Asif Khan, a 25-year-old gym trainer from Mewat, Haryana was killed by a mob of Hindu extremists on 18 May when he was travelling with his brother to buy medicines for his cousin during the height of the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic. The locals demanded arrest of the murderers and blocked the roads to mark their frustration as the media picked up the case. Soon after, social media was flooded with collages of Asif’s “before” vs “after” pictures. Brutalised pictures of Asif lay collaged next to pictures of a muscular, athletic Asif.
The initial reports claimed Asif and his friends had some rivalries with the gang that chased them down seeing an opportune moment and forced them to chant “Jai Sri Ram”. Before further reports could be revealed or any investigation could take place, the comment sections of news articles and editorials came to be flooded with some sort of exposé of Asif by people who had apparently known him from his village. A revelatory story emerged that Asif was chased down by the mob not for being a Muslim but because he was accused of filming explicit videos of several young women without their consent. It did not take long for sites like Opindia and other Hindutva mouthpieces to pick on the narrative and publish full-length articles on Asif’s alleged sexual misconduct that apparently took place 10 years ago. The slanderous comments turned into articles on websites and eventually the websites came to be quoted as “sources” for further comments-thus completing a full circle.
But this story is not about Asif. It is about the Muslim rapist. The case of Asif is only the latest in a series of events in which lynched Muslim men have been subsequently outed as predators.
On August 24, 2020, social media was again flooded with details of the harrowing assault of Akhlaque from Panipat whose right arm was cut off with a chainsaw. The initial story that emerged was of this man called Akhlaque who had come to Panipat to find work, requesting some water from some strangers. He had a tattoo of 786 on his right arm, the believed numerical denotation of “Bismillah” which outed his religious identity to his attackers; he was dragged by the very people he expected some water from and his tattoo was sawed off his body. As public pressure mounted on the police and the culprits, a slew of articles started trickling onto social media attempting to expose Akhlaque. He was accused of sodomising and attempting to kidnap an 11 year old girl for which he was booked by the police 3 weeks after his arm was sawed off him. Regarding his chopped-off arm, the police speculated it may have somehow been caused by the trains since the incident took place at a railway station. No further explanations of this bizarre story have been given.
There is a need to observe the pattern of accusation in cases of lynching that are brutal enough, even by today’s standards of desensitization, to catch the public’s eye. The common timeline is generally as follows: pre-story, public outrage, and a post outrage exposé. There is a subtle injection of alt-narratives into the mainstream discussion primarily through social media. The victim is denied his victimhood and is posthumously awarded a background story powerful enough to drain out all support and sympathy from the liberal masses.
The aim of the Hindu right is no longer limited to mere defense of the lynchers but has transformed into the justification of the lynching on grounds of liberal values. The mainstream discussion, if not completely terminated, at least becomes reluctant to show direct sympathy with an accused sexual assaulter. The erstwhile public outrage is subdued with the help of false accusations meanwhile an aggressive defense campaign and rallies are whipped up to support the accused. The campaigning to make any connection at all of the lynched victims to rape is evident from the case of Tabrez Ansari who was lynched in Jharkhand. As harrowing images of Ansari’s murder emerged, solidarity started brimming towards his case. Next thing we know, a case was filed by Hindu women in Ranchi alleging supporters of Ansari had threatened to rape them.
The Hindu right has perfected this weaponization of the discourse around women’s safety. This deliberate curtaining of hate crimes behind a supposedly virtuous movement is designed to produce a moral dilemma in the masses. The allegations force the masses to double guess their support to the victim who has just been outed as an assaulter. All further support of anti-lynching campaigns is attacked for being pro-criminals. The revelations are worded both aggressively and defiantly. They are worded in a conspiratorial manner that suggest a defamation campaign against the Hindu community.
There is a trend of meta-fact checking by right wing pages wherein the fake-news are presented as sensational “factchecked original story”.
As far back as Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 that led to the deaths of more than 50 Muslims and displacement of 50,000, a similar pattern of neo-narrative can be observed. As reports of murders, looting, and attacks started pouring into the national media, a new angle came to crop up. Leading news channels ran stories of the origin of the riot that traced its way back to a case of eveteasing of a Jat girl by a Muslim man. The initial FIR made no mention of any angle of eve teasing or any other form of sexual harassment. Even after 7 years of the riots, one can hardly discuss the pogrom without someone quipping in with the “original backstory” that demonises the victims and venerates the attackers.
“The Muslim Rapist” has become a dogwhistle that has little to do with rape. In Dimapur mob lynching of 2015, Syed Farid Khan, accused of rape was lodged in jail when a mob of thousands of people dragged him out and made a public spectacle of a brutal murder. Just two days before his lynching, Naga Students Federation had publicly accused “immigrant Bangladeshi Muslims” of serially raping Naga women. Post lynching narrative remained fixated on “Muslim, immigrant” identification of the accused, leading to exodus of more than 4000 Bengali Muslims from Nagaland.
The weaponization of women’s movements against the minorities is nothing new and has been regularly documented in history. After the abolition of slavery in USA, there was an exponential rise in cases of “the black rapist”.It is estimated that in the short period of 50 yrs between 1880 and 1930, more than 10,000 African American men were lynched in the name of white women’s safety.
Accusations of sexual deviancy or misconduct within an oppressed demographic are itself not new. The growing support around the agenda of “Love Jihad” is woven around the narrative of Muslim men’s alleged romantic and sexual corruption.
In late 2017, Shambhu Nath Regar hacked Afrazul to death, recorded the incident, and uploaded it on the internet to go viral. After the initial outrage against the gruesome murder livestreamed for the public, started emerging sympathetic, revelatory stories of the incident. Regar’s justification was that Afrazul was involved in love jihad missions, trying to convert impressionable Hindu girls to Islam. If the blatantly Islamophobic masses had cheered the lynching, the latently Islamophobic section latched onto the story of romantic corruption to justify the murder. We can see the derailment of narratives pays well as Regar earned the sympathy of the masses and lacs of rupees were arranged for his bail; he was later offered a ticket to fight the elections for the Lok Sabha.
Social media is the battleground where the war of narratives have come to be fought. It has become the space to host the theatrics of Muslim lynchings where brutalised Muslim bodies are either plastered in the form of collages or willingly uploaded by the murderers themselves driven by a perverted sense of self-righteousness. The lynchings are regularly sanitised with the cloak of women’s safety. The Hindu right is smart enough to realise that a majority of its support comes from latent islamophobes who are too shy to be politically outspoken, who must be provided with a comfortable story to come out in open support. The elite, English speaking islamophobic masses aware of the liberal ideals cannot be expected to out themselves yet also must not be allowed to withdraw their support. The brazen genocidal chants at Mahapanchayats are mirrored in elite academic soliloquies on feminist objectives on Facebook walls calling for the lynching of The Muslim Rapist.
The arguments of carceral feminism are frequently co-opted by rightwing political forces whereby crimes like lynching are portrayed as punitive measures. After the brutal rape and murder of a veterinarian in Hyderabad, parliamentarian Jaya Bacchan advocated in Lok sabha, “These kinds of people (the accused) should be brought out in public and lynched”. Noted media platforms like Times Now nonchalantly conduct polls on social media asking whether their viewers support the lynching of rapists. Opposition to public vigilantism and mob lynchings are mocked for being rape-sympathising.
The Hindu right has been vocal not just in support of lynchers but rapists themselves. The rapists of Kathua and Hathras have invited large rallies in support, so it is ridiculously twisted for the right wing to don the cloak of women’s empowerment to justify communal lynchings. A problem can be detected in popular feminist movements that have centered the discussions merely on gender identity without taking into consideration the intersections of other identities. For communities that are targeted for religion, ethnic or racial reasons, a gender based parochial divide vilifies the men of the community to the extent that they are not just denied their victimhood but are posed as threats to the whole society in large. The crimes against women are embodied as the target minority or oppressed group. Hence the elimination of the crime and the target group becomes synonymous. The conclusion eventually becomes that the Muslim rapist must be lynched or rather, the lynched Muslim must be a rapist.
Hanan Irfan is an engineering student and independent writer in Kolkata.