29/06/2017 5:38 PM IST | Updated 29/06/2017 8:07 PM IST

Is PM Modi's Reaction Against Lynch Mobs Sincere Or Empty Noise?

We've heard this before too.

Reuters/PA Images

It took hundreds of people gathering in public places in several cities for Narendra Modi to break his vow of silence. A day after the #NotInMyName rallies rang out in spirited protests against the recent spate of lynching of Muslims in India, the prime minister spoke on social media against such crimes.

Gau bhakti, or devotion to the cow, isn't an acceptable reason to resort to violence, Modi said, citing the ever-convenient example of Mahatma Gandhi to uphold the value of ahimsa (non-violence) as a way of life. It's the same icon, by the way, who was called a "chatur baniya" a few days ago by the PM's close aide Amit Shah, who is also the president of the party leading the government at the Centre.

This is not the first time the PM has condemned dastardly acts such as lynching of lower-caste citizens and Muslims, though his reactions usually are a long time coming.

Gau bhakti, or devotion to the cow, isn't an acceptable reason to resort to violence, Modi said

In 2015 after Mohammad Akhlaq was hounded out of his home by a mob in Dadri village in Uttar Pradesh on the suspicion of storing beef in his fridge and killed, Modi didn't address the incident for a year. It's true, as the leader of the nation, it's not always possible for the PM to speak on every infringement of human right, but Akhlaq's case had a gravity quite apart from any other hate crime.

It marked the rise of a new group of moral police — the cow vigilantes — who seemed to act without fear of consequences. They didn't care to get their facts right, although even that wouldn't excuse their deplorable behaviour. The merest whiff of a rumour about a dead bovine, or someone transporting cattle, was enough to spark a series of calculated brutalities, usually ending in death. In the odd case, however, timely police intervention managed to save a precious life or two, but mostly the bloodlust of the mob proved insatiable.

Last year in Una, Gujarat, the state over which Modi reigned for over a decade as chief minister, Dalit men were stripped and flogged mercilessly on the suspicion of killing bovines, when they were only carrying out their age-old caste-assigned duty of dispensing carcasses of dead cattle.

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About a month later, Modi reacted with outrage. "It makes me angry that people are running shops in the name of cow protection," he said, trembling with emotion. "Most of them are anti-social elements hiding behind the mask of cow protection," he added.

He went ahead a step further by promising to make the state governments more accountable to the duty of preventing such incidents from happening in the future. "I will ask state governments to prepare a dossier on [cow vigilantes] as 80 percent of them will be found to be involved in anti-social activities which no society will approve of," Modi said. With only months to go for the assembly elections in states like Uttar Pradesh, with a sizeable electorate of lower castes, Modi the astute politician described the Dalits as his brethren.

Not many appeared to recall that the same man had thundered against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government's 'pink revolution', referring to cow killing on a mass scale, during his campaign for the 2014 general elections, which gave him a so-called landslide victory. The cow vigilantes of today who were listening to him back then seemed to have read between the lines and taken a cue from those fiery speeches.

Not many appeared to recall that the same man had thundered against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government's 'pink revolution'

In the last few weeks the Centre has taken yet another step that has had an insidious repercussion on the law and order situation in the country. It has modified an existing legal provision against cruelty to animals to include a ban on sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter. Such a move, theoretically, didn't aim to put an end to beef eating — except that it had to stop for all practical purposes. Vigilantism over suspected cow slaughters took on a life of its own, even as West Bengal, Kerala and the states in the Northeast erupted in revolt against the stricture.

While the BJP, desperate to gain a toehold in these 'beef-eating states', was trying to control the damage it had done to its potential electorate, in less than a year's time, a 15-year-old Muslim boy was abused as a 'beef-eater', had his skull cap thrown off his head and his beard pulled, before being killed during a brawl over seats on a train.

Once again, after days of silence and in the face of a chorus of dissent, the PM has spoken up, mincing no words to discourage the spread of violence, perhaps sooner than most people expected him to react, if at all.

It's heartening that the head of state not only sent out a clear message to the nation, but also that he acknowledged the might of the public, however covertly. Even in these cynical times, the collective voice of protest succeeded in making a dent in the armour of the government's denial.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

But how do Modi's statements stand up to scrutiny? Are his remarks only a token concession, phrased with the choicest textbook vocabulary of human rights, bolstered with the right example, dragging in the name of the Father of the Nation? Can the nation even expect a grain of sincerity in his sentiments — which, by now, seem to have turned into the cliche of the same rabbit being pulled out of the hat whenever needed?

It's significant that Modi hasn't taken the blame for these tragedies on himself, but shifted it on the failure of the state governments. The evidence is also glaring. As a survey by IndiaSpend showed, 97% of cow-related violence reported in English-language media have taken place in India in the last 3 years since the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre under Modi. Almost half of these incidents happened in states governed by the BJP.

The PM may well choose to dissociate himself from party politics as the leader of the nation, but he can't disown the moral responsibility for the actions of the organisation he heads. The meaning of what he says must always therefore be tied to the way his party colleagues choose to dispose their duties to the public.

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