Kaalu Thakur, who has an ‘Om’ tattooed on his right hand and bears burn marks on his left one, saw the group that barged into Mohammad Akhlaq’s house in Bishada village near Dadri town in a part of Uttar Pradesh adjoining Delhi over rumours that the 50-year-old had slaughtered a cow, eaten its meat and stored some it in his fridge. “Some time ago during Eid, the mullah (Akhlaq) had offered meat that tasted different to somebody,” claims this 21-year-old, catching his breath after prodding a cow, one of his herd of five, to move faster. Anil Paswan, a railway guard posted at the level crossing on NTPC Bypass Road 2 km from Bishada, had heard the story of the killing of the alleged “beef-eater” many times before. He urges Thakur to disclose more, but ‘Kaalu’ is reluctant. He fears his words will be reported in the media, which he says has already given his village a bad name. “The man refused to open the door…” he says in response to further exhortation, “he was killed with bricks.” His voice conveys a sense of detached indifference, the kind he displayed while hitting his emaciated cow. “Anyone who kills Gaumata (the Mother Cow) deserves his fate,” he says, smiling, but hastens to add that he cannot identify the people who “finished off” the “mullah” because the deed was done in the dead of the night.
Bishada, a nondescript village with dusty roads, shanty homes and patchy paddy fields, has captured national headlines following Akhlaq’s death, which non-BJP parties claim was the result of the age-old politics of hatred and bigotry resurfacing with a vengeance across the country after the BJP’s return to power last May. “That Narendra Modi, a darling of Hindutva forces, has become Prime Minister and has emboldened the loony fringe, the self-styled keepers of the Hindu faith, to go about spreading the poison of communal hatred. The BJP leadership of Amit Shah and Modi seem to be encouraging them rather than asking them to exercise restraint,” says Imran Kidwai, former chief of the Congress party’s minority cell. The Bishada lynching has embarrassed the NDA Government that has been trying to hard-sell its Prime Minister as a committed modernizer and India as a hot destination for global investors. The BJP, which heads the coalition, has denied any association with perpetrators of the crime and issued a condemnation. Speaking to reporters after delivering a lecture at Columbia University, New York, on a tour of the US, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said, “India is a mature society. We need to rise above these kinds of incidents because they certainly don’t give a good name as far as the country is concerned.”
In his two visits to the US, Prime Minister Modi has received what has been widely described as a ‘rock star welcome’ as he went about projecting India as an investment hot spot and dwelling on his government’s efforts to make business easier to do in India. “He was exemplary,” as the academic Vivek Wadhwa told Open after he met the Prime Minister on his recent visit to Silicon Valley, “He was articulate, understood the challenges about uplifting India, and seemed very personable.”
In private chats, BJP functionaries and pro-BJP intellectuals admit that it is a shame that assertions have been made by some party leaders, including Union ministers and legislators, that sought to pin the blame for recent attacks on the victims themselves. Apart from Akhlaq, a poor agricultural labourer, this was seen in the cases of MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, slain critics of Hindutva politics. Says one of these intellectuals, asking not to be identified, “At one moment, the Prime Minister is in the grand halls of fame in the West, telling the world that India is the future. The next moment, the world comes to know of the politics of polarisation that is practised without remorse by people in his name for a ballot boost. This will do collateral damage to Modi’s efforts to put India on the fast track of growth and development. Being silent when audacious ‘Hindutva partygoers’ run rampage isn’t going to help either.” Several days after the lynching, the Prime Minister’s Office made a statement on upholding the rights and dignity of minorities. “If one has to take care of minorities in real terms, there is no need to give them alms, but they need to be empowered with rights. The Modi Government’s commitment is empowerment of minorities with dignity,” said Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the PMO.
While agenda-motivated propagandists go berserk on social media and elsewhere spewing venom against those critical of Modi for his so-called ‘silence’ on a raft of incidents related to the politics of bigotry, Home Minister Rajnath Singh also stepped in to say, “Any threat to the secular fabric of the country will not be tolerated. It is the duty of every citizen to maintain peace and social harmony and I appeal to people to uphold this.” Singh’s statement came in the wake of the RSS expressing its disapproval of the ‘loony brigade’ speaking in its name. In an interview to a business daily, the RSS’s All India Prachar Pramukh Manmohan Vaidya said, “It is an isolated incident and should be seen in isolation. Instead of mere allegations, one should wait till a proper enquiry into the incident is conducted. The ones responsible for the crime should be punished. These could have been done by the fringe associations. Dragging the Sangh into this is not right and unjust.” BJP leaders like Sangeet Som and Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma had visited the village— which has now emerged as a playground for communal politics—and made statements that were slammed as preposterous. Vaidya also said that anything and everything said by people did not represent the RSS’s views. However, despite the Sangh’s gag order of sorts on irresponsible comments, BJP lawmaker Sakshi Maharaj, who is known to shoot his mouth off, repeated the recurring statement—that Hindus consider the cow their mother, suggesting again that Akhlaq was to blame for his death. He was killed over a rumour, and many villagers that Open spoke to in Bishada say that the call to attack him was made over the microphone of a temple there, the priest’s opposition notwithstanding.
Interestingly, unlike in Indian cities where cows block traffic and walk with a swagger as if aware of their divine status, in Bishada and villages nearby, cows usually walk in herds, marshalled by a herder with a dandhu, a long stick that often leaves wounds on their hide. Kaalu Thakur and several others are now upset that “cow meat pieces” were also found in Chithera village, some 5 km from Bishada. The irony of villagers here turning indignant at cows being “slaughtered” by Muslims is inescapable, and they speak with much conviction even while admitting they haven’t seen cows being killed or beef being eaten by anyone.
Thakur says that he had no clue whether BJP leader Sanjay Rana’s son Vishal Rana, arrested in the case, was there during the fatal attack on the 50-year-old. Sanjay Rana has claimed his son was 50 km away from the village when the lynching took place. Naeem, a Muslim youth from the village, says that the place has lately become a dangerous place as a result of all the misinformation. “In a village which has such a high density of population, it is not possible to kill a cow and still not be seen. This killing was based on baseless rumours set off by interested parties,” he avers without elaboration.
“In the countryside, people have a different logic to things. They are naïve and decent people. But they get carried away easily,” says a policeman posted near Maharana Dhaba on NTPC Bypass Road where media folk sit around rickety tables and wait for a VIP to turn up.
VIPs have not helped matters, though. The local police have sought action against Sharma and BJP MLA Sangeet Som over their alleged violation of prohibitory orders in Bishada. A report filed by the police with the District Magistrate of Gautam Budh Nagar district has recommended the filing of FIRs against the two leaders and also against BSP leader and former minister Naseemuddin Siddiqui. Speaking to Open, Sanjay Singh, Superintendent of Police, Dadri Rural, explains why the police are seeking action against these three. “These people have made inflammatory speeches,” he says. On a visit to Bishada, Som, who had made controversial speeches during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, had alleged that the Samajwadi Party (SP) government of Uttar Pradesh was shielding people who had “slaughtered cows”. The rabble-rousing Som, who reached Bishada on the day the slain man’s family was flown to Lucknow to meet Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, had reportedly said, “They (the SP) have taken those who have slaughtered cows in a plane.” As for Culture Minister Sharma, he has earned ridicule even in the past for various off-the-cuff statements. Last month, for example, he had said, “We will cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernised and where Indian culture and civilisation need to be restored—be it the history we read, our cultural heritage or our institutes that have been polluted over the years.”
Saffron firebrand Sadhvi Prachi also visited Dadri with a cavalcade of supporters despite the Centre’s stern advisory asking state administrations to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards those stoking communal tension. She was stopped by the police from entering the village. The BJP has distanced itself from the actions of such leaders and has warned others against making public statements on the issue. “Despite this, various leaders, perhaps from Hindu fringe groups, are vitiating the atmosphere here. The media also has a big role to play in all this,” alleges a principal armed constabulary officer, seated outside Rana Sangram Singh Inter College in the heart of Bishada village. He warns that journalists risk being beaten up by “women and children” for what they claim has “defamed the village’s reputation”.
While local BJP leaders such as Som have come under attack for rousing a communal frenzy, the SP is also being accused of politicising the issue to earn poll dividends, come state Assembly elections in 2017. The Congress’ Kidwai says that like the BJP, which in his view hopes to gain from a nationwide polarisation along religious lines by pulling in Hindu votes, the SP also expects Muslims to vote en bloc for the self-professed socialist party. “The BJP’s tactics are well known. That is what it did before the 2014 election in Uttar Pradesh to drive a wedge between communities and take advantage of it. The outcome was communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in western UP, which gave them a great edge. Similarly, the SP is also looking for long-term poll gains,” says Kidwai, “But this time, Muslim voters will not choose them. Muslims are fed up with the SP’s record in law and order and its ruse of exploiting them to come to power.”
SP politicians and religious leaders close to the party are in a slanging match with those of a saffron orientation. In an escalation of verbal hostilities, Maviya Ali, Deoband Nagar Palika chairman, has accused BJP leaders like Sakshi Maharaj of trying to poison the atmosphere in the country. “They are justifying the lynching of a human being in Dadri because he allegedly killed a cow,” he has said, calling for the “elimination” of such leaders. The SP has distanced itself from Ali’s words, though it had backed him for the position of chief of Deoband Nagar Palika in Saharanpur. He also called Sadhvi Prachi “a terrorist”. For his part, SP leader Azam Khan has alleged that the Dadri lynching was “pre-planned and executed” by the BJP. He also attacked the RSS and said that he would write a letter to the United Nations about the Dadri killing.
Several villagers that Open spoke to in Bishada share the view that SP is playing a “dangerous game” for power. Prakash Singh, a security officer at the NTPC plant in Dadri, claims that the police are giving false impressions of the villagers to journalists. “Maybe there was an odd case of some journalists being chased away. But there is no such thing that journalists will be thrashed if they go in,” says Singh, who says he passes through the village daily these days. “The state police are trying to create a situation for the media to report. It is true that a man was killed, but instead of conducting a proper inquiry, the state government is playing politics. As such, the record of the state government on law and order is hopeless,” he says, angrily puffing a Capstan cigarette. “Yeh killing achanak se hui… Planning nahin thhi (This killing was impromptu, not planned),” he states. Rahul, a student at the Inter College in Bishada, disagrees. “It is possible that there was a lot of planning because this is an area where Muslims and Hindus live peacefully. Somebody doesn’t want it to be so,” he notes.
Of course, the Uttar Pradesh government is notorious for its failure to control crime, which has spiralled in recent years. According to numbers of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), UP is India’s ‘worst state’ in terms of law and order. According to the latest reports available, there are only 200,000 police personnel for a state population of 210 million. The Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government has incurred the wrath of human rights advocates and others over a rise in gang-rapes, murders and other crimes. “The mob is often empowered because there is no fear of law. There is general lawlessness in north Indian villages, but it is really bad in states such as UP,” says a senior Delhi-based police officer, emphasising that villages often slip into violence thanks to the gross incompetence of state governments that are in charge of maintaining peace and civility. It was the police that was blamed when the body of a young Hindu was found on 6 October in the same village; his family claims it was his fear of “victimisation” by the police for the lynching that may have led to his suicide.
A senior intelligence officer is of the view that a state’s failure, however, can’t be “seen with delight” by the Centre, attributing all violence to a state alone. He worries about what the Dadri lynching implies to the assumption of one’s private space. “It is appalling to see that a person is not safe even in his own home,” he says, adding that the Centre has constitutional provisions that can be exercised in case there is a breakdown of law and order in a state. “True, the state government has to be held responsible and accountable. But Uttar Pradesh is not the only state that sees politics of hatred,” he points out.
It is this concern, that the BJP has been following a dual strategy of expanding its organisation through communal polarisation while Modi goes about drumming up support for his development agenda, that has got many pro-freedom groups and writers up in arms against the NDA Government. Renowned writer Nayantara Sahgal, who had lashed out at the Indira Gandhi-led Congress Government for imposing the Emergency in the mid- 1970s, decided to return a Sahitya Akademi award given to her in 1986 in protest against what she described as the “rising intolerance” in the country, marked by the killings of the likes of Kalburgi, Dabholkar and Pansare. The lynching of Akhlaq, she has said, was the last straw. She also accused Prime Minister Modi of staying silent amid a reign of terror unleashed on the vulnerable. ‘We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology,’ she said in a written statement.
President Pranab Mukherjee has also called upon the country to duly uphold the pluralistic core values of the Constitution. Earlier this month, six writers had returned their Arulu Sahitya awards to the Kannada Sahitya Academy over the delay in the arrest of the man accused of Kalburgi’s murder. The ruling coalition has also come under attack for ‘installing incompetent’ people with RSS connections at the helm of key government-run institutions. The BJP had hit back at critics saying when the Congress was in power it had filled such posts with its own favourites.
The main line of attack taken by anti-BJP parties, however, is that the ruling party is playing petty political games to swing votes in its favour in the upcoming polls in Bihar—considered an acid test of the Prime Minister’s popularity—over the issue of cow protection. Perhaps inevitably, the call against cow slaughter has triggered yet another debate: whether Vedic scriptures had opposed the killing of cows or not. Scholar Ram Puniyani, who bases his views on research by Professor DN Jha (Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions), says that a survey of ancient Indian scriptures, especially the Vedas, shows that among the pastoral Aryans who settled in India, animal sacrifice was a dominant feature till the emergence of settled agriculture. “Many gods like Indra and Agni are described as having especial preferences for different types of flesh. Indra had a weakness for bull’s meat and Agni for bulls’ and cows’,” he says. “In the Vedas, there is a mention of around 250 animals, of which at least 50 were supposed to be fit for sacrifice. In the Mahabharata, there is a mention of a king named Rantideva who achieved great fame by distributing food grains and beef to Brahmins.” He goes on, “The Taittiriya Upanishad categorically tells us: ‘Verily the cow is food’ (atho annam via gauh) and Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating the tender (‘amsala’) flesh of the cow is well-known. Even later Brahminical texts provide evidence of beef being eaten.” Besides, in the therapeutic section of the Charak Samhita (pages 86-87), the flesh of cows is prescribed as a medicine for various diseases. “The fat of the cow is recommended for debility and rheumatism,” Puniyani notes.
Many of Modi’s future moves will depend on a victory in Bihar. If his party wins the state, he is expected to forge ahead with bold reform moves for the economy. A loss in the state against the Grand Alliance led by incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad would be seen as a major political setback for the ruling coalition at the Centre. According to analysts, for the BJP to broaden its electoral appeal in the future, and consolidate its power, it needs to retain public admiration for Modi at levels seen at the 2014 hustings.
We will soon know if Dadri has had an impact on the Bihar polls. But what is already clear is that old-style divisive politics played out in forlorn villages like this one will hurt the aspirations of both the urban and rural youth and impair the dream of India as a global business hub. For India’s sake, it had better stop.