In many parts of India, Hindus often invoke the popular god Ram’s name as a greeting. But in recent years, Hindu lynch mobs have turned Ram’s name into a murder cry, writes the BBC’s Geeta Pandey in Delhi.
Last month, a video that went viral on social media showed a terrified Muslim man tied to a pole being assaulted by a lynch mob made up of Hindu men in the eastern state of Jharkhand.
In the video, 24-year old Tabrez Ansari is seen pleading for his life, blood and tears streaming down his face. His attackers force him to repeatedly chant “Jai Shri Ram”, which translates from Hindi to “hail Lord Ram” or “victory to Lord Ram”. Mr Ansari does as told, and when the mob is finished with him, he is handed over to the police. The police lock him up and his family is not allowed to see him. He dies four days later from injuries sustained during the attack.
Mr Ansari is not the only one to have been singled out in this manner. June was a particularly bloody month for Indian Muslims, who were targeted in several such attacks.
In Barpeta district in the north-eastern state of Assam, a group of young Muslim men were assaulted and then made to chant slogans like “Jai Shri Ram”, “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (long live Mother India) and “Pakistan murdabad” (death to Pakistan).
In the commercial capital Mumbai, a 25-year-old Muslim taxi driver was abused, beaten up and told to chant “Jai Shri Ram” by a group of men. Faizal Usman Khan said he was attacked when his taxi broke down and he was trying to fix it. His attackers fled after a passenger called the police.
And in the eastern city of Kolkata, Hafeez Mohd Sahrukh Haldar, a 26-year-old Muslim teacher at a madrassa (religious seminary), was heckled while travelling on a train by a group of men chanting “Jai Shri Ram”.
He told reporters that they made fun of his clothes and beard, and then insisted that he also chant the slogans. When he refused, they pushed him out of the moving train. Mr Haldar was injured, but lived to tell the tale. The slogan-shouting and heckling is no longer restricted to the mob and the streets. Worryingly, it has also entered parliament.
When the newly-elected lower house convened for the first time on 17 June, Muslim and opposition MPs were heckled by members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when they stood up to take the oath. The attacks on the minorities have been condemned by opposition politicians.
Rahul Gandhi, before he resigned as leader of the main opposition Congress party, described the mob lynching of Tabrez Ansari as a “blot on humanity”. Many critics, including cartoonist Satish Acharya, have also expressed alarm over the rising number of such incidents.
In villages across north India, devout Hindus have traditionally used “Ram Ram”, “Jai Siya Ram” (goddess Siya or Sita is Ram’s consort) or “Jai Ram Ji Ki” as a greeting.
And many feel a sense of unease that these attacks and killings are being carried out in the name of a god revered by millions for his sense of justice and benevolence.
But “Jai Shri Ram” has now been turned into a cry of attack, meant to intimidate and threaten those who worship differently.
The invocation was first used as a political chant in the late 1980s by the BJP to mobilise the Hindu masses during the movement to construct a Ram temple at a disputed site at Ayodhya.
The party’s then president LK Advani launched a march supporting the construction of the temple and in December 1992 mobs chanting “Jai Shri Ram” marched upon the northern town and tore down the 16th Century Babri mosque.
The BJP believes the mosque was built after the destruction of a temple to Ram that once stood there.
The campaign galvanised Hindu voters in favour of the BJP and helped turn Ram from personal to political. Since then, the party has consistently invoked the deity during elections and the 2019 polls were no exception.
Critics say those who heckle minorities, inside parliament and outside it, see the BJP’s sweeping victory in the April/May elections as sanctioning their behaviour. The party won more than 300 seats in the 543-member lower house, propelling Mr Modi to a second term.
Mr Modi’s first term in power was marked by violence against minorities. There were numerous incidents of Muslims being attacked by so-called “cow vigilantes” over rumours that they had eaten beef, or that they were trying to smuggle cows – an animal many Hindus consider holy – for slaughter.
The prime minister did not condone such attacks, but was criticised for not condemning them either.
But right after the BJP’s stunning victory in May, Mr Modi expanded his earlier slogan of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (development for all) to include “sabka vishwas” (to win the trust of everyone), giving rise to hopes that this term would be different.
A few days after Tabrez Ansari’s death, he told parliament that he was “pained” by the incident and that “the guilty must be severely punished”.
But many Indians doubt that any serious action will be taken against those who carry out such attacks.
Several dozen people have been killed and hundreds injured since 2014 in mob attacks, but there have been convictions in only a handful of cases. But many Indians doubt that any serious action will be taken against those who carry out such attacks.
In others, the accused remain free, often due to a lack of evidence, and some have been seen being feted by Mr Modi’s party’s colleagues.
BJP leaders often downplay such incidents, calling them “minor” and accusing the press of “maligning the image of the government”.
One BJP MP recently told a news website that the popularity of the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” was a sort of protest by Hindus “against a certain bias and tilt of the polity towards minorities”.
“They are also asserting that we are Hindus and we count as Hindus,” he said. But critics say that there are other – better – ways of doing that.