In the aftermath of Junaid Khan’s murder, an epidemic of list-making has taken over social media. The idea is to meticulously collate occurrences of lynching that took place in 2017, since 2014, after 2004, under the United Progressive Alliance or after the National Democratic Alliance took over.
This is, perhaps, prompted by the need to put Junaid’s murder in context — to frame it in a narrative that best explains what exactly is going on here. It, however, does nothing to alter the explicit brutality of the murder committed on the evening of June 22. And, for that reason, perhaps it is time that we define it (and other such incidents) as a hate crime instead of merely labelling it another case of mob lynching.
We do not have laws to tackle hate crimes. Consequently, we do not have strict definitions that allow us to bracket crimes as such — and indeed, public and media discourse rarely ever scrutinises a crime from the specific lens of prejudice as a key trigger.
Over 50 countries, including, the United States of America, Brazil, Russia, Chile, most countries in the European Union and the United Kingdom, do have legislations on hate crime.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation on its website states that a hate crime is a criminal offence against “a person or property motivated in whole or in part [emphasis added] by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity”.
It goes on to state that “hate” itself is not a crime and that the FBI is “mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties”.
In May this year, an Indian man, who belonged to Kapurthala, Punjab, was stabbed to death for refusing to sell cigarettes to a man in California. The incident started with an altercation when Jagjeet Singh had denied cigarettes to a customer for refusing to furnish an ID. The customer left in a huff, hurling racial abuses at Jagjeet, only to return after 30 minutes to stab him to death.
On the surface, the trigger is an argument over cigarettes, but look deeper and it isn’t just fury at play here — not all arguments end fatally and when they are accompanied with racial slurs, there is reason to believe that it is a bias-based attack.
Speaking to Washington Post on this issue, Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor, who’s published books on hate crimes, says, one has to get “into the head of the perpetrator and get at his intentions” to establish a hate crime. “And so the evidence in most hate crimes consists of what a defendant says at the crime scene or the graffiti that he may leave there. So if he voices a racial slur, then it’s much more likely that the offense will be tried as a hate crime regardless of what that offense may be.”
Place this in the context of what transpired on the Mathura-bound passenger train that Junaid, his elder brother and two friends boarded after their shopping trip to Delhi. A scuffle over seats led a group of people to comment on their religion and what they ate. One of the survivors of the attack tells reporter Somya Lakhani of The Indian Express that the men, “…flung our skull caps, pulled my brother’s beard, slapped us, and taunted us about eating cow meat. Beef is not even cooked in our village.”
A detailed report in The Caravan by reporter Sagar places the incitement in context. Junaid’s brother, Hashim Khan, says: “Unhone mere sar se topi fenki, kaha ‘Tum mulle ho, kattulle ho. Gai ka gosh khate ho. Fir jab daadhi pakadne ki koshish ki, humne unko roka. jab humne roka toh 25 bandon ne hummey mara. Hum chaar the.” — They pushed my skull cap off my head, and said, ‘You are Muslims, you are circumcised. You eat the meat of a cow. Then when they tried to hold my beard, I stopped them. That’s when those 25 men starting beating us. There were four of us’.”
Beyond the details of the crime, it matters how its victims perceive it. In Hindustan Times, reporter Ananya Bhardwaj, is asked by Junaid’s father, “How could they hate us so much to have killed him so brutally?”
Many people from Junaid’s village now feel that it was his attire that led to the attack. A 15-year-old from Khandawli says, “I wear shirt-pant, not kurta-pyjama, because that way no one can tell I am Muslim, and I can avoid being called a Pakistani.”
We may not have hate crime legislations but from these details, it is clear that we need to recognise prejudice and bigotry as stimuli for some crimes and call them out for what they are. This is important not just because we need to fix what’s turning presumably ordinary commuters into murderous mobs, but because it is an important step towards the healing of those at the receiving end of fatal hate.
In May this year, two men were sentenced to three years of prison for attacking a Sikh man in California, US. The men had been drinking and attacked the victim, Maan S Khalsa, giving him a black eye and knife wounds.
In a statement to the courtroom after the sentencing, Maan said, “It will take me many years, maybe the rest of my life to heal from this attack. But the recognition of the attack as a hate crime – as harm to my dignity and my entire community – is the first step in the process.” Junaid’s family must be given a similar chance to heal.