To Beef or Not to Beef: Holy Cows and Unholy Deaths in the Indian Badlands

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Mohammad Akhlaq, the man killed over suspected cow-slaughter [Photo Courtesy – Gajendra Yadav and The Indian Express]

India is a land of many wonders. And now we are on the fast track to becoming a vegan paradise. In a land where selling meat can be temporarily banned, just because some vegetarians are celebrating a religious festival or a person may even be robbed of his life, just on the assumption that he may have killed an animal deemed sacred to a religious community, the angelic wings of veggie salvation are fluttering with the roar of a thousand thunders. Surely, the thirteenth incarnation is at hand!

Of course, like most miracles of such kind, there are some teething contradictions. As anyone who has read D.N. Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow and such other books and articles on ancient Indian history would know, Hindus in India, long before they identified themselves as Hindus, actively slaughtered cows for sacrificial purposes and even consumed beef on various occasions. Several scriptural texts and statements by famous sages like Yagnyavalka have condoned and sanctioned such actions without any ambiguity. Even Swami Vivekananda accepted their logic. But then again, politics and facts are rare bedfellows and the same conglomeration of forces that had once led to the burning of D. N. Jha’s book and him receiving death threats, has now resulted in the death of Mohammad Akhlaq, a resident of the village Bisara, near Dadri in UP, along with serious injuries to his son Danish.

However, in the badlands of Indian cowboys, the life of a human being costs infinitely less than that of a cow and virtually nothing if the human being in question happens to be a Dalit or a Muslim. In fact such is the significance of this animal, which is also a byword for stupidity, that one eminent politician has even claimed that the upcoming elections in Bihar must be seen as “…a fight between those who eat beef and those who are against cow slaughter… Now, people must decide whether they want beef-eaters or those who want to ban it.” This is false consciousness at its bovine worst. If people can be overwhelmed with anti-beef sentiments, obviously they need not bother about rising prices, staggering poverty, crimes against women, murders related to the VYAPAM case, violations of the fundamental rights of all Indian citizens and such other apparently trivial details.

Such sparks are generally designed to fan communal fires which seem to spreading fast across India. Not only was an independent MLA from Kashmir beaten up by cow-loving MLAs for daring to host a beef party in the MLA hostel, a mob also went on rampage in Mainpuri of UP over alleged rumours of cow-killing after the carcass of a cow was discovered in a field. The availability of a vast army of illiterate, semi-literate and often unemployed youths, who can be easily mobilised through fundamentalist hogwash, certainly adds to the strength of the rabble-rousing groups intent on causing such mayhem. It would not be surprising if such rumours and consequent violence soon becomes an electoral strategy for other parts of India as well.

Unfortunately such incidents rarely cause the kind of furore they should as even those Hindus, who are in no way associated with violence, refuse to bother about the murder of a 50 year old Muslim man or the injuries incurred by his son. In the national imaginary Mohammad Akhlaq and his son had already been relegated to that peripheral position where the application of everyday ordinary morality, common sense and law becomes irrelevant. They belong to a zone of otherness where our righteous indignation, if we are still able to experience it, remains conspicuously absent.

Of course this otherization is not limited to Muslims. In 2002 in Jhajjar, Haryana 5 Dalits were also brutally murdered who had been suspected of killing cows. Here again a mob of thousands overpowered the victims and the district administration played the role of helpless observers. Isn’t it remarkable that a land that regularly boasts of its legacy of non-violence finds it so easy so assemble and rouse angry mobs who can unleash murder and mayhem with absolute impunity, almost at the drop of a hat? Or should I say at the mooing of a cow?

Newspaper reports and articles from Bisara, home to the traumatized family of Mohammad Akhlaq, have confirmed how the Gau Raksha Dal or the Samadhan Sena, which have been recently flourishing around Bisara communicate through social networks and WhatsApp to swiftly connect with each and mobilise their members. How does medieval barbarity and inhuman atrocities find such suitable partners among the most facile markers of modernity? In India, as in other parts of the third world religion thus continues to function as that strange opium (should I say dope/coke/heroin/crack?) of the masses that not only ensures the temporary suspension of morality and intelligence but works as a seminal anti-dote to footsteps on the path of progress which other Indians in various walks of science, culture, education or sports continue to make – both in India and abroad.

However, NRIs must be questioned as well. What explains their unmitigated euphoria over a leader that presides over such horrors? What explains their amnesia regarding the horrors of Gujarat? What explains their guiltless donations to those wings of the Sangh Parivar whose Indian arms continue unfurl such virulence? Whether it is the ban on the books of D.N. Jha or Wendy Donniger or Rohinton Mistry, riots and murders in the name of cows, systematic assassination of rationalists (Dr. M.M. Kalburgi being the latest) – nothing seems to stir their conscience as their self-serving, misplaced nostalgia and the search for ‘cool’ ethnic identities swallows all consideration of moral condemnation.

Perhaps it was E.M. Forster who had it right. India – and Indians too – is a muddle. A land where cultural plurality coexists uneasily with maniacal satraps of fundamentalist hatred, a land where vegetarian practices coexisted with delicious feasts of fish and meat, where sartorial sophistication cannot hide the most primitive instincts and customs, where growing billionaires in imported cars ride past acres and acres of suicidal poverty, where celebrations of manifold goddesses cannot thwart the increasing violence against women. Can reason make sense of this land we call our own? What is the idea of India, beyond the tricolour and the national cricket team? The answer my friend is nowhere in the wind.

– Abin Chakraborty

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