Even after taking a close look at rise of the BJP as our pre-eminent national party, I can't say for sure when, and how, the term “fringe elements” emerged. Probably, it did in the run-up to the Ayodhya demolition in the winter of 1992. What we can say for sure is, if the moderate leadership does not challenge the fringe, it continues to morph, expand, and subsume the mainstream. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal were once fringe; today they are “sister” organisations. Sanatan Sanstha, Samadhan Sena and Abhinav Bharat are fringe today.
The Dadri incident is a chilling turning point in our politics. It marks the rise of Hindu supremacist mob militancy that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won’t unequivocally condemn or disown. It will criticise the killing, but qualify it in a half-dozen ways. You want to see how, refer to my friend, BJP MP and RSS intellectual Tarun Vijay’s article in Friday’s Indian Express. He says the lynching was abhorrent to the spirit of Hinduism and India as Mohammad Akhlaq was killed “merely on suspicion”, and that his daughter was so right in asking, what if it were proven that her father had not eaten beef, would someone bring him back?
This implies that if he had indeed eaten beef, and if the mob had clear evidence, retribution would be fair. The point should have been, so what even if he had eaten beef? It isn’t illegal in Uttar Pradesh (cow slaughter is illegal), and where it is, there are stern laws to deal with offenders.
Let’s join the dots. A temple loudspeaker was used for the priest to allegedly rally the (Hindu) faithful to come out seeking retribution. The local MP and Central culture minister was as qualified in his condemnation as Tarun Vijay, as were other BJP leaders. There is a clear, well-thought-out response to such incidents, whether it is the thrashing of dating couples in Mangalore, assassination of rationalists in Maharashtra and Karnataka, or criminally provocative statements, ranging from “Ramzade vs Haramzade” to “in spite of being a Muslim” and “go to Pakistan”. Read this then also with the go-slow on the terror cases allegedly involving radical Hindus. If Abhinav Bharat was indeed a minor rogue fringe group, why is it being protected now as if it were a victim?
The reason I call Dadri a landmark turning point in our politics isn’t just because it was probably the first time since the Partition riots that a temple loudspeaker was used to rouse a mob, though this was significant in itself, as temples calling the faithful isn’t even a Hindu tradition. The more important factor is the relatively muted response of the self-styled secular forces. Top leaders of the Congress haven’t even taken a padyatra or fact-finding mission to the village, just a 40-minute drive from Delhi. Lalu, Nitish, Mamata, all claimants to the secular vote, are afraid of messing with an issue involving the cow. Holiness of the cow has now become as multi-partisan an issue as hostility to Pakistan. In March this year, the predominantly Hindu state of Haryana, with no history of cow slaughter and which already had a cow-protection law, passed a new, heavily worded Gauvansh Sanrakshan (cow protection) and Gausamvardhan (cow propagation) Act.
First of all, it shifted the goal-post from banning cow-slaughter to propagating the cow, thereby giving an animal not just holy but statutory status in our governance. Second, it extended the law to eating even imported, canned beef, banned export of cows outside the state “for slaughter” (who is to establish that?), raised jail to 10 years and then, drawing from the draconian new rape law, put the onus on the accused to prove his innocence. Mercifully, a cow’s statement is not to be admissible. Further absurdity: it lays down that the state will set up a network of laboratories to check samples of meat seized. Check the full text of the law in case you think I may be exaggerating. Now I am waiting for a policeman to raid a top Japanese or Korean MNC executive living in Gurgaon and send cuts of meat from his fridge to these labs. Please do not laugh, because such things do happen. You will have a first-rate diplomatic crisis and global headlines Mr Modi wouldn’t want.
The important thing here, again, is that the law, with all its absurdities, was passed unanimously. Congress MLAs voted for it, and their seniormost leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda congratulated the chief minister. Hindutva groups have discovered cow politics has no opposition. Most stunning is the response of the Mulayam-Akhilesh government. Their police sent the meat for testing, and I don’t know where, because neighbouring Haryana’s labs are not yet built. You want to figure out the species of animal meat in a country where forensic services are so poor Sunanda Tharoor’s viscera samples had to be sent to America almost two years after her death!
This takes me back to a 43-degree afternoon in late April, 2007, at Village Dhampur outside Bijnor in Western Uttar Pradesh, and very much a part of the same communally sensitive arc that includes Dadri and Muzaffarnagar. State Assembly elections were on. Ashok Katariya, a relatively junior activist of the BJP’s Yuva Morcha, was playing the crowd-warmer. He talked about Hindu women being insecure, ISI cells active, national security imperilled because the percentage of Muslims was up to 41 per cent in the district. Then he shifted to meat-eating.
“Now they can eat dogs, cats, horses, camels, elephants, snakes and anything god and nature may have created,” he said, pouring disdain. “But they should refrain from eating beef, because cow is our mother. And if somebody slaughters a cow, we will slaughter that ba….d.” Rajnath Singh, who had by now arrived, was shaking his head in some disapproval, though he later played it down to us, saying, “Jawan khoon hai, garam ho jata hai (blood of the youth, boils over sometimes).” I hope he will disapprove of what happened even this week. Katariya is one of the vice-presidents of the state BJP now, along with Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti.
As I write this in the early hours of Friday, TV has US President Obama speaking on the Oregon shootings. America is the most federal nation in the world, and the President has no say in law and order. But he is out, speaking with empathy and emotion within a couple of hours. Just a fortnight ago, he had intervened promptly on the “cool clock Ahmed” issue. He wasn’t appeasing anybody but reassuring them, fulfilling his rajdharma, reaching out to a Muslim minority much smaller and viewed more suspiciously than in India. We know Prime Minister Modi does not like taking advice from the media. He should take the cue from his friend Barack.