Politics over beef  — the Hindutva project to undermine Indian democracy

The ascent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India has rekindled a brand of politics that many thought had been consigned to history  —  that of the cow. It has created a discourse that is not only questions many of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution, but also raises doubts over the future of the country as a secular and democratic republic.

A “rule of mob”, supported by the ruling dispensation in many cases, has descended upon the country. The Sangh parivar’s target is clear — it wants a country of upper castes, for the upper castes and by the upper castes. They have also chalked out a strategy to achieve that goal — periodic outbreaks of violence against Muslims and Dalits.

Politics over beef is not new to India. Wendy Doniger, noted author and a scholar of Sanskrit for over 50 years, traced the origin of politics over the cow to the 19th century as an implicit objective to oppress the Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism, tying it to his idea of nonviolence.

In the modern age, the pioneer of the cow protection movement was M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. A thorough reading of the autobiography of Verghese Kurien — the Milkman of India — provides an insight into Golwalkar’s thoughts.

Golwalkar was the brains behind the 1960s’ cow protection movement that forced the government of the day to set up a committee to consider the demand of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The committee lasted 12 years.

Kurien opposed this ban for economic reasons. “It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilised for healthy and productive cattle. I was prepared to go as far as to allow that no useful cow should be killed,” Kurien wrote in his autobiography.

He then cited a conversation with Golwalkar where the then RSS chief outlined his vision, and it had nothing to do with gau bhakti (cow reverence). It was a political move then; today it is a social move to finally create the India of Golwalkar’s vision.

In India, traditionally, the slaughter of cattle has always been associated with either the Muslims and Christians or the Hindu lower castes — the Dalits. Beef forms an important part of the diet for Muslims. The Dalits, on the other hand, were scavengers and their eating habits still reflects their ancient status at the bottom of the food chain, forced to eat even rats. Beef presented an alternative source of nutrition to them and has since been included in their diet — it was more of an economical habit than a cultural one.

Amid the hoopla, the consumption of beef by Hindus is forgotten. Doniger wrote that even “after the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef”. She paraphrased ancient ritual texts, known as the Brahmanas and others, that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC. These texts said a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrived.

Doniger credited the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, to explain the transition of Hindus to non-eating of cows: “Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

The cattle slaughter legislation was the BJP’s attempt to live up to its 2014 election manifesto, where it promised to protect “the cow and its progeny” in a nod to its Hindu nationalist roots. This was an attempt to appeal to India’s Hindu population, which holds cattle — particularly cows — to be sacred. State Assemblies have also begun to follow suit and pass laws that would make cow slaughter a punishable offence.

Alongside their dietary choices, most of India’s leather business is also handled by Muslims or the so-called lower castes. A blanket ban on the slaughter of cattle specifically aims to cut off their source of livelihood. For a nation that so reveres its gau mata (mother cow), India remains one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. Its buffalo meat export has grown from Rs 3,533 crore in 2007 to Rs 26,685 crore in 2016.

“The new rules of buffalo trade on which we were not consulted has come as a surprise and shock for the industry. It is not possible for individual farmers to sell their spent animals for slaughter (directly to us) without going to the nearest animal market,” Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, the trade lobby of buffalo meat exporters, said.

Incidentally, demands to stop cattle slaughter have not just been limited to the BJP or Sangh leadership. Rajasthan High Court recently recommended to the Centre that it should declare the cow as the national animal. Even a body of Muslim intellectuals said it would extend support to any proposal to ban cow slaughter and declaring it as the national animal.

Despite the political grandstanding over the cow’s sanctity, an ugly truth prevails: the animal is frequently mistreated, housed miserably, fed rubbish or left to fend for itself. Cow protection is just a smokescreen that the fringe needs to achieve their long-term goal of turning India into a Hindu Pakistan.

The mistreatment of cows has been widespread in India, said Naresh Kadyan, India representative of the International Organisation for Animal Protection. The politicisation of cattle welfare has distracted from the problem of how India’s cows — some 283 million, according to a 2003 census — are treated.

While cows used to be prized for their economic value, they are now “unproductive, as they have been replaced by machines,” Kadyan said, adding that cows had “become a tool of publicity and politics to divide society”.

In states such as Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh — where the consumption of beef is less common than in the south or north-east — cows are treated well until they are unable to provide milk. “When they become unproductive, they are then kept in animal shelters that are like full-time jails,” he said. “There’s no scientific care for the rest of their lives. They have no exercise, no freedom of movement, and no land to graze on,” Kadiyan said.

A 2010 investigation by the India chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) found rampant abuse of cows in the dairy industry. They were frequently injected with oxytocin, although the hormone causes stomach cramps and pain, to boost milk yields.

“Most (cows) are chained by their necks in narrow stalls, where they are unable to stretch or move normally,” according to Peta. “Lack of proper food causes them to suffer from digestive problems, and lack of exercise causes lameness.”

Unproductive cows may also be turned out of their farms, resulting in the sight that is so familiar in Indian cities: the solitary cow, wandering the streets and picking plastic out of refuse bins. The Peta report also said that at least half of the cows sold to slaughterhouses die before they even get to the abattoir because they are forced to walk there.

Firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath, who became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has promised to improve the conditions of cows in the state. In May, his government announced a Cattle Healing Mobile Van Service — an ambulance for cows, which may be summoned by anyone who spots a cow in distress. He has also proposed to establish “cow sanctuaries”.

Some of these shelters are to be housed on the premises of penitentiaries because jails have land and manpower to tend to cattle.

However, not everyone agrees with this move. “These shelters will function without any sort of scientific approach,” Kadiyan said. “These are just so-called animal rights activists using the cow as a political tool — to misguide others to achieve their own political targets or for personal gain or profit.”

Kadiyan calls them animal rights activists. In reality, they are foot soldiers of an administration that is intent on imposing its brand and idea of Hinduism on all Indians. It doesn’t matter if they are not followers of Hinduism — they have two options: follow or perish.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.



Decoding the inner workings of India’s lynch mob syndrome

A common thread unites Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan — they were lynched by Hindu mobs in the name of cow protection.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP took power in 2014, mob lynchings have become the new normal. The BJP’s rise and the regular pro-Hindutva sermons issued by party leaders have instilled a sense of invincibility in these gau rakshaks (cow protectors).

Chief among them is Mohan Bhagwat, sarsanghchalak of the RSS, the BJP’s ideological mentor, who has repeatedly urged the Centre to ban slaughter of cows. Party MPs, including Yogi Adityanath, who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March, has issued open threats against beef trade. Adityanath’s appointment as the state’s chief minister was followed by an unprecedented crackdown on slaughterhouses.

In the backdrop of this violence lies the BJP’s ideological goal — to create an India of the upper caste by suppressing the Muslims and confining the lower castes to their “rightful” place at the bottom of the food chain. Its idea of India stems from the Manusmriti or the Laws of Manu and Bunch of Thoughts by M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s second sarsanghchalak.

Mukul Kesavan wrote in The Telegraph that “the anti-cow-slaughter campaign has become for the BJP and its vision of Bharat what the anti-blasphemy law used to be for Zia-ul-Haq and his vision of Pakistan: an occasion for the public enactment of the supremacy of a religious majority and, correspondingly, the subordination of religious minorities.”

Kesavan described a visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington where he realised that “lynchings were public performances, designed to strike terror into minds of black people, specially blacks who had forgotten their place vis-à-vis their white betters.”

He also drew a parallel between the lynchings of the Ku Klux Klan and the violence of Hindu mobs. The Ku Klux Klan, he wrote, “used violence to intimidate free blacks, to ritually enact their ‘inferiority’. White vigilantes attacked black men and killed them in the name of protecting white womanhood. Between 1890 and the middle of the 20th century nearly 3,500 black men were lynched in the name of white supremacy.”

They also took pictures of their handiwork, which were often published as postcards. It was a “form of white terrorism in America, specifically designed to intimidate black Americans,” Kesavan wrote.

Most lynchings in India take place in the Hindi belt of the north, where the BJP has traditionally wielded more power. The lynch mobs see clear complicity of the people at the helm in the violence where the prime minister, as the chief minister of Gujarat, had himself advocated extrajudicial encounters. The mobs feel empowered. They also know that they enjoy impunity and patronage from the power.

Another aspect of emboldening the lynch mobs is their glorification by the ruling dispensation. The body of Ravi Sisodia, an accused in the murder of Akhlaq, was draped in the Tricolour and hailed as a martyr after he had died in jail.

Modi’s silence on this rabid expression of violence also provides tacit approval of their actions. Forest fires in Portugal elicit a quicker response from their leader than the gruesome murder of a 15-year-old boy.

This has created an “us versus them” mentality among the fringe elements where even police are mute spectators, while the courts are too busy debating whether a peahen reproduces by merely drinking the peacock’s tears.

The lynchings take place not just in the name of cows. It has ranged from fake WhatsApp messages alleging that a rape accused was an illegal Bangaldeshi immigrant through allegations of child trafficking to civic officials allegedly lynching a political activist after he tried to stop them from photographing women defecating in the open.

These were not the only instances. At the height of last year’s students’ movement in Jawaharlal Nehru University, there were repeated, some successful, attempts at attacking students, teachers, and activists on the court preemies. Some lawyers even managed to beat up students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar when he was lodged in jail at the time.

Decoding lynchings from the point of view of neuroscience, Sumaiya Shaikh, a medical scientist with a PhD in neuroscience, wrote in The Wire that a mob lynching differed from physical harm or a killing. According to her, several components come together — the attackers, spectators and the outnumbered victim(s) for this public spectacle that dates back to the medieval ages. “It needs the public humiliation of the victim and, unlike a lawful process of punishment, a lynching is a demonstration that the sentiments of the attackers are beyond the law or the government,” she wrote.

The perpetrator category of ‘participants’, Shaikh wrote, “isn’t an individual but a group that unites to act as a single entity. Within this group, there is trust, recognition, validation, power and anonymity for its members. Every action and thought of a group of this sort, like the workings of an insect swarm, consists solely of achieving their shared objective.”

But not all lynchings are spontaneous outbursts of mob sentiment. Two cow vigilantes had tailed the van of Asgar Ali alias Alimuddin on a bike from Chitarpur in Ramgarh, a known beef hub, to Bazartand in the heart of the district town on June 29 morning, providing regular updates during the 15km stretch to their friends in the marketplace waiting to kill, a chilling example of premeditated mob murder in India.

Apoorvanand agreed that “the spate of violent attacks are in no way spontaneous expressions of mob anger. They are the product of systematic incitement to violence by Hindu nationalists.”

The “atmosphere of sustained hatred against Muslims makes attacks on them seem spontaneous and the product of mob anger. But few question why the mob is angry in the first place,” he wrote.

In April 2017, when a man succumbed to his injuries suffered in a mob attack in Rajasthan, the state’s home minister told reporters that cow protectors were trying to stop people from trafficking cows. The chilling logic — those who are lynched are on the wrong side of the law and those who lynch are protecting it — gives further credence to the work of these lynch mobs.

The absence of laws against lynchings also allows these mob vigilantes get away with little or no punishment whatsoever. The founding fathers of the Constitution of India, perhaps, expected that India had moved on from the medieval practices and didn’t see the need to include any clause against mob violence. They didn’t realise, however, that the party which would hold the country’ts reins from 2014 would steer it back to the dark ages of mob justice.

A draft law to address the menace was unveiled on July 7 by the National Campaign Against Mob Lynching as a response to a spate of lynching incidents that have rattled the nation over the past few months. The draft Maanav Suraksha Kanoon (Masuka) defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, committed to inflict extra judicial punishment, or as an act of protest and caused by the desire of a mob to enforce upon a person or group of persons any perceived legal, societal & cultural norms/ prejudices.”

Masuka is expected to fill a glaring hole in India’s constitution. Whether the ruling dispensation makes any efforts to get it passed without delay is, however, still up in smoke.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Nearly a week after strike, security agencies seem to be going nowhere with probe

Monday’s attack on Amarnath pilgrims in the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir was one of the most ghatly terrorist attacks on Indian soil in recent years. Seven persons died and 19 more suffered severe injuries in the attack, allegedly by militants of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group.

Despite the nature of the attack and the cowardly manner in which it was conducted, it also leaves some questions unanswered.

According to the rules, all vehicles that ferry pilgrims to the Amarnath shrine have to register with the Amarnath Shrine Board. The bus had a Gujarat number plate — GJ 09Z 9976 — and ferried around 60 passengers to the shrine. The route to Amarnath is dotted by security forces that undertake regular checking of the vehicles that pass through. The passengers on this vehicle had already completed their pilgrimage two days prior to the attack and had taken a detour for sighseeing. It had left the heavily fortified Baltal base camp and moved on the national highway, another heavily-guarded location, apparently without being checked a single time.

The ownership of the bus also raises questions. Originally owned by Sanjay Patel of Umiya Travels, it was sold to Jawahar Desai of the Valsad–based Om Travels. Patel said Jawahar and his son Harsh, who is among the injured, organised the trip. He also said that while the vehicle had physically changed hands, the final payment was still to be settled. As a result, he was the one who had to procure the tour permit.

The Regional Transport Office in Himmatnagar had cleared the bus for travel as it bore a Sabarkantha registration.

Security protocol bars vehicles from plying after 5pm, or sundown, for the pilgrimage. It also bars vehicles from plying on the highway after 7pm as security forces are withdrawn after that. However, gunmen first attacked the bus around 8.17pm. It has since emerged that the a flat tyre held up the journey for a long time. The driver, Salim Sheikh Gafoor, fixed it and started towards Jammu at 4.40pm, having stayed in the area for nearly two hours, according to a Jammu and Kashmir police report.

This report raises another question. If the bus had not been registered with the Amarnath Shrine Board and was travelling on its own, why was there a police patrol vehicle travelling ahead of it in the first place? Protocol dictates that only those vehicles with registrations would be provided security. The presence of a police van, which was also targeted in the attack, has raised doubts as to whether it was guarding the bus or just happened to travel ahead of it.

Moreover, intelligence reports had already warned of a strike on pilgrims during this year’s yatra.

Officials of the Intelligence Bureau, Central Reserve Police Force and the Jammu and Kashmir police had met in Chandigarh on June 25 at a state multi-agency co-ordination meeting where the agencies had been warned of a terrorist strike.

“Intelligence input reveals that terrorists have been directed to eliminate 100 to 150 yatris and about 100 police officers. The attack may be in the form of standoff fire on (a) yatra convoy which they believe will result in flaring of communal tension throughout the nation,” the alert said.

“The nature of the input needs corroboration at this stage but the possibility of a sensational attack can’t be ruled out. All the officials deployed on the ground need to be directed to remain alert and maintain utmost vigil. All out efforts need to be undertaken to nab the terrorists planning such attempts of violence,” it said.

Two days before the pilgrimage started, Kashmir inspector general of police Muneer Khan wrote a letter where he specifically mentioned terrorists opening fire at pilgrim vehicles.
Despite this warning being made available beforehand, the police allegedly failed to secure the route.

Additionally, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was being blamed as the perpetrators of the attack, has sought to distance itself from it and put the blame squarely on Indian intelligence agencies.

It has been almost a week since the attack took place and bar the arrest of the driver of a PDP MLA, the security agencies have not been able to throw light on one of the most gruesome terror attacks on civilians in recent history.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.


Modi-BJP’s habitual u-turns dent an already flimsy credibility

The BJP-led NDA government at the Centre launched the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the “most ambitious” tax reform in India’s history, from July 1 amid much fanfare and mobilisation of the party machinery.

Behind the scenes, however, it represents yet another BJP volte-face on reform. The party, which swept into power in 2014, can best be described as overseeing a bungling and blundering policy regime. Its periodic flip-flops, both on issues it had opposed during the earlier UPA government and turnarounds on its own policy decisions, have become the norm rather than the exception.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his stint as Gujarat chief minister, was one of the staunchest critics of the GST, citing infringement of the states’ freedom and strike on its coffers. His vehement opposition to the GST, ironically approved for planning by the first BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, forced erstwhile finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to fly down to Ahmedabad in 2010 to seek his support. The Gujarat government opposed the UPA’s plans to implement the GST in 2011, 2012 and even October 2013. It had claimed that India lacked the infrastructure to push through the reform programme.

The first flip-flop on this issue came just before the general elections, in February 2014, when Modi was grilled by a group of industrialists while canvassing for votes. After he assumed the prime minister’s chair in May 2014, Modi, all of a sudden, began to pursue quick passage of the GST bill, claiming that the information-technology infrastructure was now in place to implement the reform. This raises a simple question — how did the country develop its infrastructure within just eight months to undertake such a big reform.

It was just the first in a series of policy u-turns that have punctuated this government’s tenure. Last year, the venerable Wall Street Journal annoyed right-wing commentators and Modi bhakts with its list of Modi’s Greatest Misses: New Delhi’s Top Policy Flip Flops.

This government has also made shifting goalposts a habit whenever things don’t go its way. The purpose of the demonetisation exercise is a case in point. When Modi announced his “landmark” decision to scrap all currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, he said it was to weed out funding for terror outfits and curb the circulation of black money and fake currency. Eight months and more than a hundred deaths later, the Reserve Bank of India is yet to formally come up with the data showing how much black money it has retrieved from the “parallel economy”. As soon as things started going south, Modi, and his finance minister Arun Jaitley, moved to claim that the exercise was meant to promote digital transactions and e-wallets as part of the government’s Digital India programme through the Lucky Grahak Yojana and the Digi Dhan Vyapaar Yojana. That claim looks flimsy considering the negligible Internet connectivity in rural and semi-urban areas.

The shifting of goalposts is also down to Modi’s tendency to lob half-truths into the public discourse and his love for playing to the galleries when announcing policy decisions.

Modi and the BJP were swift to volte-face on several UPA-era policies such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), once referred to as the “living monument of failures” of the government. They now believe it to be the “nation’s pride”.

Modi has also backtracked on issues such as FDI, Aadhaar and the civil nuclear deal.

The government’s tenure has also been highlighted by ironies. As the prime minister talked up a cashless society, it was expected that digital transactions would benefit following demonetisation. However, the GST has taxed all bank transactions, including digital, at 18 per cent. The government has pumped a lot of money into its JAM programme (Jan Dhan for banking and Direct Benefit Transfer, Aadhaar, mobile phone). However, telecom services have been hit with an 18 per cent tax rate, compared to 15 per cent earlier.

Twitter user @AnandRM_ conducted an estimate of GST rates on some items, bringing into focus the government’s double-speak on issues they claim to support and those they actually do. Temples and prasad are tax exempted, while schoolbags and notebooks are taxed at 18 and 12 per cent, respectively. Despite a pet programme like Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, bindi and bangles have been exempted, while sanitary napkins have been put in the 12 per cent slab.

Environment policy has also suffered because of Modi’s hurry to push through the GST. While as a signatory of the Paris Agreement, India did not agree to cap its emissions outright, it did pledge to greatly increase the use of green energy. It has pledged to get 40 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, which will include building about 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022. India is set to pass Japan this year to become the world’s third largest market for solar (after China and the US).

However, the GST has reduced coal tax from 12 per cent to just 5 per cent. Solar cells were initially to be taxed 18 per cent. Later, public pressure forced the government to backtrack and tax it at 5 per cent. Another Twitter user, @ramdasrocks, highlighted Modi’s u-turn in promoting clean energy. Despite the plans to go green by 2030, the government has slotted hybrid cars in the highest tax bracket (28 per cent GST + 15 per cent cess).

But the BJP’s biggest volte-face came in Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 has always been a core issue of the party, even during its Jana Sangh days. Less than 48 hours since Modi swept into power, Udhampur MP Jitender Singh Rana boasted to the media that the time was ripe to look into Article 370.

The junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office told a news channel: “We are speaking to the stakeholders. Article 370 has done more harm than good.”

However, all that was just noise. The BJP held no qualms in joining forces with the PDP, known for its staunch support for Article 370, when the opportunity presented itself, to become a junior partner in a coalition government in the state. In fact, the BJP’s opposition to Article 370 stems from a lack of understanding of its powers — the only party its abrogation benefits are the separatists.

It may have come as a disappointment to the followers of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee and the RSS, the benefits of Article 370 to the Centre, and by extension, the BJP, explains its u-turn on the issue.

Amid all this, India’s foreign policy offers some level of consistency, but much of it is down to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and the foreign office bureaucrats who tirelessly worked to secure India’s standing as a global force.

But that doesn’t paper over the cracks that Modi’s government, and the BJP, are showing when it comes to formulating policy decisions. The man with the 56” chest would do well to cut out the rhetoric and turn his attention to properly planning the policies that he wants to implement.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.