An attempt by Hindu nationalists and media in western India to blame Christians for the mob killing of three Hindus threatens to provoke violence against Christians, sources said.
A tribal mob on April 16 killed the three men, two of them Hindu ascetics, in Gadchinchale village, Palghar District in Maharashtra state.
“Linking this gruesome incident to the church looks like a deliberate attempt to malign the Christian community and can increase attacks on Christians not just in Palghar district but also elsewhere,” Vijayesh Lal, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), told Morning Star News. “Rumors spread through social media, and vicious attacks by cow vigilantes have resulted in several incidents of lynching throughout India in the recent years, and we condemn each and every one of them. The Christian community has lost at least four of our own to these senseless killings; the Muslim community has lost many more.”
Hindu ascetics Mahant Kalpavruksha Giri, 70, Sushilgiri Maharaj, 35, and their driver, Naresh Yelgade, were traveling when forest guards who had previously stopped them due to the coronavirus lockdown stopped them again as they were returning to Mumbai. At a check post near Gadchinchale, about 55 miles from Palghar town, they were in an area tense from social media warnings against gangs kidnapping children and selling their kidneys—other assaults had taken place days before, and vigilantes patrolled the area, according to reports.
A small mob that grew to nearly 400 members attacked them on suspicions of being kidnappers or robbers, according to area Christians and media reports. Villagers began pelting the Hindu ascetics’ car with stones at about 9 p.m., and forest guards called police. Upon arrival police called for reinforcements when they saw the size of the mob, but another, 250-strong mob on the way to the site stopped the back-up officers, according to reports.
The growing mob accused police of protecting thieves and kidnappers as officers took Maharaj and Yelgade to a police car. When officers attempted to move the older ascetic, Giri, to the police car, the mob reportedly attacked them.
Members of the mob reportedly damaged the cars of both police and travelers and killed the two ascetics and their driver; officers were unable to stop them, and four policemen were injured and had to be hospitalized.
“The people who killed them reportedly were only a few from among the mob, but the larger mob was there and witnessed the killing,” area Christian leader Sakharam Shinde told Morning Star News.
Police later arrested more than 100 people, including nine minors, under sections of the Indian Penal Code related to murder, attempt to murder and deterring a government servant from performing his duty.
“The police chased people and arrested many, but in some cases, the police also broke into the houses of the people who were not involved at all and in fact did not even know about the incident and arrested them too,” Shinde said.
A local court in Dahanu on Thursday (April 30) extended judicial custody of those arrested until May 14.
Two days after the killings, Hindu nationalists on social media began trying to portray the perpetrators as Muslims. Videos released on Twitter were said to include the mob calling out Muslim names.
Attempting to counteract the attempts to stir up religious division, Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted that the incident had no sectarian element, and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray stated the same in a video released on April 20. When fact-finding sites like Altnews.in investigated and took the air out of the claims of the Hindu nationalist posts, the social media narrative switched to allegations of a Christian conspiracy, sources said.