A public flogging of Muslims accused of disrupting a Hindu festival, carried out by the police, has sparked outrage across India, in a new low for religious tensions under Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister .
Incidents of sectarian violence are common in India, but the brutal beating of five men in the Kheda district of Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat is the first in which the police have been involved directly.
Footage of the flogging was shared widely on social media, with the men seen tied to an electricity pole being beaten with canes by armed police officers in plain clothes, as a crowd chants nationalist slogans.
Indravadan Patel, one of the festival’s organisers and a local politician, said a group of Muslim men objected to a traditional Garba dance taking place near a mosque and pelted the Hindus with stones.
Mr Patel said police arrested 10 out of 43 accused and brought them to the spot where the dance was held to flog them.
All the accused are facing charges of attempted murder, rioting, and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. They deny the charges.
‘Rights of animals protected, but not those of Muslims’
“This is not Taliban or Iran but India - where the rights of animals are protected but not those of Muslims,” said Asifa Sheikh, a Muslim from Rajkot, in Gujarat.
More than 50 foreign envoys, led by Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, were in Gujarat to attend the Navrati festival - a major annual celebration for Hindus.
The incident has brought renewed attention to the treatment of religious minorities under the Modi government, which has introduced a series of discriminatory laws against Muslims.
Gyasuddin Shaikh, an opposition congress politician, urged the government to immediately suspend the police officers involved in the flogging.
“The officials who took the law in their hands should be immediately suspended,” he said.
‘Tacit approval of the government’
Kapil Madan, a lawyer at India’s Supreme Court, said: “There is a tacit approval of the government to these attacks otherwise we would have seen condemnation from the government functionaries.”
Since Mr Modi’s BJP government came to power in 2014, Muslims and Christians have suffered repeated attacks from right-wing Hindus.
Scores of houses belonging to Muslims have been demolished after their owners spoke out against the BJP, and much of the hate has been linked to groups or individuals close to the government.
Right-wing Hindus have lynched Muslims for eating beef and sabotaged mosque loudspeakers.
The Garba folk dances have become controversial in recent years. Once openly enjoyed by Hindus and Muslims alike, they have been co-opted by Hindus seeking to sow division.
“All these decades, Garba celebrations like those associated with other religious festivals have been celebrated by members of all communities. But after the advent of the BJP government in 2014, the trend has increased religious festivities becoming occasions to create and deepen fault lines between communities,” said Brinda Karat, a senior communist party politician.
Authorities in the BJP-ruled state of Madya Pradesh on Monday demolished the houses of three Muslim men after a fight broke out at a Garba event.