Barun Kashyap's prank will cost him dearly. In August he claimed a "gau rakshak" auto rickshaw driver with a "tika" and a "saffron-coloured muffler" in Mumbai had harassed him and claimed his leather bag was made from cow-hide.
Kashyap made a Facebook post that quickly went viral and registered an offence at the police station against the unnamed gau rakshak.
Now months of investigation later, it turns out nothing of the sort happened. Apparently Kashyap has admitted that. Kashyap just needed an excuse because he was late for work. He thought as a bonus he could garner some free publicity. Gau raksha and intolerance were in the air and Kashyap jumped onto the bandwagon, according to MidDay.
In the scheme of things it's a footnote to a story that was itself a footnote in the larger charged narrative around intolerance. But it's worth pausing and thinking about it because if that one little act of creative engineering of Kashyap opened a veritable Pandora's bag.
This was the city where two young women were hauled to the police station for a Facebook post about Bal Thackeray's funeral. This was a city where political activists from the Shiv Sena protested en masse outside Shobhaa De's house because they didn't like her comments about a diktat to show Marathi films during prime time slots in multiplexes.
He damaged the reputation of the city he lived and worked in. It was seen as one more proof of Mumbai becoming a city fast losing its cosmopolitan live-and-let-live sheen. This was the city where two young women were hauled to the police station for a Facebook post about Bal Thackeray's funeral. This was a city where political activists from the Shiv Sena protested en masse outside Shobhaa De's house because they didn't like her comments about a diktat to show Marathi films during prime time slots in multiplexes.
And now this was a city where it was not even safe for a young man to board an auto with his leather bag. The city had gone to the cows as it were.
It led to headlines replete with exclamation points:
Beware!!! Carrying leather bag may attract ire of Gau Rakshaks as a Mumbai executive experienced.
Holy Cow! Man harassed by 'gau rakshak' over leather bag in Mumbai.
Beware of Leather Bags! Mumbai Man Threatened by Gau Rakshaks.
It's easy to sense the reason for maximum outrage in Maximum City. As the Times of India said in its lead: "Cow vigilantism has reached the Maximum City. And the issue is not about skinning a cow or even possession of beef, but carrying a leather bag that apparently looks like it has been made of cow hide."
Kashyap's lie can now be seized upon by those who want to claim the whole intolerance debate is built on lies and exaggeration, that it's all a liberal conspiracy to tar the Modi government. The unraveling of Kashyap's story will be shared with great glee by those who never wanted to believe the larger intolerance story in the first place. This one fake story will be used to discredit a dozen real ones.
What Kashyap did is hurt those who are actual victims of gau rakshaks turned cow vigilantes, the truck drivers who are beaten up, the Dalits skinning animals who are stripped and thrashed, or the Muslim man hounded on the suspicion of eating beef. Mohammad Akhlaq died because of cow vigilantes and it is disgraceful that anyone should want to piggyback on that tragedy and cook up his own victimhood story for fifteen minutes of fame.
It all seemed plausible enough. Kashyap played into already existing stereotypes of discrimination suffered by those from the north-east and added gau-raksha and caste to it for good measure.
And what a story Kashyap came up with, rich in attention-grabbing details. His Facebook post mentioned how the auto driver tried to locate Kashyap's homes state of Assam for a minute and then noted it was next to Bangladesh. Then he claimed the auto driver stopped at a temple and hailed three tilak-wearing men and had a conversation in Marathi, asking him his full name.
The one word he claimed he understood was "Brahmin" and he conjectured that that they let him off because they thought he was Brahmin. "Aaj toh bach gaye," they told him. Then it became a familiar story of running pillar to post to get his complaint filed at a police station. They filed only a non-cognizable complaint because "no physical harm" was done to Kashyap. But well-wishers floated the #Support_Barun_Kashyap hashtag and ask Mumbaikars to come out and support him.
It all seemed plausible enough. Kashyap played into already existing stereotypes of discrimination suffered by those from the north-east and added gau-raksha and caste to it for good measure. It was taken at face value because all of this has happened. North-easterners have faced, and continue to face hostility and discrimination in the metropolitan Indian cities where they live and work. Gau vigilantes can show up anywhere from trucks at state borders to the canteen at Kerala House.
Police can often drag their feet when a complaint that seems politically sensitive reaches their desks. Yet the next time this happens, thanks to Kashyap, it will face more skepticism than usual. The next complaint, thanks to Kashyap, will be that much harder to file.
That's the real tragedy of what he has done. And it comes as a warning lesson to all of us who jump on Facebook posts (that are in tune with out particular political ideologies and viewpoints) and share them with the best of intentions.
That's the real tragedy of what he has done. And it comes as a warning lesson to all of us who jump on Facebook posts (that are in tune with out particular political ideologies and viewpoints) and share them with the best of intentions. Sometimes we share them because we want to spread the outrage.
Sometimes as in the case of that young woman who turned down the rishta because the would-be groom did not want her dog, because it was a feel-good story of a plucky young woman. Or that other woman who wrote an angry post after a fancy restaurant in Kolkata refused to allow her to dine with her driver. Some of those stories might be true, some half true, some completely fake but once it's shared enough it acquires the ring of truth. And the story keeps feeding on itself. Kashyap seems to have cynically taken advantage of that.
Now Kashyap is looking at Section 153 (a)(1)(a)(b) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony), 182 (b) (False information, with intent to cause public servant to use his lawful power to the injury of another person) and 505 (1)(2) (Statements conducing to public mischief) of Indian Penal Code. He deserves it to face the music but none of this will compensate for the harm he has caused real victims of intolerance by this one act of stupidity.
And that is the real shame of the story about the story about the man, the bag, and the "gau rakshak" autowallah.