The rumour of beef and pig tallow greasing cartridges is supposed to have spawned what the British called the Indian mutiny. That was 1857.
Now in 2015 rumours of eating beef can get you killed.
The Indian Express story about a 50-year-old man beaten to death and his son critically injured in UP’s Dadri after rumours spread that they were eating and storing beef has divided us on predictable lines.
Folks on one side see this as another sign of growing intolerance towards minorities in the acchey din India of Narendra Modi. Those on the other side see it as another case of selective outrage because it’s not like such incidents have not happened in pre-Modi India. If a Dalit and Muslim were stripped for skinning and eating a cow in Karnataka allegedly by Bajrang Dal activists in 2008 did anyone point fingers at the UPA sarkar?
What’s lost in the din is the essential point in the story. Whether it happened before in 2006 or 2008 or 2015, someone has died because someone else did not like the food they ate.
The most poignant part of the entire story was this excerpt.
Akhlaq’s daughter, Sajida, said the family had “mutton in the fridge” and not beef. “Can they bring my father back if it turns out it was not beef?”
Cow slaughter is banned in UP but that someone needs to say this, in order to plead for their lives, is what is truly shocking, truly horrendous.
“We have collected meat samples from Akhlaq’s house and sent it to the forensics department for examination,” said the Senior SSP Kiran S to IE.
Someone’s dinner is now part of a criminal investigation. That is the reality that cannot be captured in the language of a law that bans the slaughter of a particular animal or puts limitations on it.
This is not about whether this is a new phenomenon or an old fault line. As Akhilesh Yadav is the chief minister this is his faultline now. As Narendra Modi is the prime minister it is his faultline. Not what happened in Dadri per se but the larger polarization happening around food as a way of defining the “other”. It does not matter if this polarization is an old one. It does not matter if it’s not really part of a great conspiracy. This is now something he has to grapple with.
Narendra Modi also knows that his party is held to higher scrutiny and will always be when it comes to minority issues because it is perceived as a Hindu nationalist party. The Congress too would be held to higher scrutiny by its opponents when it came to accusations of pandering to minorities as Rajiv Gandhi found out with the Shah Bano case. That is why something a group of Bajrang Dal activists did in 2008 is viewed differently than what the same group does in 2015. The accusation, which the PM has to constantly guard against, is that his being in power at the centre has emboldened these groups. The fringe thinks it has impunity now.
That might be a blatant falsehood but the PM has done little to squelch these accusations. He has mostly just ignored the issue. When Obama was accused of following a church leader alleged to have extreme views he came forward to confront the touchy issue of race head-on in a speech that could not have been easy for him. That is precisely what an Arun Shourie was getting at when he told Karan Thapar “If Modi tweets on Sania Mirza’s victory and wishing on somebody’s birthday and then he doesn’t say a word on critical issues like Ghar Wapsi, Churches and Love Jihad, it will draw an inference.” The PM says saracastically that children welcome him by reciting Sanskrit shlokas in Ireland but it would have raised questions about “secularism” if it had been done in India. But when food bans actually test our ideas of secularism, the PM is conspicuously silent. The silence does not douse flames, it fans conspiracy theories.
That silence is interpreted as loaded because as Mukul Kesavan has pointed out in The Telegraph, while the BJP election manifesto consigned Ram Mandir to Page 41, Modi on the election trail gives speeches that press religious hot buttons.
“In Bihar, Modi made speeches where he re-mixed the cow-slaughter theme song under a new title, the ‘Pink Revolution’. The lyrics of his cover version went like this: the Congress government had subsidized cow-slaughter, butchers had grown rich on the back of meat exports, did Yadavs really want to make common cause with people who killed the sacred cow?”
The story is not about timelines and tu tu main main. The Maharashtra cow slaughter ban might date back to 1976 but extending the ban to bulls and bullocks happened under Devendra Fadnavis’ watch. Jammu and Kashmir’s cow slaughter ban dates back to 1932 even though it was rarely enforced but because a high court orders enforcement now, it’s the current government’s problem.
Indulging in a fight about dates really dodges the main issue. And it bears repeating. Even as the Prime Minister wows Silicon Valley with his vision of a digital India of superfast i-ways and connected villages and farmers on WhatsApp, someone has been killed because a mob did not like what they thought he was eating.
That should be hard to digest for all of us.
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