Nothing puts to test the strength of India’s secular, social fabric as a hate crime does. The horrific murder of Mohsin Shaikh, an IT professional in Pune, by a group of youngsters owing allegiance to the Hindu Rashtra Sena, is a reminder of how a post-election feeling of triumphalism can feed a climate of lawlessness among the fanatic fringe elements of Hindutva groups. Shaikh gave no cause for provocation, but was targeted merely because he was a Muslim. The attack followed rumours that a Shivaji statue was stoned, and came in the context of rising communal tensions after the circulation in the social media of morphed pictures of Shivaji, and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray. Clearly, the Hindutva elements were looking for a prey, and Shaikh happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hate crimes have a way of spreading and multiplying in the absence of speedy intervention by the state. The onus is therefore on those in power to act swiftly against such attacks and erase the impression that those involved in the crimes would be protected from the legal consequences of their actions. But shockingly, sections of the Bharatiya Janata Party have sought to rationalise the attack. The BJP Member of Parliament from Pune, Anil Shirole, spoke of how “some amount of repercussions” after the posts on social media was “natural”. Instead of distancing the party and the government from such attacks, Mr. Shirole seems to have done just the opposite.
The BJP as the ruling party must send out a clear message that law and order is its top priority and that it is opposed to any kind of criminal behaviour in the name of religion. Otherwise, the government it heads will have difficulty instilling confidence in the people, and religious minorities will remain insecure. Worse, it could encourage other fringe outfits operating on the lines of the Hindu Rashtra Sena to continue to target minorities as part of a larger plan of religious polarisation and Hindu consolidation. Earlier governments led by the BJP had kept the most contentious and divisive issues on the backburner as the party needed the support of allied secular parties. The party will now have to demonstrate its ability to transform itself into a responsible party of governance, from the ranks of a belligerent opposition. There can be no room for triumphalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first few days in government, has already shown he has the ability to rise above his own past record. If he wants to erase the shadow of the 2002 events, his government will have to be firm in its actions against hate crimes.