THERE’S an odd sense of schizophrenia stalking India these days: on the one hand, its scientists have put a satellite into orbit around Mars, and placed a telescope to circle the Earth to peer into deep space; on the other, a rampaging mob in Uttar Pradesh has brutally murdered Mohammed Akhlaq, and severely wounded his son, on the suspicion that they had beef in their fridge. How do we reconcile these opposites?
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, attempted to do just this by boasting that ancient Hindus had discovered genetics, plastic surgery and aircraft thousands of years ago. To him, there is no contradiction between mythology and science. And it is this extremist Hindu narrative, based on RSS ideology, that is fuelling a surge of religious violence against the minorities.
After lab tests that confirmed that the meat at Akhlaq’s house was in fact mutton and not beef, there is some backtracking in official Indian circles. Now the murder is being termed an ‘accident’; no longer are politicians pushing the line that the victim deserved what he got, as Mahesh Sharma, the Indian culture minister pronounced in the aftermath of the incident. Indeed, ministers have been reluctant to condemn the attack.
In many ways, this tragic episode carries echoes of the victimisation of Pakistan’s hapless minorities under its blasphemy laws. The difference is that in India, six men have been arrested and charged with Akhlaq’s murder. In Pakistan, few members of lynch mobs are arrested — and even fewer are actually charged or sentenced — for attacking and killing Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis accused of blasphemy.
But Pakistan is an Islamic state, even though this does not excuse our vile treatment of our minorities. However, although India’s constitution declares it to be secular, the BJP government under Modi does not bother to pay even lip service to the lofty secularist ideals of the founding fathers of independent India. In a secular society, the followers of all faiths are held to be equal, and there is no state religion. But by holding a national yoga day, and by using overtly religious symbolism and mythology to further his political agenda, Modi is making it clear that while all religions in India are equal, Hinduism is more equal than others.
Don’t get me wrong: I think yoga is a wonderful system to exercise the mind and the body, and I have personally benefited from it. But to elevate it to a national duty because of its ancient association with Hinduism is to increase the existing insecurity felt by non-Hindus.
Despite the ban on beef in many Indian states, cattle-rustling is rampant in Delhi where organised gangs load stray cows on to trucks, and sell them to illegal slaughterhouses. Indeed, India is the world’s biggest beef exporter, although much of the meat comes from buffaloes that are not revered by Hindus. More and more Hindus are acquiring a taste for meat of all kinds. Nehru enjoyed a juicy steak, and refused to enact a ban on cow slaughter. A Hindu reader informs me that in the Mahabharata, there are many references to the consumption of beef.
Clearly, it is up to a society to pass laws that reflect its cultural and religious values. But a secular state ensures that such edicts do not infringe on the rights of any particular group or minority. This is often a fine line, and balancing competing rights is a delicate business. Witness the controversy over the French ban on Muslim women wearing a full burqa in public places.
Nevertheless, the Indian ban on beef causes hardship among the Dalit and Muslim poor as it is the cheapest meat available. But the friction over killing cows goes back a long time in South Asia: during times of sectarian tension, Hindus would find pieces of a slaughtered cow in the local temple, while Muslims would discover a pig’s head in a mosque. Both caused outrage and led to violent riots.
In Sri Lanka recently, an extremist Buddhist group has been targeting Muslims for their taste for beef. Supermarkets have been forced to remove ‘halal’ labels from packets of meat. Although the quality of the local beef is awful, Sri Lankan Muslims cling to their habit of cooking it, much to the disdain of their Buddhist neighbours.
I confess to enjoying an underdone steak, but if it causes offence to people around me, I would defer the pleasure and eat something else. Ultimately, however, this is not about dietary preferences but about perceived religious duty and individual rights. In much of the world, pork is perfectly kosher for everybody except Muslims and Jews.
More than the attack on one man, Mohammed Akhlaq, the sharp increase in the public avowal of Hinduism indicates a rise in muscular nationalism, as well as a more assertive India. This can be seen in the repeated artillery barrages over the Line of Control in Kashmir, as well as in the blockade of petroleum supplies to Nepal. The latter is being squeezed for the changes it has made in its new constitution that appears to weaken a dominant pro-Indian community.
But as the secular impulse weakens, India will become a weaker nation. It is far too large and diverse a country to be governed under a single ruling faith. Its numerous beliefs and cultures have been a source of strength, but if minorities start feeling marginalised, the Indian union will be under threat. As it is, it faces rebellion from various ethnic and religious groups. Nehru and his colleagues in the Congress Party realised early that the country could only thrive as a secular entity. There is a real danger today that Modi and the BJP can undo the foundations of the Indian constitution.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2015