01/06/2017 5:03 PM IST | Updated 01/06/2017 5:04 PM IST

Why Rajiv Gandhi Is Really The Instigator Of Cow Slaughter Ban

K M Kishan / Reuters

In a parallel universe of counter-possibilities living a life, history might have been recorded thus: some Indian Muslim hawkish clerics led a demand to impose a nationwide complete ban on cow slaughter, as consumption of beef hurts religious sentiments. They would argue, successfully, that secular Constitutional rights are inferior against the claims of religious hurt and sentimental offence caused by allowing beef eating. The democratically elected government of a modernist prime minister with a huge majority accepts their argument and imposes the ban — the first in the world.

Circa 1988, with a little twist, indeed went thus.

Hardline Muslim organisations proclaimed a war on a book titled The Satanic Verses, launched in the last week of September 1988 in the UK, written by Salman Rushdie, for being a 'threat to public order' and 'hurting religious sentiments of millions'. Hawkish parliamentarian Syed Shahabuddin petitioned the Congress government to ban it.

The ideological dilemma for Rajiv Gandhi was pretty straightforward — while a book, or any art, might not please, or even cause extreme displeasure, to some citizens, did they have the right to demand to deny those who do not subscribe to their view, their secular rights — in this case, the right of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, atheists and non-believer Muslims — to read a book? And even if they made such a political demand, should a government accept it?

He did.

In a way, the book was not technically banned, he merely banned the import of the book. Viking/Penguin Group could not export, or its Indian arm import, the book for sale in India. Globally, a lot has happened in la Rushdie affair; even Iran has withdrawn its fatwa against the author. But the bans stays on in India. Invoked by the finance ministry, import was prohibited under the Customs Act, 1962, but possession of a copy was not a crime.

As a footnote to this chapter, the West Bengal government banned Dwikhandita by Taslima Nasreen for "offending Muslims' feelings'.


What the clerics and fundamentalists achieved, and the Rajiv Gandhi government condoned, was a pseudo-right — a right for religious groups to protest against and seek protection against being offended (not hurt, not physically attacked or threatened), but sentimentally offended.

Religious and sentimental hurt is not an objective reality. It is a fake claim. It was legitimised and seen as a victory by both parties. The Muslim fundamentalists, avoiding a serious discussion on the aspirations for reforms of their community, congratulated themselves for successfully converting their religious following into political currency.

What the clerics and fundamentalists achieved, and the Rajiv Gandhi government condoned, was a pseudo-right

The government, rapidly losing popularity, felt that having failed to deliver on many fronts, having let down all meaningful rights, should compensate with a new right — whether you have a good life, property, career, amenities, progress or not — we will ensure no one can hurt your 'religious sentiments'. If some other people's rights come along the path as an obstacle — let such rights be crushed.

Democracy, and secularism, had a duty, and a responsibility — to call the bluff of sentimental hurt and being offended. It failed. No one had the moral courage to say that if an Indian's reading of The Satanic Verses or eating beef hurts your religious sentiments, it is a price to live in a plural democracy instead of a theocracy. Modern India buckled in collecting this price; hence, it was set to pay a bigger one.

The Muslim community did not stand for secularism in the Rushdie affair, and weakened it so much, that now secularism is too weak to stand for them in the face of this onslaught.

History repeats

Like Bollywood would see movies from Hollywood and southern states for a successful formula to create an 'inspired original', it was going to be a matter of time before someone took this recipe to another kitchen. Sadly, neither Rajiv Gandhi, his Congress party, nor the Muslim community considered this question — what if the Hindus copied this formula?

They did not realise that rage is contagious.

The new script began playing out in 1989 after the fall of Rajiv Gandhi's government, a bit like the banyan tree, 400+ MPs in Lok Sabha and all. Advani started his Rath Yatra; symbolically to bring a Ram Rajya delivered by Lal Krishna, and along with Shah Bano came in handy to attack all protestation as pseudo-secularism.

They did not realise that rage is contagious.

Only about rights

Minority rights as a concept had been crucified in the Rushdie affair demonstrably — Muslims felt the minority called individual, Salman Rushdie, and his rights don't matter. How would it be if the Hindus became the Muslims and the Muslims became Rushdie?

With individual rights died all rights. When the rights of Rushdie died, murdered by the Muslims and the political calculations of the Congress, the foundation was laid for larger-scale enactment of the same concept — subjugating legitimate rights for fake ones.

The cow was reborn as the Holy Cow, it's slaughter could be, and has now become, the Neo Satanic Verses.

How would it be if the Hindus became the Muslims and the Muslims became Rushdie?

'No matter, never mind'

The ban on Satanic Verses did not go uncontested by a class of people now popularly detested as intellectuals, media, editors, liberals, et al. They did not matter then, as they won't matter now. Political calculation gave Congress a large number of Muslims votes for banning the Verses, while the moderate Muslims silently looked away, possibly in partial rationalisation — ha, but he should not have written against religion.

The ban on cow slaughter, too, like the ban on Satanic Verses, is put forth technically — it merely serves to prevent cattle smuggling, is motivated by a desire to prevent cruelty to animals, and is only to restrict trade of older cattle, will only impact in border areas, and so on.

The core truth is understood by all — it is a beta launch, which will be tested, improved and will come in many versions before its perfection as another symbol of the Hindu Rashtra.

Cow politics is old. The revolt of 1857 was fuelled by many a factor, including rumours of beef-pork grease on bullets being given to soldiers. Throughout the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, it was a contentious issue — before it was made a directive principle of state policy. Many states ruled by the Congress banned cow slaughter. But the debate was directly about the cow. Rajiv Gandhi could have ended it, setting the precedent, in favour of secular values.

If India under Rajiv Gandhi could behave like an Islamic nation rather than democracy, why can't India inch towards a Hindutva Rashtra under Narendra Modi?

The votes, en bloc, will be cast.

If India under Rajiv Gandhi could behave like an Islamic nation rather than democracy, why can't India inch towards a Hindutva Rashtra under Narendra Modi?

Moral fightback

The Youth Congress in Kerala would have had more sincerity if they had organised a public reading of Rushdie's Verses along with the serving of beef soup. They sounded as unconvincing, and hypocritical, as P Chidambaram, who served as minister in the Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, UPA-1 and UPA-2 governments and said at a literature festival after the Congress lost power that the ban on Rushdie was wrong. The only reason he never spoke about it was because he was "never asked" till 2015.

Between Congress and BJP, between Rajiv and Modi, and in their success to make Satanic Verses and cow slaughter be seen as issues of Hindus and Muslims, we have lost our ability to see that the real book losing its sheen is the Constitution, and the slaughter on rights of individuals goes on unabated — by the very people who should be their rakshaks.

The real fight has long been abdicated by politicians. It is the common people who must take the fight back from religion and give it back to modern values. And it must begin by going back to 5 October 1988, and reversing Rajiv Gandhi's template order to placate religious monsters and crush the spirit and idea of India.

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