and worse, and now the position of religious minorities has become even more alarming,” he said.

“The government pushes policies such as protecting cows  – which are sacred in Hinduism but a food source in Christian and Muslim communities – and opposition to conversion because most of the poorer members of Hindu society will not be impressed with ‘boasts about achievements in the field of economy’,” Archbishop Menamparampil told Crux.

Rising sectarian violence

As in previous years, Modi eventually spoke out against the violence, doing so in a speech on Thursday 29 June.

On the same day, local news sources reported another mob attack in the eastern state of Jharkhand, in which a 50-year-old man was killed, having been suspected of buying beef at a market.

Prominent social scientist Shiv Visvanathan told the Washington Post: “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. A paranoid politics has emerged and all these [vigilante] groups think they control law and order.”

And anger…

According to Archbishop Menamparampil, the media is increasingly coming under the control of “cultural nationalists”, the police have become more “pliable” to the will of Hindu militants and the courts could follow.

“With the passage of time all the structures of a totalitarian regime can be in position,” he told Crux.

One university student in Kolkata, Anirban Ghatak, said #notinmyname was a “natural outburst of people’s anger” and that he was looking forward to partaking in similar protests.

“After four years of rightist government and its oppression, people have finally built up resistance against it,” he said, as reported by The Times of India.

Mohammed Aamir, a Delhi-based Muslim student who attended the protests, told UCAN that “unrest is growing in the country and protests like these should take place more, where everyone from every nook and corner of the country gathers to deliver a message that we are united.”