On September 28, a murderous mob got together to kill a man ostensibly for having kept some beef in his refrigerator. They seriously injured his young son and misbehaved with the women in his family. All of this over beef, a meat Indians have consumed for centuries.
Who were these people? Why did they kill a man over an item of food? What did they achieve out of it? All of us in India have for a fortnight been besieged by these questions.
Let’s start with the facts. It was not just a Hindu mob killing a Muslim, it was an anti-national mob attacking India’s plurality, diversity and inclusiveness. By killing Akhlaq, a 50-year-old Muslim ironsmith, for having beef in his house, they were attacking our collective Indianness and the freedoms it gives us. They were also illustrating what India can become — a right-wing, intolerant country where majoritarianism trumps basic human rights.
Akhlaq and his family had lived with their Hindu neighbours peacefully for decades. The man could easily be a Sikh in Delhi in 1984 or a Kashmiri Pandit in Srinagar in the early 1990s. His crime was not that he may have had beef in the house, which is no crime at all. His crime was that a political party wanted a corpse and he was vulnerable. This mob was not just murdering Akhlaq but attacking the most fundamental values of India — inclusiveness, tolerance and freedom.
To read this merely as a communal event would be incorrect. It’s not about beef or bread, or about the religious sentiments of Hindus. Most Hindus have been historically meat-eaters, and there is enough historical evidence to prove such beef consumption. This incident is a carefully scripted murder, a stage-managed political event intended to further polarise the Indian people. In particular, it is intended to create a false anxiety amongst India’s majority, and a climate of fear among the minorities.
The politics and deliberate misinterpretation that have followed this murder are perhaps more heinous than the crime itself. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have gone on to make provocative remarks defending the incident, while others have dismissed it as an unfortunate one. The only vestige of humanity and Indianness came from Akhlaq’s son, an Indian Air Force employee, who spoke about the incident. His grace even in grief was in stark contrast to those who have cited religion, history, culture and public sentiment to cleverly mislead the public. Even in his grief he reminded us of our Indianess, quoting Mazhaab nahi sikhata aapas mein bar karna.
The truth is that Hindus have been eating beef long before Muslims arrived here. Instead of focussing on this historical fact, the public debate is a carefully woven narrative to make India see this as a Hindu vs minorities issue. The cow has been misappropriated as a symbol of Hindu faith and pride. It is repulsive to see what Hindutva is doing to Hinduism — shrivelling it into an ugly monster. Here is a matter of common knowledge: even the leather we use and the cricket balls we play with are made out of the cow’s hide. Will every Hindu give up leather and cricket now as well? Similarly, Hindus in Kerala eat beef while others may not. Should we then kill them in Kerala?
Indians must remember this is only obfuscation. We are being fed a staple diet of hate, and dislike for the ‘other’. We are being told the cow is at risk — only from the minorities. Not from the ill-treatment they receive on city streets, the fact that some Hindus eat beef, or that leather is extracted from their carcasses.
In the end we have to remember that holy cow or not, there is little in common amongst most Indians — except the ideas of a plural, diverse, inclusive, equal and secular country. A person from Delhi may not have much in common with another from Chennai or Kolkata. They often don’t speak the same language, or eat the same sort of food, or wear the same kind of clothes. This is our truth. We exist as a nation because we believe in each other’s right to live freely without fear and oppression.
Much like British colonialists, our politicians seem determined to divide us by means of religion, diet, language, region or dress. Hence it is now our job to protect the idea of a diverse and plural society and country. As Indians, not Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, we need to take a moment to consider who we are as a people if we do not accord the same freedom to that we want for ourselves? It’s not about beef, a particular book, or a religion — these are not under attack. It’s the very idea of India as a free society that is under attack. As Indians, our wisest move will be to recognise this truth and fight it.
Our biggest enemy in protecting the idea of a plural India will be our inability to look beyond religious or community identities, and think and act as one people. Unfortunately we have for so long been absorbed with ideas of growth and development that the slow and incremental loss of our freedom and our Indianness seems unclear to us. Dadri seems too far away and obscure. Actually it might be much closer than we think, for what can happen in Dadri can happen in Delhi and elsewhere soon enough.