Modi must signal that he heads a government that stands for all citizens, not just the majority.
As news of the Dadri lynching broke, the Bharatiya Janata Party spoke in different voices. Partyleaders at the local level voiced the general sentiment that the victims had it brought it upon themselves. “Whose blood won’t boil if they see cow slaughter?” one man asked. The local unit of the BJP threatens to call a mahapanchayat to press for murder charges to be dropped.
BJP leaders at the national level were more delicate. Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma first said it was a “misunderstanding”, then amended his statement: It was an “accident” and please don’t give it a “communal twist”. Only Tarun Vijay, member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, acknowledged that “one person’s folly cannot justify the other’s action” and that incidents such as these derailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s narrative of “growth and inclusive development”. But even he went on to equivocate about cattle smuggling and cow protection. Meanwhile, Adityanath, BJP MP from Gorakhpur, ran an online poll on whether the Modi government should launch a policy to control the Muslim population.
Missing, across the board, was a deep sense of wrong about had happened. Killing a man for what he chooses to eat is a crime, beef ban or not.
Beef and the BJP
The BJP’s double speak is even more worrying because it is becoming apparent that this was not a random act of violence. To begin with, its motivations were communal. The killing mob was incited by an announcement, made during a kirtan at a nearby temple, that a Muslim family had beef. The priest later told the police that “two youths” had forced him to make the announcement.
Reports also suggest that young people in the area had been mobilised by a group called theSamadhan Sena, set up a few months ago to agitate about issues like Muslim shops in Hindu areas, cow slaughter and loudspeakers in mosques. Dadri has seen several mob attacks in the last few months – men lynched for allegedly trying to smuggle cattle, a Muslim attacked for setting up shop on “Hindu land”.
Monday’s killing is embedded in a larger climate of intolerance, a growing noise about pollution and purity, a cultural vigilantism that seems to have been enabled by the government. Cow slaughter and meat eating suddenly became the centre of conversation after beef bans were imposed across a swathe of states this year. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan compared cow slaughter to homicide and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh spoke of a nationwide law against it. In Maharashtra, an attempt was made last month to enforce an arcane law banning meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan for much longer than it has been implemented so far, and other states followed suit.
Add to that the fear mongering around the religion census data released in August, about proliferating Muslims and the demographic threat to Hindus, led by Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj, also a BJP MP from western Uttar Pradesh. Earlier, it was about conversions and the insidious infiltration of Hindu society by Muslim youth who married Hindu women. And the alarmism was not restricted to so-called fringe elements or the stray extremist leader. While the ensuing “ghar wapsi” campaign was supported by BJP leaders in the states, the Centre mulled over an anti-conversion law.
So ingrained is the idea that Muslims must be a dangerous, disruptive presence that it seemed necessary to point out this week that Mohammad Akhlaq, the murdered man, had a son who served in the Indian air force. Therefore, he was not anti-national.
Cut through the noise
Given the rising clamour over the last few months and the fraught history of the region, the BJP cannot feign ignorance about the implications of Dadri. Western UP, where Dadri is located, was the scene of a viciously polarised campaign in the elections of 2014. In a region already bruised by the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, BJP leaders such as Amit Shah and Adityanath were booked for hate speech. Elsewhere, it was development, aspiration and inclusive growth; here it was caste, religion, “pink revolution”. It seems to have left behind a seething, divided terrain where communities are quick to turn on each other and where the BJP politicians are still in campaign mode.
As a party in government, the BJP needs to fight the impression that it will indulge incidents such as the killing in Dadri, that it is not interested in ensuring the security of minorities. Over the past few days, the most cynical predictions about a majoritarian government have been proved right. It is imperative now for the top party leadership to cut through the noise and put forward a consolidated response. If Narendra Modi is to signal that he is prime minister to all citizens of the country, not merely to the majority community, there can be only one response: unqualified condemnation and the promise of justice for the Akhlaq family.