15/02/2016 8:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Beef And Beyond: The Toxic Narratives That Are Shaping The India Of Tomorrow

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Protests, police raids, murder on the suspicion of consuming beef -- India saw it all in 2015.

It all began on a balmy Monday night in September 2015 in North India's quiet Bisara village. Mohammad Akhlaq, blacksmith and head of the village's only Muslim family, had already retired for the night when he was roused by a loud knock on his door. A mob poured in, dragging Akhlaq and his family into the open. Akhlaq and his 22-year-old son were kicked, stabbed and pelted with bricks. His wife and elderly mother were set upon too. The family's supposed crime: the consumption of beef, the meat of an animal considered sacred by Hindus. The mob had been incited earlier in the evening by two 'boys' who used the local temple's public announcement system to spread the rumour that Akhlaq had slaughtered a cow and consumed its meat. Meat was retrieved from Akhlaq's fridge as proof, and though the family insisted it was mutton, the mob didn't waver in administering its holy vengeance. The police arrived an hour after the attack began, but by then it was too late. Akhlaq was dead, and his son Danish badly injured.

The lynching in Bisara... set the advocates of the Indian ideological narrative against one another.

The event set India ablaze, and in a Kafkaesque turn of events, one bizarre event followed another. A Muslim MP in troubled Kashmir were beaten for consuming beef, and in India's capital, New Delhi, police stormed into official state property to confiscate buffalo meat on the suspicion of it being beef. Politicians held forth extensively on the sanctity of the cow. All the while, India's upmarket restaurants continued to offer beef on their menus, which continued to be happily consumed by the country's elite. The latest iteration of the unrest saw a puerile exchange between two politicians -- Azam Khan began by accusing Hindu nationalists of being homosexuals and Mahesh Tiwari retaliated by calling Prophet Mohammad the world's first homosexual. Pandemonium ensued. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims marched in streets across the country demanding action against Tiwari's blasphemy. In UP's Fatehpur, a Hindu procession marking Makar Sakranti was pelted with stones by Muslims in January, leading to more communal clashes between members of the two religions.

The lynching in Bisara has had one additional consequence; it has set the advocates of the Indian ideological narrative against one another. Many celebrities -- both Hindu and Muslim -- have protested the rise in intolerance in India, only to be termed 'sickulars'. At least 40 writers have returned prestigious Sahitya Akademi awards, again to widespread condemnation from soi-disant nationalists.

Apparently, there are two kinds of people in India -- the nationalists and the liberals. You can be one or the other, but not both.

Apparently, there are two kinds of people in India -- the nationalists and the liberals. You can be one or the other, but not both. The nationalists are accused of being right wing fascists fighting against India's very pluralism. The liberals are accused of being 'sickulars', minority appeasers who would deny the rights of the Hindu majority. At the core of the struggle between liberals and nationalists remains the Hindu demand for the erection of a temple on the birthplace of Lord Ram. In a land filled to the brim with temples, mosques and churches, this wouldn't have been contentious if it hadn't been for the fact that Lord Ram's birthplace lay under a mosque erected by Babar, an invading Central Asian Muslim ruler who had razed the temple that had originally stood on the land. In turn, Hindu nationalists tore down the mosque in 1992, and since then, their constant demand has been to restore the temple originally built on the site holiest to the Hindu faith.

Hindu nationalism has unquestionably been on the rise since India's last elections in 2014, when the BJP was elected to power on a massive anti-incumbency wave. But while it is vital to be alert to any extremist Hindu elements, it is also simplistic to blame a single constituency for India's current communal problems.

The truth is much more complex, and much more toxic. It encompasses illegal immigration, vote bank politics and social and economic pressures on indigenous populations. The best examples of these varying pulls are the states of West Bengal and Assam, both of which border Bangladesh. The Congress Party, in power in India for over 60 of the last 70 years, has supported a consistent policy of cross-border migration into Bengal and Assam. Some of this was for humanitarian reasons before Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistan in 1971, but some was also a political tactic aimed at limiting the BJP's Hindu vote bank.

At the core of the struggle between liberals and nationalists remains the Hindu demand for the erection of a temple on the birthplace of Lord Ram.

The resultant influx has changed the demographics of several states, Assam and West Bengal key among them, and has created a volatile ethnic mix. In 2012, rioting broke out in Assam between Bengali-speaking Muslims (largely Bangladeshi immigrants) and indigenous Bodos, resentful of migrants eating into their land. In these clashes, 77 were killed and 400,000 displaced. The underlying causes of the tension haven't been addressed, and there have been widespread reports of people from Assam and surrounding regions facing violence in the aftermath of the riots.

In the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir, more than 100,000 Hindus were driven out of their homes during the Muslim separatist insurgency in the 1990s. This was not their first exodus. Many were forced out of their home during the 1948 Muslim riots following India's independence and Kashmir's accession to the country; others have been forced out during subsequent periods of unrest. According to the 2010 census, there are only 3445 Hindus still living in Kashmir. A large number of the evacuees continue to live in abject poverty in refugee camps, and their cause is increasingly forgotten. The face of Kashmir has largely become a Muslim one.

This, then, is India in 2016. Hindus versus Muslims. Fascists versus sickulars. Conservatives versus apologists. Both sides have valid grievances, and both refuse to acknowledge the validity of the other's claims, leaving little room for compromise and a way forward. The situation in India is similar to that in so many other parts of the world. There have always been people -- extremists, politicians, terrorists -- happy to drive the narrative and to exploit divisions in communities. The narrative that prevails, in India and elsewhere, will define the world of the future.

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