When Mohammad Akhlaq was bludgeoned to death in front of his home in Uttar Pradesh's Dadri in 2015, merely on the suspicion of slaughtering and consuming a cow, the grisly nature of the crime shook the entire country. Newspapers were full of details of how a crowd scaled the boundary walls, forced their way into the house, dragged Akhlaq and his son out, and started raining blows on them till they were bloodied and unconscious.
It takes a macabre crime to shake the Indian conscience from its stupor, as the gruesome nature of the 2012 Delhi gangrape showed — triggering a movement that forced lawmakers to tighten India's rape laws. But since Akhlaq's death, there have been many incidents of beef vigilantism, sparked by a tidal wave of an aggressive nationalism centred around the glorification of the cow.
Apart from outrage on social media, condemnation by the Opposition, newspaper headlines that eventually slide from page 1 to page 4 in a few days, lynching deaths have come to be accepted as the new normal in India. As incident after incident of mob violence continues to happen — provoked by reasons ranging from caste atrocities, beef consumption and cow trade, inter-faith marriages, and petty crimes — medieval mob justice has slowly become as much a reality of India as its aspiration to achieve China's growth trajectory.
Data collated by IndiaSpend showed 86% of those who died in incidents related to cow protectionism are Muslims. In the last eight years, 63 cases fall under this category, of which 61 took place after the BJP-led government at the Centre came to power in 2014. Twenty "cow-terror attacks" were reported in the first six months of 2017, a 75% jump over the total number of such incidents in 2016, the report said.
The perpetrators, under the garb of cow protection, have carried out attack after attack, emboldened by the lack of condemnation by their political masters or any serious legal repercussions. If anything, police have been prompt in targeting the families of the victims with FIRs.
It was expected that when the monsoon session begins, the Opposition would raise hell in Parliament, reminding the Centre of its responsibility to protect citizens from mob killings. Because it's clear that tepid cautionary messages on Twitter against such thuggery is not working. Even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's condemnation of cow vigilantism, not once but twice, such crimes have continued to take place across several states.
In a searing speech, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad said the lynchings were not led by any religious cause, but were a product of the "Sangh Parivar battle against everybody".
Azad minced no words to convey that lynchings were happening as part of a tacit understanding between the Sangh and the ruling BJP to reap a toxic political harvest.
"This is the Parivar's battle against everybody. They get protection. I know the Prime Minister has given a statement. I accept the home minister has given a statement... This is happening because of an understanding — you do your work and we will do our work. We will give statements but you continue what you are doing. Continue doing it," he said.
Left to counter a united Opposition charge against lynchings, Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi resorted to classic Indian politicalspeak to deflect an uncomfortable subject. He claimed that the lynchings were a conspiracy to sideline the government's development agenda.
"The policy of our government and the party is clear, that we will not allow any destructive agenda to dominate on our development agenda. This is a conspiracy. Anyone could be doing it. I am not taking any party names. I don't want to get into it," Naqvi said.
BJP Spokesperson Sambit Patra accused the Congress of "giving priority to incidents of lynching by the mob and cow vigilantism, and giving them a communal colour" instead of focusing on national security.
'Political conspiracy' is a convenient smokescreen for our politicians to abdicate responsibility. Yogi Adityanath did it after the Saharanpur riots, and Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly used it to distance her party from the Narada tapes.
It's all very noble of Naqvi to remind the Opposition of the Modi government's abhorrence towards "destructive forces" and the need of the hour to stand united. But unfortunately, when there is little action on the ground to stop such crimes once and for all, his words ring hollow. Development cannot be exclusive of human rights. An agenda of growth must include the poorest of poor — including their job security, protecting their right to eat whatever they want, and guarding their right to life. The safekeeping of India's pluralistic culture should be a priority in it's roadmap of development.
Dismissing lynchings — 14 in Jharkhand, 11 in Uttar Pradesh, 9 in Haryana, 5 in Rajasthan and 4 in Gujarat, as listed out by Azad — as political conspiracy, will prove to be counterproductive in the long run if the government is serious about cracking down on cow vigilantes.
As CPM leader Sitaram Yechury pointed out yesterday: "India is the only country with universal suffrage, or right to vote for all, from the very beginning which was a revolutionary step at that point of time. Seventy years earlier we felt pride in saying that no other western democracy could have the courage to say that from day one we gave universal suffrage to everybody in our country irrespective of their religion, caste, gender. It is that equality today that is being questioned and being severely trampled upon by these instances of lynching."
Politicians voiced their demand to ban extra-judicial gau raksha groups who have the mandate to arbitrarily act as vigilantes. If not stopped, they will strengthen their organisational structure and replicate their methods of search-and-attack in all Indian states.
The debate is not whether mob lynchings have happened more under UPA's rule or less during the BJP's regime: the issue is that they need to stop and all leaders, across political parties, must sensitise their workers at the grassroots level to separate cow protectionism from vigilantism. And the best place to have this debate in is the Parliament — a prime symbol of India's robust democracy.
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