The murder of individuals by mobs in the name of "cow protection” has become common in Hindutva-dominated India, occurring in states as far apart as Manipur and Gujarat, Rajasthan and Assam, besides the Hindi-heartland and cow-belt of Himachal Pradesh-Haryana-Uttar Pradesh-Madhya Pradesh-Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh, and Jammu and Kashmir as well.
The violence is not just structural or ideological - it is increasingly physical, visceral and collective - intended not only to intimidate but also to eliminate its human targets. This violence is exemplary, making examples of certain people as a way to intimidate an entire community.
Recently while interviewing Ashis Nandy for his 80th birthday, a colleague and I asked him if he had any regrets. Yes, he answered, after a moment’s reflection: "I regret leaving behind a harsher, more brutalised world for future generations. Even in a society like India, there are no longer safe spaces - of family, faith or neighbourhood. The Indian sanctuary, where the self knew how to live with the other, that too is disappearing.”
The alarming persecution of minorities in India over the past three years of the BJP rule bears out this sense of pervasive brutality, the precipitous erosion of civility in the 'Hindu Rashtra’.
Lawless beatings, lynching, arson and mob attacks, carried out by vigilante groups claiming to be engaged in 'gau raksha’, seem to have implicit sanction from the ruling party. Actions that ought to be deemed criminal and invite prosecution, instead enjoy impunity in the present political environment. Meanwhile, citizens, especially Muslims and Dalits, who might be connected to cattle rearing, dairy farming, the meat industry, or even just the consumption of beef, are suddenly exposed to the threat of mortal violence.
At any point in their pursuit of a livelihood or in the midst of everyday acts of transporting, buying, selling, herding, grazing, milking, cooking, eating or indeed at all interacting with the "holy cow”, whether as a living creature or a mere carcass, hapless Indians find themselves face to face with vigilantes who are out to kill. A dozen Muslims have lost their lives in this way since May 2015. When four Dalits were tied to a car and beaten with belts in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016, it led to the largest ever demonstrations by Dalit youth under the leadership of the young lawyer-activist Jignesh Mevani.
This new "cow vigilantism” cannot be explained as principled opposition to beef eating or as a proactive defence of vegetarianism. Any kind of violence designed to dictate diet or police food habits surely violates the fundamental right of Indian citizens to whatsoever religion they want to pursue, and, following from the freedom of religion, to choose what they want to eat (dietary freedom is tied to the freedom of both individuals and cultural communities, defined by religion, caste, region etc).
It cannot be undertaken in the name of animal rights, because in that case the mostly deplorable condition of every species in India, wild and domesticated, has to be looked at, and a comprehensive and consistent policy of protecting animals implemented across the board.
If the government wants to use its mandate to regulate or restructure what candidate Narendra Modi ominously referred to as the "pink revolution” during his campaign in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, then surely there are economic, legislative and legal ways to reform different aspects of the beef industry.
Killing random people at random intervals serves no justifiable purpose. The horrifying lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2015, on the mere suspicion - later proven false - of there being beef in his refrigerator, was in retrospect a tipping point in India’s free fall from secular democratic republic to illiberal Hindu Reich.
Recent incidents in Alwar, Rajasthan and Nagaon, Assam are marked by all the usual transgressions against democracy - police inaction, administrative complicity, aggressive defiance from 'gau rakshak’ groups, and statements emanating from Sangh leadership (both within and outside the elected government) that range from the blatant justification of violence against minorities to the euphemistic defence of majoritarian religious nationalism.
When the Constitution offered scant solace, B R Ambedkar - the very architect of that noble document - looked to religion, embracing Buddhism as a possible alternative path to an elusive equality for India. If we too turn as a last resort to religion, remembering the Hindu god Krishna, a flute-playing cowherd, surrounded by docile bovines, wandering the forests of Vrindavan and idling with his cattle in sylvan groves by the banks of the Yamuna, nowhere do we find an image of aggression against denizens of the human or animal world.
In genuine Krishna-centric Hinduism - as opposed to Modi’s political Hindutva - we find values of play and ease, a pastoralist idyll and a civilisational ethos of a deep harmony between man and nature. We worship a deity who is both musical, signifying compassion and creativity, and protective, signifying a caring power that can literally lift mountains to shelter all creatures great and small.
To think like Hindus, let us venerate Krishna Gopala - gentlest of gods, friend to village folk, to women, to cows, to all the weak and the vulnerable, a divine figure whose very idiom is love. Let us reject the terrifying demonic 'gau rakshak’ who murders our fellow citizens and sets fire to the political home we call India, lovingly built by Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, and by millions of others in passing generations who would have been aghast, like Ashis Nandy, at the uncivilised brutality to which we are daily reduced.
If we truly want to be secular Indians or even devout Hindus, let us reclaim our cows, our gods, our livelihoods, our Constitution, but most of all our humanity. Enough of this vicious bigotry in our name.
(The writer is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi)