Apparently, not a single Bharatiya Janata Party dignitary showed up at the President’s traditional iftar at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Given that boycott, it may be pointless to ask whether the current spurt of cow vigilante activism is a genuine attempt to prevent beef consumption or simply an excuse to attack Muslims who seem to be unwanted in a country that is steadily becoming more Bharat than India. It’s to be noted in this context that neither upper class Hindus who eat beef (while supporting the BJP) nor fashionable restaurants that serve beef are under attack.
Of course, there are many Hindus who genuinely do find beef-eating abhorrent. Some of them might even feel justified in employing force to end a practice that they see as comparable to, say, cannibalism. Undeniably, too, the BJP and its allies like Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena are committed to preventing cow slaughter. Given this religious conditioning, the government’s silence on gau goondaism might arguably be explicable. But from the Prime Minister down, the government itself is complicit in criminal activity if the target is the country’s second largest religious group, the roughly 172 million people or 14.2 per cent of the population who identified with Islam according to the 2011 Census.
The recent murderous attack on a train in the outskirts of the national capital seems to have started with a seat dispute. The victims were three Muslim brothers returning home after Eid shopping, the attackers Hindu. The argument quickly degenerated into communalism. A beard was pulled, the Muslims were slapped and taunted for eating beef. Abuse and blows seemed to alternate until the 10 or 12 young Hindu men pulled out knives and stabbed the Muslims. No onlooker thought fit (or dared) to intervene, but they took photographs on mobile cameras. One picture reportedly shows a railway compartment drenched in blood. In another, 15-year-old Junaid, his head cradled in his brother’s lap, lies dying on the platform floor of a railway station in Haryana.
Haryana’s 63-year-old BJP chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, a former RSS pracharak, might have been the dead Junaid’s grandfather. But neither he nor any of his ministers had a word of sympathy or condemnation. The state’s police chief, B.S. Sandhu, did comment, but in terms that only deepen concern about the direction in which India is moving. Haryana banned beef consumption in 2015 and prescribed rigorous imprisonment of up to five years and a Rs 50,000 fine for breaking the law. But respect for all laws will be destroyed if bands of goondas posing as gau rakshaks are allowed (if not encouraged) to attack and murder Muslim villagers.
Mr Sandhu’s dismissal of young Junaid’s murder as “a clash between two groups which resulted in the death of one person” can only encourage further violence since it didn’t acknowledge the role of religion in the clash, or that the attackers were Hindu and the victims Muslim. “We have already arrested one of the accused” he said. “Others too will be arrested.” It’s not enough to arrest them. They must be brought to speedy trial and given exemplary punishment if Muslims are to live in security.
There was another equally tragic lynching at Jammu and Kashmir’s historic Jamia Masjid in Nohawatta district, venerated as a centre of spiritual and moral upliftment, on the same day. Thousands of people were visiting the site from all over Kashmir to observe Shab-e-Qadr (Night of Power) when the killing took place. It’s not very clear whether the 57-year-old deputy superintendent of police, Mohammed Ayub Pandith, had just finished his own prayers in the mosque during the night-long Ramzan celebration or whether he was on duty outside, which seems likely since he was armed. Defending himself when the mob attacked, the cornered Mohammad Ayub appears to have fired his pistol, injuring three persons. The mob then went on the rampage. After stripping Mohammad Ayub naked and stoning him to death, it attacked empty security pickets so that police reinforcements had to be rushed to restore normalcy.
Tragically, the cruel murder seemed like a godsend to the Hindu Right which seized upon it as an excuse for further berating those who recommend a more humane policy towards the minorities and some attempt to understand the grievances and aspirations of Kashmiri Muslims. Defending the firing by Mohammad Ayub, Jammu and Kashmir’s director general of police, S. P. Vaid, said, “The DSP was carrying a pistol and he had the right to self-defence.” Two suspected assailants had been arrested and a third identified. “All of them will face the law,” the DGP told reporters.
That is as it should be in any civilised society. The only reason why it needs explicit statement in India is that criminals so often do not face the law. The judicial process is thoroughly corrupt. It is extremely dilatory. There are so many loopholes and escape routes in the administration of the law that justice is a rare commodity in a country that boasts of being the world’s biggest democracy. Justice is also subject to political considerations and what is euphemistically called “identity politics”. When officials beat to death a Muslim man who tried to stop them from photographing women defecating, Rajasthan’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, acknowledged the “demise” but with no word of criticism. An illiterate Muslim peasant in a border district of West Bengal has no means of proving he is not an illegal migrant from Bangladesh: he must satisfy the local police’s demands.
This has been so since Partition. What is new – dating from Narendra Modi’s rise to power at the Centre in 2014 – is the spate of lynchings in the name of cow protection. That means mounting violence against Muslims, Dalits and people from the north-eastern states who do not venerate the cow as Hindus do. Although BJP politicians were outraged over the public slaughter of a calf by Youth Congress activists in Kerala, they did not react at all when Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer was lynched for transporting cattle.
India appears to be descending into primeval bloodletting. Worse, the bloodletting seems planned to cripple if not eliminate those who cannot be fitted into the Hindi-Hindu-cow belt mould. That is a far cry from the pluralism the Constitution idealises. India needs to learn from Britain where a series of Islamist terrorist attacks did not deter the British public from gathering together to demonstrate solidarity with Muslims who were victims of an attack by a white man who drove his van into them as they emerged from a mosque in north London’s Finsbury Park. The attack on Muslims, said the Tory prime minister, Theresa May, was “every bit as sickening” as other terrorist outrages. Decency demands a similar admission from Mr Modi. Not Muslims alone but India is waiting.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist