June 15, 2016

Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code has been imposed on the district of Dadri and bordering districts of Rohtak and Sonepat in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The section, which pertains to unlawful assembly, allows a district magistrate to prohibit a gathering of more than ten people, at which stage it is termed a riot. The reason for the imposition of this preventive measure is a recent statement by Sanjeev Balyan, Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, where Mr. Balyan harkens back to the 2015 public lynching and murder of Mohammad Akhlaq by a mob of local villagers on the suspicion of eating beef. The Economic Times reported that Mr. Balyan said, “Akhlaq couldn't have eaten the full cow all alone. The meat would have gone to 20 families there. It's time to track them down and ensure justice is done to the other side."

Last year, on September 28, a mob of Hindu villagers attacked their Muslim neighbor, Mr. Akhlaq’s family in Bisada village based on a rumor propagated at the local temple that the Muslim family in question had consumed beef on Eid. The 50-year-old man and his son were beaten with sticks and bricks and stabbed by the angry mob. The son, Danish, survived and the family were taken into protection at an Indian Airforce base. 

Eight months later, the issue has resurfaced with beef bans and a renewed vigor with which India is claiming to protect its cattle. Locally, Uttar Pradesh heads towards an assembly election next year and many contend that recent attention to the issue of beef consumption is yet another polarizing tactic being employed by the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the elections. During the last national election in 2014, the area of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh delivered a positive mandate to the BJP candidate, Mr. Balyan, following a similarly constructed religious riot in 2013. Mr. Balyan won the election by over 400,000 votes.

The BJP’s biggest competitors in Uttar Pradesh currently are the Samajwadi Party that draws most support from the Other Backward Castes, the Bahujan Samaj Party that relies strongly on Dalits for its electoral victories and the Indian National Congress that still tries to remain a catch-all party. The engineering of communal disharmony ahead of next year’s state assembly elections should be seen only as a political stratagem to lure backward caste and Dalit voters away from their historically preferred options and turn them into BJP supporters. The BJP has found that this formula has paid off in the past. With every national election, there is some sort of communal disturbance in states that typically deliver the most Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha. Uttar Pradesh leads this list of states. Similarly, in Gujarat in 2002 the pogrom against Muslims culminated in a win for Narendra Modi as Chief Minister in the assembly elections in December that year. As Raheel Dhattiwala’s research for The Hindu Centre reveals, many Muslims in Gujarat, even those in hard-hit riot areas in 2002, have begun voting for the BJP based on a combination of fear and favor. They think voting for the BJP ensures some protection, and they also lobby for handouts in the form of government posts or upward mobility by demonstrating solidarity with the BJP.

It is not surprising then that Mr. Balyan has begun making political noises about the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, while cursorily condemning the event. Initial reports from the local state’s veterinary department had said that the meat found in the house was mutton, but a recent report released by the Uttar Pradesh University of Veterinary Sciences in Mathura reveals that the meat belongs to a “cow or its progeny”.

What is astounding is the locally held idea in the affected village, where up to 18 persons stand accused in connection with the murder, that somehow justice for cow slaughter was done through Mr. Akhlaq’s murder. And now, the families of the accused say that justice must be taken further and everyone from Akhlaq’s family involved in eating the alleged cow must be arrested. The local BJP leader, Sanjay Rana, has been quite vocal on the issue and gave the government an ultimatum saying that the state had 20 days to make arrests of cow consumers, failing which, the village would not be able to contain its ‘public anger’. Interestingly, seven of the accused have familial ties to Mr. Rana.

The issues that one needs to focus on in connection with this case are the following. First, what has empowered local village chiefs and leaders to threaten the state. The local village chief referred to the accused as “innocent children” and said that they would organize a mahapanchayat (great village council) and may even attempt self-immolation. Several local right-wing groups have offered to join the council. Second, the people raking up the issue including the local villagers who attempted to kill or killed Mr. Akhlaq actually believe they did nothing wrong and ask for justice for themselves and the arrests of cow consumers.

Such events portend a future communal struggle in the run-up to the elections. They also suggest that a runaway Hindu masculinity unfettered and unafraid of the law has finally found its time in the sun, watered and fed by a right-wing government. The fact that a local BJP leader’s son and extended male family were involved in the lynching and murder and that no punishment has been awarded to similar right-wing functionaries from within the party suggests that at one level there is a widespread acceptability for such actions, or that they are not seen as a cause of concern within the BJP. If a Union Minister of State makes such pronouncements based on a meat sample, the origins of which are suspicious as a police officer has suggested, one can assume that there is also encouragement for tough talk within the BJP and there is support for such actions.

Mr. Akhlaq’s murder is not the first case in the last three years or so starting from the run-up to the 2014 election where murder most foul has been committed and the perpetrators have not received a sentence. Since then, authors have been targeted, threatened, even murdered, journalists have been manhandled, Dalits have been beaten up or lynched for beef consumption and even the police have been murdered in a place like Mathura by a vigilante paramilitary force illegally occupying a public park.

Electoral politics in India has always been a dark game, although some will say that they remain the freest and fairest in the developing world. This may be true, but Indian elections at all levels allow for the surfacing of societal violence and encouragement to such violence. With a law and order system that is late to every crime and slow to prosecute and a government that may even be smiling on such actions, there are not enough disincentives to deter murderous vigilante mobs.

(Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan is the Chief Coordinator of Research for The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.)

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