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The cow as cause

Vigilantism and the BJP

Mukul Kesavan   |     |   Published 09.04.17, 12:00 AM

Arun Shourie famously described Narendra Modi's government as the Congress plus a cow. This was pithy and clever and wrong. A portion of the Indian commentariat focused on economic reform took this to mean that the prime minister's refusal to privatize public sector companies like Air India made him, in terms of policy, an extension of the United Progressive Alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party's trademark obsessions thrown in. But this is to relegate the cow to a supporting role in the politics of this government. What we have learnt over the last three years is that the BJP's most sacrosanct principle, its sacred cow, so to speak, is, in fact, the sacred cow.

This is both literally and metaphorically true. The cow is so totemic for the BJP that the murder of human beings in this animal's cause makes responsible leaders resort to silence, deflection, denial, defensiveness or arguments in mitigation that would shame the moral sense of a three-year old.

One BJP leader asserted that the Muslim dairy farmer killed in Rajasthan hadn't in fact been killed by the gau rakshaks who assaulted him. In this telling, he had died of shock days afterwards, so no blame could be attached to the men who had beaten him. Rajasthan's home minister, Gulab Chand Kataria, described the murderous assault as 'manhandling'. After Pehlu Khan's killing he was prepared to argue that it was legitimate for vigilantes to stop suspicious vehicles carrying cattle, as if the cause of cow protection automatically conferred authority and legitimacy to anyone acting in its name. We should pay attention to this argument because this isn't merely extemporized justification. It tells us something important about the BJP's understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the nation state.

Historically, the cause of cow-protection in colonial India has always led to violent vigilantism. The riots of 1893 in eastern Uttar Pradesh were sparked by attempts to forcibly prevent Muslim butchers from slaughtering cows. The difference between colonial India and the republican present is that cow-slaughter is legally banned in every Indian state except for Bengal, Kerala and some northeastern states. In spite of this ban which, like any law, ought to be enforced by state governments and their police forces, there have been attacks on Muslims by Hindu vigilantes on the mere suspicion of eating beef or trading in beef cattle.

From the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque to the public thrashing of Dalits in Gujarat to the murderous assault on Pehlu Khan, we see a pattern of impunity. Innocent men are beaten or killed by gau rakshaks. In the aftermath of these incidents, the BJP's leaders speak up for the cause of cow-protection and routinely try to get the police to charge the victims and their families for provoking the assault. Thus, an FIR was lodged against Mohammed Akhlaque's family for violating the UP Cow Slaughter Act last year. After the Alwar attack, another FIR accused the dead man and his sons of violating the Rajasthan Bovine Animal Act despite the fact that they had a receipt from the Jaipur Municipal Corporation to legally transport cattle.

We are dealing with a political party that actively encourages and justifies vigilantism in spite of the fact that it controls the machinery of the State. BJP governments use states that they run to advertise their commitment to the cause of cow protection and to signal their enthusiasm for vengeful punitive justice. In March 2015, the Haryana legislature passed a cow protection law that made cow slaughter punishable by rigorous imprisonment up to 10 years. The elevation of Adityanath to the chief ministership of UP seemed to spur BJP chief ministers to propose laws that made Haryana's ferocious law seem lenient.

On March 31, the Gujarat assembly passed a law that made cow slaughter punishable by life imprisonment and the day after that Chhattisgarh's chief minister, Raman Singh, moved by competitive zeal, promised to hang anyone guilty of killing a cow. It was almost as if cow slaughter was more wicked than manslaughter. After the actual killing of two men, Akhlaque and Pehlu Khan, and the hanging of two others by vigilantes in Jharkhand last year, we saw equivocation, apologetics and victim blaming, but for the hypothetical killing of a cow (Raman Singh himself declared that no cow had been killed in his state for 15 years) there was an unqualified commitment to draconian punishment.

When the BJP ruled Punjab in coalition with the Akali Dal, it sponsored a Gau Sewa Commission that made a no-objection certificate from a deputy commissioner mandatory for those wishing to transport cattle, which added another layer of sarkari paper that proved remarkably hard to get. This led to bribery and rent-seeking and created a circumstance where Gau Raksha Dals and Shiv Sainiks preyed on trucks and forced cattle traders to pay them off. According to a newspaper report, the main victims of vigilante assault were Sikh drivers and migrant labourers.

States are defined by the fact that they claim a monopoly over violence. Why, then, would state governments in India actively encourage vigilantism, something that challenges a state's jealously protected monopoly over law and order? The answer to this question lies in the way in which the political discourse of the sangh parivar defines the nation state.

The parivar insists that the Indian republic is, or ought to be, a Hindu rashtra. This Hindu nation is represented by a set of interlinked symbols, which represent Indians as children of an all-embracing mother. She could be gau mata or Bharat Mata. She could be represented by a song, Vande Mataram, or a slogan, Bharat Mata ki jai. In every case, though, these symbols demand deference, they are passwords that admit Indians into the national communion, which define them as loyal children of Mother India. Once membership is defined in these terms, we cease to be citizens of a republic by virtue of birth or domicile and become instead, children of a Mother who demands proof of our filial devotion.

Those who don't venerate the cow or sing Vande Mataram or chant Bharat Mata ki jai, become suspect, not children but step-children, not part of the family but subversive of it, not citizens but second-class citizens. Once the true citizen is defined as a loyal child, it becomes incumbent upon him to aid Mother India in punishing those who would harm Her in any of these avatars or hesitate to sing invocations in praise of Her. Vigilantism in this construction, becomes the duty of the good child-as-citizen. For the parivar, vigilante squads are bands of citizen-volunteers, loyal sons who enforce national morality by policing 'Romeos', 'love-jihadists' and villains, real or imagined, who traffic in cows.

This infantilization of Indians, where instead of being proud, equal, adult members of a republic, we are reduced to being the wards of an all-seeing parent, policed by our siblings and, when necessary, punished by them, is a dangerous business. We have seen our South Asian neighbours consumed by the mobilization of 'true' children against 'disloyal' ones.

To subcontract the powers of the State to vigilant sons in the name of the Mother is both unpatriotic and unconstitutional; it is guaranteed to wreck the republic that our representatives are sworn to uphold. We are citizens not children, India is my country not my mother and the fraternity of a republic allows no man to be his brother's keeper.


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