When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.
— Nelson Mandela
INDIA has been bedevilled by a spate of gruesome lynchings. And at the epicentre of the country’s violent upheaval is the indolent cow which is considered sacred by Hindus. The targeted communities have lately got some breathing space after being under the grip of lynch mafias only when the country’s highest court stepped into action. The Supreme Court of India has directed the government to ensure that cow vigilantism groups do not take law into their own hands. Cow vigilantism has become the most powerful fascist instrument for rightists for coercing those who do not toe their ideology. It should come as no surprise that, in the three years since the BJP took the reins of power, India has witnessed an avalanche of intolerance against minorities.
Between the times a young IT professional was bludgeoned to death for ‘derogatory’ Facebook posts in June 2014 and now, at least 50 cases of mob lynching have been reported. And the incidents are rising at an alarming rate: between April and June 2017, there have been at least four lynchings a month. Thirty-two people have been killed in 20 cases in the past three years; of 50 cases examined overall, almost all victims were Muslim or Dalit; 70 per cent were suspected of killing or smuggling cows, the covert protection of the stat gau raksha — cow vigilantes has become a state gifted passport to tens of thousands of lumpen goons to vent their sadism and unleash mayhem, many of them connected to local politicians and Hindu militant groups.
Since he rose to power in May 2014, Modi’s Hindu nationalist leadership has provided legitimisation for extremist discourses and actions, frequently along religious lines. What makes this moment unique is the silence of the political leadership. Modi has offered little in the way of condemnation in response. PM Modi has spoken against lynchings only twice thus far. And on both occasions, after a considerable stretch of studied silence: eight days after the Dadri lynching in 2015 and after about 20 mob lynchings this year. That silence has become the hallmark of almost all top NDA leaders and chief ministers of BJP states. It took Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar three days to break his silence over Junaid’s killing, although he was active on twitter. As Sumit Ganguly has argued: ‘Even as [Modi] courts foreign leaders with grace, projecting professional cosmopolitanism, his government has tolerated, even abetted, a dangerous, parochial social agenda at home.’
Junaid’s killing was the latest in a series of attacks aimed mostly at members of India’s minority Muslim community in recent years, as cow vigilante groups feel emboldened under the rule of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Members of the lower caste Dalit community, many of whom consume beef as a staple, have also been targeted by Hindu mobs.
The issue first hit the headlines when Mohammad Akhlaq, a 52-year-old Muslim man in a village close to Delhi, was lynched by a mob in 2015, as rumours spread that he had eaten beef and was storing cow meat at home.
Freedom is the primary value from which spring forth all other values. It is the river; the others are the tributaries. Without freedom, all other values wither and perish. True freedom signifies freedom from restraints that we derive from the willingness of others to give space to their convictions and actions and acknowledge their right to do so. It allows us to live our way and to pursue our vision. Freedom is the ability to do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s right to do whatever they want.
The partition of India was the most cataclysmic event of the century that convulsed an entire subcontinent. Unlike most revolutions that usher freedom from oppression and herald a conducive culture, the freedom which India and Pakistan gained from the British was both mournful and celebratory. No one could conclude whether the scorecard was in favour of Pakistan, India or Britain.
The most crucial post partition issue was the future of Muslims who either opted to stay in India or had no option on account of various complexities. Many of the misgivings of Muslims were sorted out when India adopted a secular constitution and provided adequate safeguards for protecting the cultural and religious rights of Muslims.
While the rule of law treated Muslims as equal as others, the bitterness that led to partition lingered and could not be eliminated by law. It had seeped the culture of the country. The cultural divide manifested in several forms of discriminations Muslims had to suffer. The rightist Hindus continued their vilification campaign against Muslims and always perceived them as enemies. This was not just a post partition phenomenon. The demonisation of Muslims by Hindus began much before partition and ban on cow slaughter has been a very old agenda of the BJP-affiliated Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh, a radical right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation and a key source of political support for the BJP. They have consistently challenged India’s secular social order. Whipping up communal strife is a necessary part of the Hindu nationalist playbook. Banning cow slaughter had been a major goal of the RSS since its inception in the 1920s. But until Modi became prime minister it had failed to find a leader in the BJP who would make it a part of his national policy
Several bloody communal riots have taken place during the regime of the Congress party which represent itself as friend and saviour of Muslims. The Congress did have some extraordinarily committed secular leaders but its dilemma was how to cope with the vast Hindu majority which was an important electoral demographic.
Communal riots in India normally had a common pattern with the sparks being triggered by isolated incidents. More important was that these eruptions of religious intolerance were area specific and defined by geographies.
The ascendancy of the BJP government had given rise to a communal fuse that has huge inflammatory power; the heat of this power is being felt across the country. The new wave of intolerance that has gripped the nation has now got a specific vocabulary: cow vigilantism.
Everyone acknowledges that several Hindus consider cow as sacred. The Indian laws also silently proclaimed the sanctity. Cow slaughter has long been outlawed in several Indian states but in these seventy years there was very thin evidence of cow worship on a large sale. The cow has many economic uses for which all communities revere it, but everyone knows that in cities as well as villages cows which have lost economic vale on account of age have been treated very badly except by highly orthodox Hindus who feed them the way we feed human beings.
Beef, which is the flesh of livestock like cow, bulls and buffaloes, has been consumed by all communities and cows which have dried and have lost economic value have been traded freely; even orthodox Hindus sell decrepit old and sick cows and won’t prefer to nurse them. These cows find their way in the abattoirs. The major contribution to beef comes from bulls and buffaloes and the remaining from cows. The way the government had framed its policies on beef is a very clear indication that its real concern is not bovines but Muslims.
Barring community rehabilitating centres called ‘gau shalas’ which as old age homes for sick and old cows there has never been any organised system of care for old and sick cows.
Consumption of beef has been very common in India. Goat, chicken and fish are highly expensive and totally beyond the reach of even the middle class. During off season even vegetables are very costly. Beef therefore remains the only affordable food product .For Muslims meat has been an ingrained part of their food for centuries and beef is the only product that they can afford within their scarce economic means.
The impunity with which Muslims are being lynched in the name of cow protection has created a sense of terror and restlessness in the community. It has taken such a form that every Muslim is being eyed as a beef eater. Muslims even fear that they would get trapped even if they eat legitimate meat. The forensic report comes too late and by that time physical violence has already wrought damage. The roots of the current crisis, in which the life of a cow is considered more sacred than anything on earth, go much deeper than Modi, reaching into the fundamental battle between illiberal Hindutva forces and a pluralistic tradition.
It is true that many Muslims are slaughtering cows in areas where they are protected by virtue of the density of their own population. However the real fact is that by and large most Muslims have now given up beef.
Cow vigilantism is in fact just one facet of the overall saffron agenda for oppressing and coercing Muslims. Today it is cow, tomorrow there could be some other totem. The basic issue is intolerance of everything Islamic and Muslim. The Muslim azaan on loudspeakers was at the centre of controversy for some time. The issue has not closed and can be stoked up again.
Political calculations aside, even the economic dynamics show that the country’s policy on cows is on slippery ground. India has more than 300 million cattle — a third of the world’s bovine population — but only 3 per cent of its arable land. The fodder it grows is sufficient for at most 60 per cent of its livestock. About 140 million cattle are therefore chronically undernourished. A huge number of over-aged cattle or male calves made redundant by the tractor are, as a result, driven into the forests to starve to death.
The export of beef has provided an alternative. As a result there are more than 3,500 slaughterhouses that export 2 million tones of ‘beef’ a year, though most of this is officially classified as water buffalo. The trade provides more than two million jobs, mostly to Muslims and Hindu dalits (the former untouchables), a safety valve Modi’s government is determined to close.
In BJP-ruled states, existing laws banning cow slaughter have been amended to expand the scope of such bans and to increase punishments for violation. Gujarat, for instance, amended its animal protection law this year to make cow slaughter punishable with life imprisonment. Other BJP chief ministers have endorsed hanging those who slaughter cows and have even endorsed brutal violence in the name of cow protection. Emboldened by such state support, violence targeting Muslims is being unleashed in the name of protecting the cow. Little action is being taken to rein in the vigilantes or punish them.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has been issuing huge advertisements publicising his development agenda and demonstrating to the country that he means business and has untrammelled control over the country’s administration. Mr Modi needs to bring the same zeal to overhauling India’s policing and judicial system that he has brought to other issues.
He must take cue from some of the highly orthodox Hindu ideologues in India’s freedom movement who also reposed faith in India’s pluralism. The tallest statesman to emerge from BJP ranks, Atal Behari Vajpayee himself refrained from practising confrontationist politics with minorities and even respected their sentiments. This is the reason why his popularity and fan following cuts across creeds and castes.
The founder of Banjaras Hindu University Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya also symbolised the multiculturism of India. Malaviya declared: ‘India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual goodwill and harmony.’
At the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama’s thesis was that the liberal idea, rather than liberal practice, had become universal. He believed that no ideology is in a position to challenge liberal democracy. Yet, as Fukuyama contends, even as we desire peaceful lives, as individuals we are mostly restless and passionate beings. For Fukuyama, our primordial instincts for struggle are such that even if the world were full of liberal democracies people would struggle for the sake of struggle, out of boredom with peace. It is time that instead of a constant search for a new struggle and restlessness with peace we strive for a stable and model democracy-where the colours in the painter’s palette find full expression.
Moin Qazi is the author of ‘Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.’ He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.
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