I was raised with the ethics and morality of the Indian middle class. As can be expected, I grew to be a Left-of-Centre Liberal, exposed to modern thought and education and holding logic and rational thinking above anything else. So, imagine my shock when a couple of days ago I woke up to the news of a lynch mob attacking a Muslim household, killing a man and grievously injuring his son, for allegedly eating/storing beef in their refrigerator.
The news hit home even more so because Dadri, where the incident took place, is not more than an hour's drive away from where I live in Greater Noida. This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with similar acts of violence; unfortunately, there have been many such reported hate crimes against minorities, often incited through religion and predominant (and, hence, accepted) social structures by politically motivated parties. This is also not to say that I am foolishly trying to shove my "privilege" (I use quotes because it is actually not that, it's a different reality) in the faces of many who have grown up seeing and believing different things. However, the India that I grew up in has consistently been different from the India that I hear about (and experience first-hand on rare occasions), and the dichotomy between the two is stark.
"If [a priest] can get people to kill a harmless man based on his interpretation of some outdated rules against consumption of certain foods, what can't he do?"
Over the past few days I have read many news articles and opinion pieces reporting on the murder of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq, all condemning in their tone -- who wouldn't be, hate crimes are, after all, offensive to the Indian Liberal's sensibilities -- but not one has tried to deeply question and/or understand the ideological problems with religious totalitarianism. Communal violence goes beyond criminal acts by individual or groups. It is an idea that wields a lot of power and can be misappropriated to cause great harm and, as such, to quash a mindset endorsed by a large section of the Indian population, one has to get to the root of it. And, even though this incident looks like a spontaneous act on the face of it, we have to ask, are there greater forces at play here?
Let us begin with the facts. On Monday, around 10 in the night, a group of men (notice how it's always men?), mobilised through a WhatsApp group, gathered at a local temple in Bisara village at the behest of the temple's priest. The priest claimed that the village blacksmith, Akhlaq, had slaughtered the holy cow and consumed its meat, thus disrespecting the beliefs of the Hindu community, and called for his killing. A lynch mob numbering close to a 100 men, if some reports are to be believed, entered the house of Akhlaq, beat up his wife, daughter, and his 22-year-old son Danish, who is in a coma right now, and bricked him death. Some arrests were made in the area, but the seething mob made it harder for the cops by setting their vehicles on fire and obstructing justice. The cops during the investigation sent samples of the leftover meat "to the forensics department for further examination" while Akhlaq's daughter Sajida maintained that the family had mutton in the fridge, and not beef.
Now consider this: How was the priest, believed to be a go-between for God and Man, able to manipulate a significant number of people into doing his bidding, into committing murder in the name of religion? And what are the larger implications of this? If he can get people to kill a harmless man based on his interpretation of some outdated rules against consumption of certain foods, what can't he do? Was this incident really a spur-of-the-moment, isolated one, as claimed by the authorities, or are some larger powers at play here? The cops have downplayed any political connections with this murder, but some reports have asserted that at least two of the men involved had ties with local political parties, little-known and recently formed - namely the Rashtravadi Pratap Sena (RPS), Chaudhary Charan Singh Sena and Samadhan Sena that have targeted members of the Muslim community in Dadri for the past six months. And you only need to look up the hashtag "cow murderers" on the Internet to see that the men who killed in the name of religion have widespread support from the Right Wing.
"This is an act of terrorism in a series of such violent crimes aimed at pushing the minorities to the sidelines, silencing their voices, and killing secularism."
Fact is there is enough historical data/evidence to suggest that Indians have eaten beef along with other meats since ancient times. A ban on the killing of cows, and only the ones that were able to produce milk, began as a way of preserving pastoral communities. Simply put, it was a bad (investment) idea to kill a cow that had more utility alive than dead. It was never about religion, it always about commerce. Some leaders and traders decided to codify and make the ban on cow slaughter more official by invoking religion and subsequently state. However, as documented in Arthashastra, the meat of female cows no longer able to give milk was permitted for use; male calves and bulls were regularly eaten in ancient India, and any cattle that naturally died could be eaten/ its meat dried and sold; there has never been any restriction on eating buffalo meat in Hinduism.
The men who were led to kill, and thereby terrorise, were Gurjars, a community still largely dependent on cattle and livestock for their livelihood. From what I understand of the situation, it looks awfully like the Right-wingers picked up the issue of cow slaughter to gain the sympathy and votes of the majority that are, in this case, directly affected if cow-eating were to become common practice, while also putting the fear of their gods in Indian Muslims. By playing on the vulnerabilities of the people and pitting one religion against another, they were able to successfully divide them and push their own totalitarian agenda in the process -- a Hindutva state. This is not actually about cow slaughter, this is about sending a message. This is an act of terrorism in a series of such violent crimes aimed at pushing the minorities to the sidelines, silencing their voices, and killing secularism. Remember the time when upper-caste Hindus attacked Dalits, destroying their iconographies that tried to claim a space in history? The immediate reasons for the attacks are irrelevant; the only one that matters is the organised suppression/oppression by the ones in power of those threatening theirs.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "...laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."