Sacred Cows Undermine Modi’s Image of India

India has been hit by waves of growing religious and social intolerance since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was elected 18 months ago. This has flushed out some of the Hindu nationalist party’s most stridently anti-Muslim voices, and has also sharply increased liberal concern about where a Modi-led India is heading.

For the most part, Modi and his fellow ministers have done little to restrain the extremists though, facing the possibility of failing to win the state of Bihar’s current assembly elections, they have been trying to defuse a row over eating beef that has escalated into a national issue.

“Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef,” said Manohar Lal Khattar, who was personally picked by Modi to be chief minister of the BJP-run state of Haryana adjacent to Delhi, last week in the latest of a series of such remarks. He later said he regretted his words, but then the Panchjanya weekly newspaper published by the RSS, the BJP’s ideology-driven parent organization, said that Vedic scriptures ordered the killing of “sinners” who slaughtered cows that are regarded as sacred by Hindus. The agriculture minister has described cow slaughter as a “mortal sin.”

President Breaks Ranks to Call for Restraint

So serious has this issue and other examples of prejudice and intolerance become – and so silent was Modi and his fellow ministers – that Pranab Mukherjee, the country’s president, has broken tradition by speaking forcefully on a current topic. He has twice called for restraint in recent days, expressing “apprehension about whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane.”

The events have confirmed the worst fears of those who opposed Modi’s election last year. They have also damaged India’s image abroad, which has already been hit in the past two or three years by evidence of widespread rapes, caste-based repression and violence, and endemic corruption.

A 50-year-old Muslim farm laborer was killed on September 28 by a mob at Dari, a town in Uttar Pradesh 56 km from Delhi near the Noida satellite city, after the local Hindu temple broadcast a rumor that he had killed and eaten a cow. Two months earlier, three Muslim men were beaten to death in the same area for transporting cattle in a van.

Academic Shot Dead

At the end of August, M.M.Kalburgi, a 76-year old renowned Kannada writer and prominent academic in southern India, was shot dead, allegedly by right wing extremists who objected to his rationalist views on idol worship and Hindu ritual.

The lack of official condemnation of this and other similar killings, and the failure of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), a government-funded but supposedly independent institution, to condemn the slaughter and commemorate the life of one of its awardees, has led to a stream of protests from other authors. This became linked with protests against the government’s inaction over the beef row, and numerous writers have demonstrated by returning awards given by the Akademi, which has increased national publicity over the issue.

Modi was slow to comment on the killings and the broader beef issue, and when he did speak on the Dadri death, he only said it was “saddening and unfortunate.”

A prime minister might be expected to be more outspoken about such a crime, but it fitted with his approach to all controversial anti-Muslim events and extreme Hindu nationalist remarks since a government minister soured the government’s image and undermined the apparent supremacy of its economic agenda last November when she implied that non-Hindus (ie Muslims) were illegitimate.

BJP Routed in Delhi Assembly Polls

Two months later, in January this year, the BJP was unexpectedly routed in Delhi’s state assembly elections. Now it seems unlikely to achieve a clear win, and might even lose, in Bihar’s assembly polls, which are being seen both by the BJP and by opposition parties as a test of Modi’s political standing 18 months after his landslide general election victory.

It was noticeable earlier this month that, as reports that the BJP was doing badly began to emerge in the first phase of the Bihar polling, Modi and his colleagues presented a softer face, having earlier apparently believed that a strong Hindu nationalist approach would win them votes. Modi echoed the president’s words, and said that “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty”.

That goes to the heart of India’s current political divide between the aspirational young who voted BJP last year because they want Modi to lead the country into a new era of economic success, and the BJP’s traditional supporters (and many party leaders) who believe in Hindu nationalism. Modi seems to have a split personality on the issue as, probably, does Arun Jaitley, his finance minister and chief spokesman, whereas Amit Shah, Modi’s chief political strongman, is seen as a nationalist hardliner.

It was politically significant therefore when, 16 days after the Dadri killing, Shah eventually said that it was “wrong” and that those responsible should be punished. He then reprimanded ministers and others who had made controversial comments, saying that they were diverting attention from Modi’s economic agenda. The prime minister was said to be “upset and distressed,” which seemed odd, given that he had stayed silent for so long.

The Mother Symbol

Not eating beef from cows, which are seen as a mother symbol since they provide milk for humans, is a typically Indian unclear taboo (buffalo beef is widely used instead, and is a major export). The taboo is widely accepted as something that most but not all Hindus, many of whom are vegetarians, follow as a way of life without any controversy or argument. Because it has a religious basis (like Muslims not eating pork), it is however easily used by extremists to stir up unrest.

The 1857 Indian Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence) was sparked by rumours that cartridges for new Enfield rifles were greased with beef and pork fat.

There have been laws on cow slaughter in almost all of India’s states for many years, but in the past many have not been enforced, especially for ageing cows that stop producing milk. But since the BJP came to power last year, many states have strengthened enforcement for ideological reasons, led by Maharashtra which activated a 1996 law for the first time in March, with some including heavy prison sentences.

Other developments in the past 18-months that have threatened social harmony have included mass Hindu conversions of Muslims and Christians, allegations that Muslims seek Hindu brides in order to spread their religion (known as Love Jihad), and suggestions that Hindus should protect their religion by breeding faster than Muslims. There are also moves to strengthen Hindu nationalists’ grip on the education system and other academic and literary institutions (such as the Sahitya Akademi) so as to strengthen Hindu nationalism’s grip.

Shiv Sena Causes Waves

The anti-Muslim line also erupts over relations with Pakistan. Extremists, notably the arch fundamentalist Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which is a BJP ally, has for years tried to block Pakistan cricket matches and other activities. Last week, Shiv Sena protestors poured black paint over the organizer of the launch in Mumbai of a book by Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a former Pakistani foreign minister.

Kasuri was on a tour of India, and had been welcomed at the Kasauli Literary Festival (that I attended) in north India. He debated his version of history with Indian writers and other specialists and went on to speak in Chandigarh, a regional capital, without any disruption. The Mumbai attack therefore was an isolated event, but it demonstrated the intolerance of a vocal and influential minority promoting nationalist (and regional) chauvinism.

The Shiv Sena also forced the cancellation of a Mumbai concert by a famous Pakistani singer, and this week its activists stormed into a meeting of the Pakistan and Indian cricket officials in Mumbai who were planning future matches.

Government Intolerance Grows

On a different level, the government has become intolerant of dissent by non-governmental groups, notably Greenpeace and others that try to ensure that environmental regulations are followed by infrastructure and other development schemes. The Ford Foundation has also been under attack for funding such groups, and individuals have been harassed.

Governments have tried to curb dissent for decades, and there have also been violent protests about beef eating and strongly held views on religion for years. But this has escalated in recent months, with nationalism being raised to a new level for a variety of causes that, as can be seen from these events, range from curbing Muslims’ freedom to harassing well-meaning environmentalists that dare to criticise government actions.

This implies that India is being run by an embattled, authoritarian and repressive regime, supported by vigilantes, a view which contrasts sharply with the friendly open “make in India” economic-growth face that Modi displays on his frequent visits abroad – and will do again in the UK next month. As President Mukherjee, a veteran Congress Party politician said, there is apprehension that “tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel's New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, appears at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel's homepage