Sujoy Dhar, Special for USA TODAY
NEW DELHI — One April afternoon, a group of men clad in saffron scarves barged into a house in Meerut, 40 miles northeast of here, and dragged out a young Muslim man and a Hindu woman. Their offense: They were an interfaith couple in love.
The men, part of a self-appointed enforcement group called the Hindu Youth Brigade, beat the man, videotaped the incident and then handed him over to police for charges of obscenity. The traumatized woman, who wept and covered her face with her scarf, was let off with a warning.
“We are not against love, but this guy changed his name (to a Hindu one) to mislead the girl. Let police investigate,” said Nagendar Pratap Singh Tomar, chief of the brigade.
The April 12 Meerut incident is the latest example of Hindu vigilantes attacking Muslims in this overwhelmingly Hindu country, especially with the gains made by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March elections.
Several similar attacks have occurred since March, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose an anti-Muslim firebrand, Yogi Adityanath, to be chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of the nation’s Hindu population.
On April 13, another interfaith engaged couple in Meerut was attacked in the street by brigade members. The Muslim woman faced verbal abuse while her fiancé, a Hindu, was beaten for protesting.
Also in April, two dairy farmers returning from a cattle fair in a northern state were attacked by vigilantes, leaving one dead and the other seriously wounded. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus, who make up 80% of India’s population of 1.3 billion.
“We had purchased the cows legally for dairy farming, but our vehicle was intercepted by these men and they beat us up so badly that my neighbor died,” Azmat Khan, 27, from a remote village in Haryana, said from his bed.
India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, said Muslims feel a deep sense of dread since Modi, a fierce Hindu nationalist, took office in 2014.
“For the last 30 months, a climate of fear and insecurity is created by repeated, deliberate, divisive and provocative statements,” said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a member of parliament and spokesman for the Congress party. “They are seeking to impose a single uniform ethic … whether it is in relation to food, dress, culture or thinking.”
Modi’s party strongly disagrees. “There has been an attempt by rival parties and sections of the media to stoke a persecution complex among minorities based on rare, isolated events,” said BJP spokesperson Narasimha Rao. “Propaganda by vested interests has miserably failed because it is unreal, fabricated and fictional.”
New Delhi-based political analyst Ashok Malik said such statements show the BJP has to reach out to the persecuted minority. “The attacks on Muslims are often individual groups of criminals taking advantage of the situation,” said Malik, a fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank.
The BJP has taken an aggressive stance in dealing with anti-India Muslim youths in the disputed Kashmir region, which is roiled by a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency. India and mostly Muslim Pakistan have long fought over the region because of competing territorial claims.
Youths regularly pelt Indian soldiers with stones, causing an ongoing conflict in the Muslim-majority states of Jammu and Kashmir. The government faced fresh criticism when a video went viral showing a Muslim man, Farooq Dar, 24, tied to the front bumper of an army jeep as a human shield against the stone-pelters.
Dar later told Indian media that he had defied the separatists’ call for an election boycott in Kashmir and was on his way to his sister’s house after voting when the army picked him up to be a human shield.
The BJP government earlier had authorized paramilitary forces to use pellet guns on protesters, causing widespread casualties and eye injuries to the young stone-throwers.
“Everyone talks about the human rights of terrorists, separatists and disruptive elements. It is high time everyone realize that the security forces, fighting in tough conditions braving all odds, are also humans and have human rights,” Rao said. “They have been highly professional and restrained even in some highly provocative situations.”
Such assurances do not calm the fears of Muslims worried about continued persecution despite Modi’s promise not to exclude religious minorities from his efforts to modernize his nation and make it more prosperous.
“Recent incidents are worrisome,” said Faizul Hasan, the student leader of Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. “We have written letters to the prime minister to honor his commitment to the Muslims that they would be protected and be part of India’s nation building.”