For those who support the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) opposition to the sale and consumption of beef as a means to protect bovines, the most zealously guarded species in India, a moment of reckoning has come. The penny has dropped with a resounding clatter — though hardly for the first time.
As the BJP government under Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, conducts raids on illegal slaughterhouses and abattoirs in the state (as it anyway should), the party has sought to clarify its stance on the consumption of cow meat in other parts of the country, especially in the northeastern states, where it is seeking to make inroads.
According to reports, the BJP won't impose a fatwa on beef, which is widely consumed and sold across the Northeast, if it comes to power in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, which are headed for the polls next year. The meat is popular especially among the Christian majority and is often cheaper than other options.
The reason behind such exceptionalism is lame at best and nefarious at worst. "Ban on cow slaughter like the one in UP won't take effect in Nagaland if our party comes to power next year," says Visasolie Lhoungu, the BJP chief in Nagaland. "The reality here is very different and our central leaders are aware of that."
The word "reality", applied to the context of the Northeast, is only a smokescreen for vote-bank politics. The BJP, which accuses the Opposition, especially the Congress, of pandering to the minority community, is using it to play a similar politics of appeasement when it is expedient for it to do so.
The party always saw red when it came to the issue of sale and consumption of beef — and made it a part of its ideological makeup. While a band of self-appointed protectors of the cow, the notorious gau rakhshaks, unleashed a spate of terror on so-called smugglers and ordinary citizens over the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained a studied silence for the longest time.
He didn't bother with even a token statement of condemnation after Mohammad Akhlaq, a resident of Dadri village in Uttar Pradesh, was hounded by a mob and lynched in broad daylight on the suspicion of keeping beef in his fridge. It took the PM one whole year to break his silence on the incident, when he finally condemned the persecution of Dalits and minorities.
For the BJP to now make an exception for the sake of the taste of one community (the Christians), while not hesitating to crack the whip on another (Muslims), which has also traditionally cooked and eaten beef, is not only ironic but also pernicious. Does this mean the party's condemnation of beef-eaters was never a matter of principled opposition but mere expediency?
In the Northeast, as also in southern states like Kerala, where beef is consumed by a cross-section of society, including caste Hindus in the case of the latter, imposing a blanket ban on dietary habits is a trickier affair. Common sense demands the party must reckon with these complications and revise its agenda, if it were to come to power in these parts.
After the murder of Akhlaq, festivals to celebrate the eating of beef were organised across Kerala, where the BJP has been unsuccessfully trying to exert its influence for the last few years. Under duress, the state BJP chief V Muraleedharan admitted that his party wasn't pursuing any plan to ban beef in Kerala. It would have been political suicide to even contemplate such a tactic, as absurd as a ban on consuming fish in West Bengal, another state where the BJP is yet to have any leverage.
The hypocrisy of the BJP in its attitude to beef shouldn't come as a surprise. It was always a political tool employed to wrest control over the imagination of its Hindu electorate. The twist in the tale is the party's appropriation of the same strategy to influence Christian voters in another part of the country now.
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