The throngs of worshipers were mid-prayer when a man emerged from the crowd and jumped over the barrier, entering into the sanctum of Sikhism’s holiest shrine.
He would not leave the Golden Temple alive.
Within touching distance of Sikhism’s holy book, the man grabbed a bejeweled ceremonial sword and swung it over his head. Almost instantly, and before he could strike anyone, half a dozen devotees rushed to overpower him.
A video clip of the incident, seen by CNN and originally broadcast live on local television, stops here – before an angry mob dragged the man away.
The unidentified man, who was no older than 25, was dead when police arrived at the scene on December 18, according to Amritsar’s deputy police commissioner, Parminder Singh Bhandal. The mob had beaten him to death, Bhandal told reporters outside the Sikh temple, though details surrounding his death remain patchy.
The man’s background, motivations and religious identity remain unknown, Bhandal added.
CNN has attempted to contact the Amritsar police for further comment multiple times, but did not receive a response.
For many Sikhs, the intruder’s actions were an act of “sacrilege” – desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib holy book.
The incident at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in northwestern Punjab state, also underscores simmering religious tensions in India ahead of key state elections this year, with minority groups expressing concerns over a rise in hate crimes.
And it wasn’t the only alleged sacrilege case that weekend to end in the death of the accused.
Silence ahead of elections
Sikhs are a minority in India, but they account for nearly 60% of Punjab’s 28 million population – and the community’s vote holds significant sway in the state.
Nearly two weeks after the death at the Golden Temple, no arrests have been made.
On the contrary, the dead man is under investigation for sacrilege and attempt to murder, Amritsar’s police commissioner, Sukhchain Singh Gill, said on December 19.
Under Indian law, a police complaint can be filed against anyone – dead or alive – but a dead person cannot be posthumously charged with a crime or tried in court as they cannot be represented.
Politicians have denounced the man’s actions, yet few condemned the alleged mob violence.
The incident was the “most unfortunate and heinous act to attempt sacrilege,” Punjab’s chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, said on his official Twitter account, adding it was a “dastardly act.”
Without offering any evidence, Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, claimed more than one person may have been responsible for the man’s actions.
“Everyone is in shock,” he wrote on Twitter on December 18. “This can be a very big conspiracy.”
A national spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), R. P. Singh, also condemned the man’s alleged sacrilege attempt – but made no mention of the mob violence.
In a December 18 tweet, he demanded that Punjab’s chief minister hand the case over to India’s Central Bureau of Investigation “so that truth should be known.”
CNN attempted to contact the respective offices of Channi, Kejriwal and Singh with requests for comment but did not receive any responses.
Punjab is one of five Indian states heading to the polls in early 2022 in crucial state elections. Analysts say politicians are unwilling to condemn the alleged mob violence so close to the vote for fear of angering the Sikh electorate.
“There is a kind of impunity about this,” said Ashutosh Kumar, a political science professor at Panjab University in the northern city of Chandigarh. “Studied silence of the political class is due to electoral reasons, and that is unfortunate.”
According to Kumar, the issue of sacrilege played a prominent role in Punjab’s 2017 elections, helping the opposition Congress Party to victory after Sikhs blamed the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal and BJP alliance government for failing to take action against such incidents.
The upcoming elections follow yearlong protests spearheaded by farmers – a large number of whom were from Punjab – against three farm laws that forced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi into a rare retreat.
“Sacrilege is an issue that angers the Sikh community as a whole and the upcoming elections are the reasons why politicians have remained silent on the mob lynching,” Kumar said.
Sacrilege “does not give license to people to kill a man over just suspicion,” he added. “The people took the law into their own hands.”
Veteran Indian journalist Barkha Dutt also expressed her shock over the death.
“When sacrilege matters more than murder it is a sacrilege,” she wrote on Twitter on December 19. “Most in a community with the largest heart, extraordinary courage and spirit of sewa (community service) would handle sacrilege differently. There is something terribly cynical about what’s happening in my home state, just ahead of elections, of course.”
Prominent Sikh theater director and teacher Neelam Man Singh Chowdhry said the Golden Temple incident has caused “immense sadness” among the Sikh community.
Chowdhry, who is from Amritsar, acknowledged the importance of the Golden Temple, calling it a “vital part of my life.”
“But for me, killing is killing. It is a greater violation to kill someone in the holy shrine,” she said. “The silence of politicians is disturbing. Silence is not a choice at the moment.”
Rise in sacrilege attempts
While the man’s motivations at the Golden Temple remain unknown, several high-profile alleged sacrilege cases since Prime Minister Modi swept to power in India more than seven years ago with a Hindu nationalist agenda have led to distress among the Sikh community – giving rise to political and religious tension in Punjab.
In 2015, protests erupted in Punjab after an incident of alleged sacrilege of the Sikh holy book, according to court documents.
Two Sikhs died and many more were injured after police opened fire, used tear gas, water cannons and batons to disperse a crowd in Faridkot district’s Behbal Kalan village, the documents said. An investigation is still open more than six years after the incident.
“The sacrilege attempt from 2015 has remained in the political consciousness and a wounded psyche has remained over it,” said Kumar, the analyst.
Between 2018 and 2020, the rate of religious crimes in Punjab, including attempted sacrilege, were the highest among India’s 28 states and eight union territories, according to the NCRB.
These case come against a broader rise in hate crimes against minority groups. A 2018 study by economist Deepankar Basu noted a 786% increase in hate crimes against all minorities between 2014 and 2018, following the BJP’s election victory.
However, the BJP says it does not discriminate against minorities. Last March, the Indian government said in a statement it “treats all its citizens with equality,” adding “all laws are applied without discrimination.”
The central government does not collect any data on hate crimes. The Ministry of Home Affairs told Parliament on December 21 that India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) had previously attempted to do so, but found the data “unreliable,” adding individual states were responsible for public order.
CNN has attempted to contact the Ministry of Home Affairs but did not receive a response.
While Basu’s study shows – and news reports indicate – the brunt of these hate crimes targeted Muslims, Sikhs were also vulnerable to attacks.
And just a day after the recent Golden Temple incident, the issue of sacrilege was once again thrown into the spotlight.
On December 19, a man was stabbed to death by a mob at a Sikh temple in Punjab’s Kapurthala district after an alleged sacrilege attempt, according to police. A case of sacrilege was registered against the deceased.
On December 24, police arrested the Kapurthala temple’s caretaker for alleged murder. About 100 other unidentified people have also been accused of murder after police said they found “no physical evidence of sacrilege.”
Police have 90 days from when they register a case to lay formal charges.
According to Cynthia Mahmood, author of “Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants,” the Sikh holy book is considered to be “God or divinity itself.”
“It is the worst thing possible to insult or disrespect, let alone damage or attempt to destroy Guru Granth Sahib,” she said, adding that instances of desecration of the Sikh holy book have increased since Modi’s rise to power.
“In India, even during times of high political turmoil, religious artifacts of various traditions have been generally protected,” Mahmood said. “So these incidents have been a particular slap in the face. Sikh crowds have gathered in protest, and Indian authorities in cracking down have wounded and killed some of those who peacefully demonstrated.”
A December 20 statement on Facebook by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee – which manages Sikh temples – claimed government inaction had forced worshipers to take matters into their own hands.
Sikhs have “lost faith in the law and government as it has not taken any culprit to severe punishment, forcing the Sikh Panth (community) to take a decision on its own,” the statement said.
But Chowdhry, the prominent Sikh, said “human life is of great importance.”
“Religion is not so fragile that it gets threatened by something it shouldn’t be,” she said. “We cannot take the law into our own hands.”