Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

3 August 2017

If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is serious about preventing cow vigilantism in the country, he should start by looking at the voice of his own government, Radha Sarkar writes.

Many are forecasting 2017, with 20 attacks in just six months, as the worst year for cow-related violence in the history of independent India.

Between 2010 and 2017, there have been 63 attacks against those perceived to be violating the cow. Of these, 61 have taken place since the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, assumed control of the central government in 2014.

Many of these attacks boast a disturbing impunity – they have often been carried out in public spaces and recorded and shared on the Internet. Muslims have been the victims of 32 out of 63 attacks.

How has the BJP-government responded to this wave of cow vigilantism, and how should we interpret its responses?

A good place to start is to understand that the state is in fact not neutral; a state is able to express positions for or against ideas. Political theorist Corey Brettschneider developed this idea, explaining that the state has two avenues, or capacities, for ‘speech’: 1) its coercive capacity, that is the use of legal force, backed by coercion, and 2) its expressive capacity, that is realised through its officials and representatives.

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When it comes to the Indian state, it is important to note that the BJP is not a lone organisation. Rather, its ideological leadership comes from the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that champions a muscular, Brahmanical form of Hinduism, known as Hindutva, and whose proclaimed aim is the establishment of a Hindu nation.

A central tenet of the RSS’ ideology is the inviolability of the cow. BJP politicians at both the central and state levels – including Prime Minister Modi – have had long-standing ties to the RSS, and members of the BJP, including party spokesperson Siddharth Nath Singh, have readily acknowledged the RSS  as their mentor. In turn, RSS support often translates to votes for the BJP.

The BJP-led state has by turn chosen to ‘speak’ and to remain silent in favour of an RSS-inspired, Hindutva-focused agenda that designates the cow as inviolable and those who would harm it as deserving of punishment.

The BJP government has fostered hostility toward Indian Muslims, both implicitly and explicitly. Among the most glaring of the BJP’s recent anti-Muslim decisions is the appointment of Yogi Adityanath – a Hindu cleric who has built his career propagating an aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism and who has been accused of inciting violence against Muslims – to the position of Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.

The cow is a loaded politico-religious symbol and has been since the late 19th Century when Hindu nationalist groups used it as a rallying symbol for Hindus against both British colonists and Indian Muslims. For India’s Muslim population, the cow raises a great deal of antagonism both from and against Hindus – a symbolic divide that is only being deepened by the recent vigilante violence.

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Where its expressive capacity is concerned, the BJP-government has done little to censure political and religious figures from within its fold who target religious minorities for their violations of the cow.

For instance, in June 2017 Saraswati Sadhvi, the president of the far-right Hindu organisation Santana Dharma Prachar Seva Samiti, called for those who eat beef to be publicly hanged.

Where cow-related attacks have taken place, there is little response from the political establishment, and when there is, it is often slow and muted. Political leaders cite ‘genuine anger’ among righteous Hindus, portraying the lynchings and killings as regrettable accidents. In April 2017, following the killing of Pehlu Khan, a dairy-farmer, the BJP-led state government did not condemn the killing; its minister for parliamentary affairs denied that the attack occurred, and the home minister assigned blame to the victims.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June speech in New Delhi, in response to the protests in the capital city in June, was only the second of its kind (the first was made last year, after attacks on Dalits in Una, Gujarat), despite the other 59 such incidents since his term began in 2014. The two-and-a-half year silence of the BJP on cow related violence can be read as an expression of tacit support for an anti-beef, Hindutva agenda.

The 2017 nation-wide ban prohibiting the sale of cattle for slaughter at livestock markets, coupled with rigorous bans against the sale and consumption of beef that swept the country in 2015, demonstrate the state’s use of its coercive capacity to champion a Hindutva-inspired conception of the cow.

With regard to vigilantism, the state’s coercive capacity has often been turned on survivors of episodes of violence. In 13 out of the 61 cases since 2014, police registered cases against the victims on charges of beef trading, or transporting cattle intended for slaughter. In these cases, the coercive capacity is used in defence of the cow, and against survivors.

In both expressive and coercive capacities, the BJP-government is speaking or choosing to remain silent in support of Hindu extremism. Moreover, it has used the state apparatus to embolden and swell the ranks of cow vigilantes.

Indeed, the Bajrang Dal – which, like the BJP, is inspired by the ideological leadership of the RSS – plans to engage one million additional volunteers, in addition to the 300,000 volunteers it is ‘retraining’ to bolster its cow protection programs across the country.

In the monsoon session of parliament, Mr Modi – perhaps pressured by international opinion – has finally called for stricter action against cow vigilantes. But his speech clashed with the ideas and actions of other BJP party bosses and incumbent politicians, as well as religious and cultural leaders of the RSS and its affiliates.

In a mounting climate of Hindu nationalism, it remains to be seen how far Modi’s recent comments will go in undoing years of ‘speech’ by the state.

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