It’s been more than a week since Mohammad Ikhlaq was killed merely over a rumour that he had slaughtered a cow and had stored beef in his refrigerator. The brazen killing has sparked a nationwide debate over the dangerous communal polarisation in the country since the BJP came to power--but the one voice that is conspicuously absent from the chorus of condemnation is that of the prime minister.
Political leaders across the ideological spectrum have condemned the senseless mob attack in Bisada village - except the PM. In fact, no BJP leader has gone out on a limb and condemned the murder, likened by some to another Babri Masjid moment.
If anything, Narendra Modi’s silence has only emboldened BJP politicians to fan the flames of communalism with some stunningly provocative statements. Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma insisted Ikhlaq’s death was merely an “accident”; controversial lawmaker Sangeet Som, who was accused of making inflammatory speeches ahead of the deadly Muzaffarnagar riots, said the UP government was shielding “cow killers”; and Sadhvi Prachi stirred the communal pot even further by saying that beef-eaters deserved such treatment.
This is not the first time Modi has been silent on violence against religious minorities. Earlier this year, he came under a lot of criticism for not responding to a string of attacks on Christian churches and the mass conversion of Muslims to Hinduism under the so-called ghar wapsi programme. He finally broke his long silence on the subject at a Christian event where he vowed to protect all religious minorities--but only after US president Barack Obama prodded India on religious freedom, saying India’s success depended on its not splintering along religious lines.
It is time the country’s political leadership stepped in to douse the flames or it may have a communal conflagration on its hands soon. The government can’t afford to let the situation spin out of control given the country’s history of deadly religious rioting in the past. Remember Bhagalpur in 1989, Mumbai in 1993, Gujarat in 2002 and Muzaffarnagar two years ago. If the political leadership in Delhi doesn’t step in soon and stop the crisis from snowballing, Dadri may well be the next religious tinderbox.
Already, Uttar Pradesh minority welfare and urban development minister Azam Khan has written to the UN saying “fear among the minorities specially among Muslims and Christians has increased” since Modi took over as prime minister.
Ikhlaq’s murder will go down in history as one of the turning points in the politics of Hindu-Muslim relations in independent India. Surely, this is big enough for the PM to speak? Reining in the Hindu right is vital to realising the development agenda that is so beloved to the PM. His own finance minister, Arun Jaitley, has spoken of the damage to the country’s image from the incident.
Dadri and the divisions it has created are now a part of the political narrative that will likely be played on a loop in the high-stakes Bihar elections that kick off this month. The BJP is likely to play the cow slaughter card to the hilt in the assembly polls as it looks to take on the secular grand alliance between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav.
Cow slaughter has always been an emotive issue in India. And the Hindutva brigade will surely look to derive as much political mileage from it as it can, much like it did with the Ram temple issue. The BJP knows the power of communal politics. The party, which had been on the periphery of national politics for years, leapt to the political centrestage largely on the back of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the promise to build a Ram temple in its place.
Lalu Yadav has already given the BJP much ammunition with his comment that Hindus eat beef and there is no difference between goat meat and cow meat. The saffron party hit back immediately as it asked the secular alliance’s chief ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar, to clarify whether Hindus would be forced to consume beef if his alliance was voted to power in Bihar.
If the BJP’s strategy works in Bihar, the next step may well be next year’s Uttar Pradesh election. It’s a dangerous trend that can only be halted if the leadership in Delhi steps in immediately and puts the communal genie back in the bottle. The question is: Will the PM break his silence?
(The views expressed are personal.)