The hate-lynching of a Muslim man in a Uttar Pradesh village by his unrepentant neighbours for allegedly eating beef raises once again troubling questions.
On what terms can Muslim minorities live in India today? Must they subordinate themselves to what Hindu nationalists propound to be majority Hindu sentiment as the condition for being accepted as Indian? Or are they free to remain themselves, in worship, dress, diet and language, and still qualify in every way as fully Indian?
India’s secular idea rests on the foundational principle that India belongs equally to people of diverse faiths and belief systems, cultures and languages. It prohibits the religious, cultural, legal or moral dominance of any one religion or culture over any other. Unlike many European countries that require residents from distinct cultures and faith-systems to absorb and adapt themselves to the dominant language, culture and practices of the country, the essential secular idea of India does not require any kind of conformity of faith, culture, diet, dress or language to qualify as a fully-equal Indian citizen.
It is this uniquely Indian secular idea that Hindu nationalists challenge, by demanding that non-Hindus conform to what they claim to be the majority faith. There is no doubt that many Hindus revere the cow. Munshi Premchand’s great novel Godaan endearingly recreates the life-long yearning of peasants Hori and Dhania to own a cow. But campaigns against cow slaughter that we witness are not about love for the cow, but hate for fellow Indians. And a chillingly similar horrific mob lynching 12 years earlier in Jhajjar in Haryana of five Dalit men on the charge of killing a cow are a reminder that not all Hindus worship the cow. Many Dalit, tribals, Christians and Muslims eat beef.
The Constituent Assembly debates about cow slaughter are instructive about ways that Hindu majoritarian sentiment was negotiated by tall leaders of the freedom struggle. Some members passionately demanded that cow slaughter prohibition be included as a Fundamental Right. But both BR Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru insisted on a compromise of including cow protection instead as a non-binding Directive Principle, with carefully-crafted language. Article 48 of the Constitution reads, ‘The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and other milch and draught cattle’. The reference to scientific animal husbandry rather than Hindu sentiment about cow slaughter was a salutary enunciation of the principle that the State in India must not privilege the religious or cultural sentiments of one section of people over any other.
It is this fundamental secular principle that today’s ruling alliance is turning dangerously on its head. When Narendra Modi sneered in his trademark fashion in his 2014 election speeches about the ‘pink revolution’ or the alleged support of the erstwhile UPA regime to beef exports, or his minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi asks Muslims who wish to eat beef to go to Pakistan, what they are ultimately doing is to use cow slaughter to define both difference and what constitutes Hindu, and therefore legitimate Indian, sentiment. They conflate sections of upper-caste Hindu religious beliefs with ‘Indian’ culture, and challenge the rights of Muslims who live in India (and indeed Dalits, tribal people and Christians) to act in ways that differ from practices and beliefs and sentiments of upper-caste Hindus.
If this alternative social contract between diverse people living in India is accepted, this would accomplish two objectives of Hindu nationalists. First, it would effectively reduce non-Hindus, Dalits and tribal people to second-class citizens, who would be ‘allowed’ by the Hindu majority community to live in India only on the condition that they respect the legitimate domination of (upper-caste and militant) Hindu religious and cultural beliefs. And second it would destroy the secular idea of India.
Organisations of the Sangh parivar use the issue of cow slaughter not only to underline difference, but to actively promote hate against Muslims for political benefits to the BJP. In my travels to UP, I find that two issues today most effectively utilised to demonise Muslims. One is love jihad, or the fanciful idea that Muslim boys are trained to sexually attract Hindu girls and trap them into marriage, conversion and producing Muslim progeny. The second is the belief that Muslims continue to kill cows, trade in cow meat, and eat beef, in disregard, defiance or to outrage Hindu sentiment. Together these two ideas transform their Muslim neighbours into hateful and hated ‘others’.
It is these same twin strategies that I found deployed in full throttle the last decade in coastal Karnataka, where Muslim boys seen with Hindu girls in public places are assaulted and dragged to police stations, and Muslims allegedly transporting cattle for slaughter are brutally attacked. In Gujarat, young men in the Bajrang Dal described to me their ambition to protect cows as their major motivation to join this militant Hindu ultra-nationalist formation. The sceptre of cow slaughter and alleged beef exports to Bangladesh is raised in West Bengal and Assam to drum up political opposition to the Muslims. The ghar-wapsi campaign also is built on the premise that ‘home’ in India is the Hindu faith, and those who covert to other faiths have strayed.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategic silences constitute a less than subtle encouragement of these divisive hate campaigns. Since he assumed power, we witness a concerted war of attrition waged in alley-ways around the country against the secular lived traditions of peaceful living together of people of diverse faiths and cultures. His government may not ultimately change the language of secular guarantees in our Constitution; but by imposing their interpretations of what constitutes Hindu culture, declaring that this version of Hindu culture is indeed Indian culture, and then demanding that minorities submit to this imposed majoritarian culture, they are reducing minorities to fearful second-class citizens. Most culpably they are eroding the constitutional guarantees of fraternity.