A video that shows policemen in plain clothes flogging Muslim men tied to a pole while onlookers cheer has triggered outrage in India, where many see it as another attack on the minority community.
The video clip is believed to have been recorded on Tuesday in western Gujarat’s Kheda district and appeared on social media soon after.
It shows at least four or five men, in turn, tied to an electricity pole as a group of policemen in civilian clothing beat them with sticks. One of them is carrying a pistol in a holster, a common practice for policemen in India.
The men can be seen asking for forgiveness as a cheering crowd screams “maro, maro” or "beat them". A group of policemen in uniform are seen standing near a police van.
The incident occurred after a mob, allegedly from the Muslim community, threw stones at a Garba event in Undhela village in the district on Monday.
Garba is a traditional dance form from Gujarat that is performed during the nine-day Navaratri festival by Hindus to celebrate goddess Durga’s victory over Mahisasur, a half-man, half-buffalo demon.
Police arrested a dozen people and cases were registered against 150 people, including women.
The district’s top police officer, VR Bajpayee, said that a group of Muslim youth tried to halt Garba because the event venue was near a mosque and a temple.
The video triggered anger on social media where many have called the summary punishment an attack on the rule of law.
“No context justifies such cruel and humiliating punishment as it attacks the very Rule of Law. These people are alleged to have pelted stones at a Garba function. The local police have arranged a public punishment for the accused,” Sanjoy Ghose, a lawyer, tweeted.
Every year, huge Garba events are organised in parks and community halls across Gujarat, and in other parts of the country where people dress up in traditional attire and dance in big circles.
While traditionally the event is open to people from all castes and communities ― Muslim artists have historically sung devotional songs at the Garba events ― Hindu right-wing groups in recent years called for a ban on the participation of Muslim youth in the event, citing Love Jihad.
Love Jihad is a conspiracy theory peddled by right-wing groups that wrongly asserts Muslim men maliciously lure women, particularly from the Hindu community, into relationships to convert them to Islam.
Even leaders from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have warned Muslim men from participating in the events because they believe the men hide their identity and attend the events to lure Hindu girls.
“In a bid to maintain peace and harmony on such a holy occasion, the organisers have been instructed to provide an entry in the Garba events only after checking the ID cards,” said Narottam Mishra, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister.
Several instances of Muslim men being held or beaten up have been reported this year in states like Gujarat and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh.
Authorities in Indore in central Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday reportedly razed the houses of three Muslim youth who were arrested for allegedly being involved in a scuffle with a Hindu man at a Garba event.
Police in the state arrested 14 Muslim men after Bajrang Dal, a right-wing group, handed them over to the police for entering the Garba venues in separate incidents.
Three Muslim youth were thrashed in Ujjain by members of the group for allegedly making videos of women at the venue.
In Maharashtra, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an ultra-right-wing Hindu group, made identity cards mandatory for entry into the venues in a bid to stop Love Jihad.
“Why should Muslim men come alone to these events? They come with malafide intentions, hiding their identity and changing their names. Why don’t they come with their sisters and wives if they want to enjoy our culture?” Surendra Gupta, General Secretary of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Delhi unit, told The National.
"Their presence should be made a criminal offence,” he said.
But opposition leaders and political activists are calling the attacks an attempt to undermine the country's diversity and stoke communal hatred.
Shahid Siddiqui, a former politician and a leading Muslim commentator, said that the images of policemen beating the accused Muslims to cheers from the public are "horrifying and shameful".
"This kind of public display of beating up of men and people surrounding shouting and celebrating, this is beyond our imagination. This is terrible. The way politics has taken command on religion, it is going to damage the Indian ethos," Mr Siddique told The National.
"It is a continuity of an attitude where Muslims are being told that they are not equal citizens, and the system, the police or administration treating them as if laws are not for them, just point at them, their house will be razed and they can be beaten up," he said.