Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was concluding his visit to the United States in September, a body blow was dealt to the secular image of India. A middle-aged man, Akhlaq Mohammad, was lynched to death while his son was grievously injured by a mob in Bisada village in Dadri area of Noida, barely 45 km from Delhi, after rumours spread that the family had sacrificed a cow during Eid and consumed its meat.
In one fell swoop, all the efforts being made by the Modi government to bolster India’s image abroad for bringing in more investment and spur growth received a major setback. All the focus and debate once against returned to primitive issues like cow slaughter, right of people to consume beef, the growing intolerance in the country and where the future of secular India lay.
With the campaigning for the Bihar elections on, Modi – who had in his 2014 Independence Day speech called for a 10-year moratorium on communal issues -- initially chose silence over speaking out on the Bisada killing, sparking outrage among many in the intelligentsia who saw in it tacit approval for the activities of the belligerent Right wing activists. That the son of a local BJP leader was among those nabbed for the violence and some of the party leaders, including Union ministers, went on to make all kinds of extreme statements following the killing, did not help matters.
Many argued that since the BJP government came to power in the Centre, violence by Hindu fringe groups has increased. They warned that “regressive Hindu nationalism” was being thrust upon all leading to a sense of insecurity among the minorities. The ban on cow slaughter, it was said, was depriving Muslims of a key source of nutrition. It has also led to mushrooming of vigilante groups and increased mob violence.
By the time Modi broke his silence saying, “the Dadri incident or the opposition to Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali are sad and undesirable”, it was too late. His pleadings and questioning “what is the role of the Central government in these incidents?” did not evoke a positive response. In fact, many went on to question why he did not criticize the thinking and the mindset behind the incident.
Many argued that since the BJP government came to power in the Centre, violence by Hindu fringe groups has increased. They warned that “regressive Hindu nationalism” was being thrust upon all leading to a sense of insecurity among the minorities. The ban on cow slaughter, it was said, was depriving Muslims of a key source of nutrition
Subsequently party president Amit Shah also cautioned Right wing loudmouths, but to little avail. The mudslinging continued long after as more and more leaders from BJP, Congress and other parties joined in. While the idea was to assuage hurt feelings and lower communal temperatures, the message was often lost in the bedlam and key words or phrases were picked out of context to make the fractures appear even wider.
In the meantime, already upset over the killing of three rationalist writers by suspected Right wing elements, a number of writers joined the protest by returning their awards saying that intolerance and bigotry was going mainstream. Though they claimed their action was directed at the silence of the Sahitya Akademi over the issue, the manner of protest provided the Government and the Right-wing groups an opportunity to claim that the synchronized protests had more to do with the inability of many of these writers to accept and acknowledge the changes in the government and style of governance.
While on the one hand a debate is raging on the issue of tolerance, the ban on cow slaughter and the rights of people to eat beef, with hardliners and liberals speaking in their own language, on the other ominous signs are emerging of the situation on the ground getting out of hand and people taking the law in their hands. Three Muslims and a Hindu have already lost their lives over the issue of cow slaughter in the past month.
Modi broke his silence saying, “the Dadri incident or the opposition to Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali are sad and undesirable”, it was too late. His pleadings and questioning “what is the role of the Central government in these incidents?” did not evoke a positive response
-On September 28, it was Akhlaq Mohammad with 10 people arrested including the son of a local BJP leader.
-On October 9, Bajrang Dal activist Prashant Poojary running a campaign against illegal slaughter of cattle was hacked to death by six bike-borne men in Moodbidri, Karnataka. The police arrested eight people – all Muslims -in connection with the crime. Mangaluru Police Commissioner S. Murugan said the accused were annoyed with Poojary for having taken on people involved in illegal trafficking of cattle. A witness in the case, Vaman Poojary, allegedly committed suicide a week later, leading to protests by the Bajrang Dal which questioned the circumstances surrounding his death.
-Then on October 9-10, a Kashmiri youth Zahid received serious burn injuries after the coal-laden truck he was travelling in was attacked by a mob in Udhampur over rumours of cow slaughter. The driver of the truck, Ramees Ahmad Bhat, who escaped the mob’s fury under cover of darkness, said the mob first lobbed a petrol bomb into the truck and when Zahid – a Class 10 student returning from Delhi to Srinagar following a trip – jumped off along with another occupant, Showkat, they were caught and set on fire. The two were subsequently shifted to Safdarjang Hospital in Delhi, where Zahib succumbed on October 18, leading to protests across the Valley.
-On October 16, there was one more incident of mob violence over suspected cattle smuggling, this time in Himachal Pradesh. This time a truck carrying over a dozen cattle was stopped by a mob and its occupants were attacked. While a 22-year-old youth, Noman, from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, was lynched, four of his associates were beaten up and handed over to the police.
Independent MLA from Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Abdul Rashid, was also twice targeted over the issue of cow slaughter and beef during the month. He was first attacked in the Assembly by BJP MLAs for hosting a beef party as a matter of assertion of his rights. And when he was in Delhi to address a press conference on the Udhampur attack, he was set upon by Hindu Sena activists who blackened his face with ink. The relatives of Zahid and Showkat were also present at the meet.
Azam Khan sought to take the issue to the United Nations. Accusing the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) of planning to convert “secular and pluralistic India” into a “majoritarian theocratic nation as Hindu Rashtra”, he wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seeking his intervention
The beef controversy started in Maharashtra when the Mira Road-Bhayandar civic body near Mumbai imposed an eight-day ban on slaughter and sale of meat ahead of the Jain fasting period of Paryushan in September. Subsequently, five BJP-ruled states of Haryana, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat imposed a similar ban, which was criticized as it overlapped a period of festivities for Muslims. Critics insisted that while a ban on cow slaughter was envisioned by the founders of the Constitution under Article 48, what happed in September was done “to push a religious agenda”.
While some states reduced the period of the ban following protests by the Shiv Sena, MNS and various Muslim organizations, many believe the politics of hatred over the issue had been fanned. Incidentally, in March, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had declared that the Centre would push for legislation to ban cow slaughter and sale of beef. Akhlaq’s killing also spurred a round of allegations and counter-allegations in which radical BJP leaders compounded the problems for the party by their utterances. Even saner voices appeared hard in the circumstances.
Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, who tries to make light of everything, was not amused this time when his advice that “they are local happenings… you have to understand the sensitivities, the local situation, then come to conclusions”, drew flak from many quarters.
Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjeev Balyan said “the issue should not be linked to communalism and to any party base … this is an issue of the whole Hindu community. Don’t link this issue with the BJP”.
From the other end of the spectrum, UP Minister Azam Khan chose to stoke the fires. In a first-of-its-kind move he sought to take the issue to the United Nations. Accusing the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) of planning to convert “secular and pluralistic India” into a “majoritarian theocratic nation as Hindu Rashtra”, he wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seeking his intervention. The move was seen by many as an attempt to internationalize an internal problem, just the way Pakistan has been dealing with Kashmir all along. Questioning how long would Muslims of India be asked to go to Pakistan, Khan, who also holds the Minority Welfare portfolio in the UP Government, charged that under Modi the “real essence of freedom and secularism” was under threat like never before.Known for his outspoken style, Khan also pointed out that in the Bihar elections, beef had come to dominate the discourse over development and backward-forward issues.
With the situation getting tense in the wake of controversial statements, even President Pranab Mukherjee was compelled to appeal for peace and tolerance. He called for preserving the core values of Indian civilization, which underscored tolerance and coexistence. But many Congress leaders had a distinctly sharp response on the issue. Former Union minister Kapil Sibal alleged a “conspiracy behind the Dadri lynching.” He gave sufficient indication of what he meant by questioning the Prime Minister’s silence on the issue.
With Modi not speaking on the Dadri killing for nearly a fortnight after the incident, the BJP was hard-pressed to explain his stance as normally he has a word on every issue. Senior party leader and Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari ultimately came out in his defence, saying the head of the government need not comment on each and every incident.
Later Modi did break his silence, his hand forced by renowned academics and writers who began returning their coveted prizes to protest against growing intolerance in society. On the face of it their protest was directed at the Sahitya Akademi– the National Academy for Letters -- for not issuing a statement on the killing of rationalist thinker and Kannada litterateur M.M. Kalburgi. But they were also expressing anger over the killings of two other rationalist thinkers - anti-superstition activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in Pune two years ago and of Communist leader Govind Pansare near his home in Kolhapur this February. Incidentally they were both shot dead by motorcycle borne men.
In the case of Pansare, the Maharashtra police had nabbed Samir Gaikwad, an activist of Sanatan Sanstha, a Right wing organization from Sangli. While the Goa-headquartered Sanstha denied any role in Pansare’s killing, it has admitted that Gaikwad was its worker. And earlier in October, the Maharashtra Police is learnt to have seized some documents which indicate a link between Gaikwad and the murderers of Dabholkar (being probed by Central Bureau of Investigation) and Kalburgi (being investigated by Karnataka police). Some mobile numbers were found in Gaikwad’s diaries which could provide a link to the other two killings.
The first salvo in using the return of reward as a weapon was fired on September 12 by renowned Hindi writer Uday Prakash, who returned his Sahitya Akademi award as protest against the killing and the Akademi’s silence on the issue. Though some other writers followed suit, it was only in the wake of the Dadri killing that the protest became more pronounced. What started as a trickle soon turned into a deluge. Within a month 41 essayists novelists, poets and playwrights had returned their awards and many more had spoken in favour of the move. The protest was against growing intolerance. The government response only aggravated the situation. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma was again at the forefront preaching “if they say they are unable to write, let them stop writing”.
The response of other writers was equally caustic. This is what some of them had to say:
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece and noted writer Nayantara Sahgal, who had even criticized Indira Gandhi for imposing Emergency, described the recent events as “an attempt to blow up the idea of India and to put in its place a kind of travesty of Hinduism, a kind of monoculture, which has nothing to do with Hinduism.”
Playwright & theatre actress Maya Krishna Rao, who also returned her award, said: “It’s become a question of an individual’s right to speak, to think, to write, to eat, to dress, to debate.”
Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal while returning his award said earlier governments tried to restore peace in situations of communal conflict, but in the past year, “the Indian state has become suffocating and extremely intolerant. The government was now brazenly and institutionally backing this communal hatred.”
The feelings of the Indian writers were shared by some internationally renowned authors as well. Mumbai-born Salman Rushdie, who is on the hit list of Islamic fundamentalists for his book Satanic Verses, claimed that a “degree of thuggish violence” had been bolstered by the government’s silence. Many writers have pointed out that the intolerance was also visible in the way Hindu conservatives were targeting authors.
In January they forced Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan to go into hiding and declare that he would quit writing, after Hindu nationalists demonstrated for weeks demanding that he delete portions of his book Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman) because they found it offensive.
Last year, Penguin India decided to destroy all copies of historian Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism following protests. Likewise, Gujarat had in 2011 banned Joseph Lelyveld’s biography on Mahatma Gandhi, after reviews suggested that it delved greatly into his personal life.
From the BJP, the most exhaustive response to the controversy came from its man for all occasions Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. In an article titled “A manufactured revolt – Politics by other means”, Jaitley admitted that the Dadri lynching was “extremely unfortunate and condemnable” and that “such incidents bring a bad name to the country”.
Noting that the thrust of the writers’ protest “appears to be that under the present Central Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an atmosphere of intolerance has been created in the country”, Jaitley questioned, “is this protest real or a manufactured one? Is this not a case of ideological intolerance?”
He insisted “there are large number of writers with left or Nehruvian leanings who have been recognized by the Government in the past. Some of them may have been entitled to this recognition …. Many of them have spoken out against the present prime minister even when he was chief minister of Gujarat. After the new Government was sworn in May, 2014, those who had enjoyed the patronage under the earlier establishment have obviously been uncomfortable with the present Government.”
He added that with Congress “showing no signs of revival” and the Left “being increasingly pushed to the margin”, the new strategy of the anti–Modi, anti–BJP sections appears to be to resort to “politics by other means”. “The easiest way is to manufacture a crisis and subsequently manufacture a paper rebellion against the Government in the wake of a manufactured crisis,” he said.
A combative Jaitley said a few months after the Modi government was sworn in, there was a spate of attacks on churches and protests were held. It was claimed that the “minority community” was under attack. But investigations revealed that most of them were “incidents of petty crimes such as theft or throwing bottles to break a windowpane”. None could be attributed to religion or politics.
While some states reduced the period of the ban following protests by the Shiv Sena, MNS and various Muslim organizations, many believe the politics of hatred over the issue had been fanned
Asserting “there is no atmosphere of intolerance in the country,” he said, “the manufactured revolt is a case of ideological intolerance towards the BJP.” He also questioned why the same writers had remained silent when Emergency was imposed by Indira Gandhi, or in the wake of Sikh killings of 1984 or the Bhagalpur riots of 1989.
Subsequently, BJP president Amit Shah pulled up outspoken party leaders urging them to show restraint. On October 18 he cracked the whip, summoning all those leaders whose statements had added fuel to the raging fire. He is learnt to have told Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, MLA Sangeet Som and BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj that such controversies could derail the development agenda of the Modi Government.
Meanwhile, other BJP leaders sought to shift the blame for the crisis elsewhere. Party spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi said what has been glossed over is that most of the incidents for which the Modi government was being blamed, had taken place in states ruled by other parties.
“Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in UP which is ruled by the Samajwadi Party, rationalist writer M. M. Kalburgi was killed in Congress-ruled Karnataka, and another rationalist Narendra Dabholkar too was killed when the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance was in power in Maharashtra. Yet these incidents have been clubbed to support the calumny that Modi was responsible for them,” he said.
Countering these arguments a day later, Congress leader Kapil Sibal wrote in an article that “what happened in Dadri was not just an attack on Mohammed Akhlaq. It was an attack on our Constitution”.
He said “the forces that killed Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and M.M. Kalburgi; the forces that beat up an MLA in the legislative assembly in Jammu and Kashmir; the forces that didn’t allow Ghulam Ali to perform in Mumbai; which forced couples out of a hotel and invaded their privacy are the same that brutally murdered Akhlaq.”
Sibal said: “What Modi is encouraging by not openly reprimanding his colleagues in the Cabinet is the spirit of intolerance that seeks to divide rather than unite. The debate on cow slaughter and the ugly incident at Dadri are the result of a mindset and forces that support Modi.”
He recalled the previous stance of Modi on the issue of cow slaughter, by referring to his speech in Nawada in April 2014 in which he had said that “the Delhi sarkar will not give out subsidies to farmers or to Yadavs keeping cows but will give out subsidies to people who slaughter cows, who slaughter animals, who are destroying our rivers of milk, as long as they set up qatlkhanas.”
Sibal also referred to another speech of 2012 when Modi had attacked then then UPA government at the Centre for promoting the pink revolution. Speaking at a birth anniversary function of Rana Pratap, Modi had stated: “Rana Pratap dedicated his life to gauraksha (cow protection). He fought wars and sacrificed young men to protect the cow… The Centre’s dream is to bring about a Pink Revolution… To make money, plans are being made to slaughter gayemaa (the mother cow) and it is at moments like this that you remember RanaPratap”.
Sibal said there was no difference between what Modi said then and what his Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had said on October 4 in response to Akhlaq’s murder: “Maar diya hoga kisi shaitan ne” (Some devil must have killed him).
The Congress leader cautioned the BJP saying, “the individuals behind these incidents are real people who have a mindset that conforms to the ideology of the party you stand for and the RSS, of which you are an integral part…..the mindset of a terrorist and the mindset of intolerance know no territorial boundaries when individuals are targeted either for their eating habits or for any other reason.”
Coming under repeated attacks, the RSS hit back and taunted the ‘liberals’ for using cow slaughter as “protein for their secular politics”. Its mouthpiece ‘Organiser’ said, “one fails to understand how a ban on slaughter of cows and calves would deprive people of a cheap source of protein… Beef is not the cheapest source of protein.”
Stating that “every murder is unfortunate, and cruel... and calls for strict action by law enforcing agencies”, it went on to ask “what is different about Dadri’s case is that here a murder is being used by the media and self-proclaimed seculars and liberals as an opportunity to put the beliefs of Hinduism in dock.”
Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia, even challenged Modi saying “even Prime Minister Modi cannot protect anybody responsible for cow slaughter. Hindus are bound to react to such provocation and while some may do so in a polite manner others can do it with violence”
Soon after in his Vijayadashami address, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat charged that some incidents were being “blown out of proportion”. Calling for “inclusivity”, he said “changes in society should be brought about with changing times without compromising our inherent values. Our thoughts may differ, but we must walk hand in hand.”
He lauded the Modi Government for its efforts to put the country’s economy back on track and for raising its standing in the comity of nations through greater interaction with world leaders. “It seems that the world is being introduced to a new modern Bharat,” he said.
But just as the liberal voices appeared to be returning, shriller voices continued to emanate from ultra-Right wing groups. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia challenged Modi saying “even Prime Minister Modi cannot protect anybody responsible for cow slaughter. Hindus are bound to react to such provocation and while some may do so in a polite manner others can do it with violence.”
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat charged that some incidents were being “blown out of proportion”. Calling for “inclusivity”, he said “changes in society should be brought about with changing times without compromising our inherent values. Our thoughts may differ, but we must walk hand in hand”
The same day, October 22, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray questioned what the uproar over beef was all about. “If you are so concerned about people eating beef in India, why don’t you declare this country a Hindu Rashtra? Why don’t you implement Uniform Civil Code? No one will eat beef ever in this country and the entire chaos will come to halt,” he said during his Dussehra rally speech in Mumbai.
Thackeray, whose party had also forced the cancellation of the Mumbai concert of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali earlier in October by threatening to disrupt it, also defended the ink attacks carried out by his party workers. Shiv Sena men had earlier attacked the chairperson of Observer Research Foundation Sudheendra Kulkarni with ink, for hosting the launch of former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri’s book, “Neither a Hawk, Nor a Dove: An Insider Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy.”
Shiv Sainiks had also stormed the headquarters of the Board of Control for Cricket in India demanding that no talks be held with the Pakistan Cricket Board on resumption of cricketing ties. Thackeray said at a time when Indian soldiers are being killed by Pakistan, he would not allow Pakistanis to come to Mumbai. “Don’t care about the others but we will not take all this. Balasaheb used to say be proud to say we are Hindus. These are my Shiv Sainiks,” he said.
If there is one lesson from the developments of the past two months, it is that a sense of mistrust now prevails which makes it incumbent upon all players to exercise restraint and caution before saying anything or taking any action. It is also the time to clamp down on the fringe elements, who believe in violent methods to say their piece, not because they have become very powerful or because of the scale of damage they cause, but because the media can magnify their actions manifold, leading to polarization in general.
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