By Sumit Mitra, The Economic Times Blog | June 2, 2016
‘Beef’ returned to our plate this week with a forensic laboratory in Mathura issuing a report claiming that the meat found near the spot where Mohammad Akhlaq was beaten to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015 “belonged to a cow or its progeny,” and not mutton as an earlier report had stated.
The fact that the investigation into the murder of a man has nothing
to do with what meat was discovered hardly needs repetition. But India’s food politics, especially over ‘beef ’, can do with an examination. Fear can be the driver of politics.
For the BJP, its source can be limitless. The ingrained xenophobia of its ‘ultra-Hindu’ ‘fringe’ supporters can fuel the party’s onward march as the ‘saviour’ against the whole bunch who are ‘not like us’, Muslims being on top of this (literal) pecking order.
It is largely an upper-class fear. But the minds of many other upwardly mobile classes — tea garden tribes, for instance — are easily tinctured by the same fear. Last year, in Bihar, a state with a thin upper-caste crust, the BJP did not have much luck in whipping up communal hysteria.
But Assam was worth taking a chance on for the party. It is because of the sharp polarisation that historically existed between the Assamese and the Bengali-speaking peoples of the state, the communal tinge to the ethnic conflict evident since the Nellie massacre of 1983, and these two dystopic fixations being rolled into a general fear of the homeland being swamped by Bangladeshi immigrants.
The fact is that Assam and Bangladesh have comparable GDP per capita in constant dollar. Besides, Bangladesh’s social indicators are lauded globally and are as much better than Assam as those of Kerala are to India’s. So why should today’s Bangladeshi migrate to Assam? Large-scale immigration into Assam is actually an old story that the BJP retreaded, with great result.
Not to be Cowed Down
As state elections in northern Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab unfold next year, what will be the BJP’s strategy? The elections are months away still and the party has no reason yet to break its diplomatic silence. But the most intense research going on in its laboratory for mapping vulnerabilities of mass psychology concerns the social-religious scorn in the mind of a section of Hindus against bovine slaughter, and its subtle conversion to a hyper-nationalist pitch.
From Punjab to Jharkhand, Gau Raksha Dals have sprung up in hundreds and patrol highways with iron rods in hand, stopping trucks to inspect the livestock being ferried, with police nowhere in sight. In most parts of Uttar Pradesh, the police think that the cow-protection gangs are a vigilante group against the ‘sinful’ trade of cattle transportation.
There is little concern that nowhere does the anti-cow slaughter law work against trading in buffalo, and that the cattle traders who are increasingly bullied by Gau Raksha volunteers could be in the business of moving buffalo consignment to legal and illegal abattoirs — where standards and norms pertaining to the treatment of animals are thrown out of the window.
However, things are taking an even uglier turn, with the states becoming party to the anti-beef rhetoric being rustled up through the misuse of new draconian laws. An example is the recent detention of three Muslim men from the Wazirabad area of Gurgaon in Haryana for allegedly selling ‘cow meat’.
Under the new Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan (HGSG) Act of 2015, which replaces the Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act of 1955, any police officer above the rank of sub-inspector is entitled to certify meat in the possession of an accused as ‘contraband’. In the Wazirabad case, the meat was certified as that of ‘cow’ by a veterinarian accompanying the local Gau Raksha team.
The accused have claimed it to be buffalo meat. But with the entire quantity of evidence destroyed by the accusers, they’ve no evidence to prove their innocence.
In pre-Independence India, the anti-cow slaughter movement was always political dynamite. And the British, experts in leveraging India’s social minefields, knew this well.
Queen Victoria suspected that the anti-cow slaughter protests at that time were apparently religious but had a deep political underpinning. “Though the Muhammadans’ cow-killing is made the pretext for the [1880s] agitation, it is in fact directed against us,” she wrote to the viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, on December 8, 1893.
Getting Their Goat
Lansdowne, in his minute on the agitation, elaborated on this theme. “I doubt whether, since the Mutiny, any movement containing in it a greater amount of potential mischief has engaged the attention of the Government of India… [It has found] a common ground upon which the educated Hindus and the ignorant masses can combine their forces.”
And so it is now. The anti-cow slaughter vigilantes are finding a common cause with the multitude of pious and well-placed Hindus who have wholeheartedly accepted western education but harbour a deep-rooted and understandable cultural revulsion to beef.
The Hindu Right has worked on it diligently over the decades, and it believes it’s time again to harvest its political fruits.