MUMBAI, India — An archbishop in India is drawing attention to the rise in the number of lynchings taking place in the world’s largest democracy.

Communal violence has long plagued the country, but the rise of social media has made it easier to stir up mobs – in fact, in the country they are called ‘WhatsApp lynchings.’

First noticed in 2017, social media-related lynchings led to more than two dozen deaths in 2018.

“People around the world are aware that India is a multilingual, multi-religious and multicultural nation. Every citizen has freedom of thought, faith, religion, worship and expression. One of the most important things is that in the cosmic system of India lies the ‘rule of law.’ It is expected that every citizen should not violate the law and not do any illegal act,” Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal wrote in late February.

“No one has the right to take the law into his own hands and punish the culprit himself, it is legally wrong and morally unjust too. Such incidents harm the social integrity of the nation and provide the basis for divisive powers to spread the unrest in the country,” the archbishop wrote, calling on the government to “take strict action” to prevent lynch mobs in the country.

Most of the mobs are associated with Hindu nationalist organizations, and the victims are either religious minorities – usually Muslims or Christians – or Dalits, the low-caste Hindus formerly known as “Untouchables.” The majority of those killed have been Muslims involved in the beef trade, angering Hindus, who view the cow as sacred.

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Since then, incidents of harassment against the small Christian minority – which make up less than 3 percent of the population – have increased, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized. Christian schools have also been attacked by mobs insisting they allow Hindu religious ceremonies to take place on their campuses.

In his article, Cornelio noted the psychology of mobs which makes the crowd consider themselves “to be above all the law and narrate their violent behavior as practical and necessary.”

“In recent times, there have been incidents of mob lynching in many places of our country as well as to the extent that people have been caught and killed by the crowd. In these incidents, the so-called accused are eating beef, rape convicted or slaughtering the cattle, or guilty of robbing someone else. In Kashmir, a police officer recently was killed by a mob without any reason,” the archbishop said.

He also warned against believing fake news in the media.

“People got influenced by such viral news and killed many people in isolated incidents without confirming their innocence. Even if they were the culprit, nobody has the right to kill anyone,” Cornelio said

“At present, if any person is caught while committing an offence, he is punished by the crowd instead of handing over to the law authority, nor do they hesitate to take his life, which is utterly inappropriate,” the archbishop continued. “Many such incidents are happening in our country in different states, for the different reasons like killing of cow, rape, theft, child lifting etc.. Some anti-social elements are taking law into their own hands, which is a blot on this civilized society which can never be erased.”

Cornelio said that although the government has acknowledged the problem, no social-political team has come forward to tackle the issue.

“The common man of the country is feeling insecurity in his own country due to the increasing cases of mob lynching,” he said. “All the political parties and religious leaders should unite by making their opinions and spreading awareness about the ill practice surfacing in our society in order to create a decent society and to prevail as a peace-loving society.”

Speaking to Crux after he published his article, Cornelio said mob lynching is “a real anxiety” for the people.

“When it happens, people watch and take videos, but no one intervenes to stop it,” the archbishop said.

“In a civilized society, it cannot happen. This is a barbaric society. In a democracy, we have a rule of law.”