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IT is difficult to remember a period, at least in recent times, when public opinion and social discourse has appeared so sharply polarized. Ranged on one side is the small though growing number of citizens – across ethnicity, faith and class – who are deeply distressed by the increased incidence of intolerance resulting in public disorder and murderous assaults on primarily, though not only, members of the Muslim faith and Dalits by groups purportedly acting in defence of Hindu tradition, alongside what they perceive as a deliberate failure of the government to rein in the mobs. And even though many of these flashpoints revolve around the ‘holy’ cow, the vigilante assertion by self-styled Hindu groups and organizations routinely picks up many unrelated issues from distortion of history to lack of respect for the nation.

On the other side are those, far more numerous, who, if not extolling, explain away these actions as a necessary corrective to a deliberate slighting of Hindu faith and sensibility and a non-recognition of the Hindu character of the Indian nation by earlier ‘secular’ regimes. Moreover, they dismiss the allegations of growing intolerance as vastly exaggerated, more reflecting a blind opposition, if not a conspiracy, to defame the Modi regime, and by association, the country.

Caught in between are a vast majority who, though uneasy with the ‘breakdown’ in social relations and the tendency of vigilantism, remain confused about ‘facts’. Many of them, having welcomed the elevation of Narendra Modi as prime minister as a strong and decisive leader, are loath to accept that the regime he presides over may have turned toxic. And since they see no viable political alternative in sight, most often prefer to remain silent.

So have the incidents of lynching and mob violence, most of them related to issues surrounding cattle trade or beef consumption, increased after the election of the BJP at the Centre in May 2014? A recent paper by Rupa Subramanya of the Observer Research Foundation, ‘Has India Become "Lynchistan"?’, July 2017 subjects a dataset which she assembled by drawing upon news reports from multiple sources on the number of incidents of lynching and mob violence in India, starting in January 2011 and going up to June 2017, to a range of sophisticated statistical tests to shed light on these questions. Her preliminary results are worth noting.

First, the trend line on mob violence confirms that the number of incidents per month has risen over the time period, and that this trend accelerated after the BJP came to power, negating the assertion that the UPA period had experienced equivalent or greater violence. Second, by breaking up the data into two subsets – January 2011 to May 2014 and June 2014 to June 2017 – and examining the trends, she shows the presence of a significant structural break between May and June 2014. Moreover, she shows that mob violence (lynching and public disorder; both include incidents which may or may not have a communal motivation) was trending downwards during the later days of the UPA and took an upward turn only after the BJP victory. Third, by separating out cow related and communal violence from total mob violence, she shows that from a low share of less than 5%, cow related violence has been rising sharply as a percentage of the total, reaching over 20% by the end of June 2017.

In these charged times when all analysis is seen as biased, it is important to point out that the ORF is no left-liberal think tank, prone to paint the regime in power in negative hues. Clearly the prime minister who, on at least two occasions, has spoken out against criminal elements masquerading as gau rakshaks, most recently at the centenary celebrations of the Sabarmati Ashram, needs to go beyond verbal admonishments and act decisively. This his government will need to do, not just against those physically participating in acts of violence but also against members of the larger sangh parivar, whether in or out of government, who continue to publicly legitimize such behaviour and worse, laud the cow vigilantes as dharma rakshaks. Equally, he will need to rethink his position about placing increased restrictions on cattle trade and banning consumption of beef.

The BJP government, and more specifically the prime minister, can possibly be credited with a range of much needed corrective moves, be it in the area of the economy, foreign policy or defence, even as many experts question the specifics of various policy moves. But one area that he and his regime have a dismal record is in maintaining social peace and harmony, arguably an outcome related to their core ideological convictions. Unless there is a shift in attitude and action, and soon, it is likely that we will be saddled with a country more fractured and divided than the one we inherited. Surely not a prospect that anyone would relish.

Harsh Sethi