Human rights group Amnesty International has called the flogging of Muslim men by police in the western Indian state of Gujarat “a serious human rights violation” that shows “utter disrespect towards the law”.
A video of the incident that took place on Tuesday in Udhela village of Gujarat’s Kheda district went viral on social media. It showed several Muslim men tied to a pole and beaten with a stick by policemen in civilian clothing, as a crowd that included women and children cheered.
The men, accused by the police of throwing stones at a Hindu religious event, were told to apologise to the crowd after the flogging and then bundled into a police van.
“The Gujarat police’s use of striking devices such as lathis [sticks] to beat Muslim men who were tied to a pole by the police themselves is a serious human rights violation and shows their utter disrespect towards rule of law,” Amnesty said in a tweet on Wednesday.
“We remind the Gujarat Police that punishment is never a legitimate objective for a law enforcement action, even if using less lethal weapons. In this case, it blatantly ignored the guiding principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability.”
Gujarat is one of India’s most polarised states, with religious riots in 2002 killing what some sources estimate to be more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslims.
Kheda’s Senior Superintendent of Police Rajesh Gadhiya told Al Jazeera the Muslim men in the video had allegedly thrown stones at devotees as they participated in Garba, a traditional dance usually organised during Navratri, a nine-day annual Hindu festival.
Gadhiya said Muslims in the area had objected to the event being held near a mosque, which sparked tensions with the Hindu community.
He said the tensions led to Muslim men throwing stones at the event on Monday night, wounding at least seven Hindus, two of them seriously.
“We have filed a case against 43 people and arrested 18 people so far,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that all the accused were Muslim.
When asked whether police officers publicly flogging Muslims was legal, Gadhiya said an investigation has been launched into the assault.
“Muslim men who disrupted the event were beaten by police and made to apologise to the public,” Shobna Patel, a villager who had been in the crowd during the incident, told Al Jazeera.
Muslim politicians and activists say the flogging is “a new low” in India’s treatment of its Muslim minority.
Imran Khedawala, a state legislator belonging to the opposition Congress party, told Al Jazeera the BJP was deliberately creating religious tensions ahead of the state elections and that the officers involved in the flogging should be held accountable.
“There should be an investigation into the incident. There is a law in place. We demand that the police should be punished for this flogging,” Khedawala said.
Since Navratri started in late September, Muslims were banned from entering religious events in several places. Hindu groups allege Muslims engage in “love jihad” – an unproven conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of seducing Hindu women to convert them to Islam – at such events.
Indian media reports over the past week said some Hindu groups checked the identity of people entering the religious events. In some cases, Muslim men who were just passing through the area were also assaulted.
In Madhya Pradesh, another state ruled by the BJP, authorities on Tuesday demolished the homes of at least three Muslims accused of throwing stones at Hindu events, according to local media reports.