There is a sad sort of irony in the Prime Minister’s choice of the Sabarmati Ashram to finally speak out last week against vigilante killings in the name of cow protection. Does he not know that the Mahatma is not a hero in the ‘new’ India? No sooner did he finish his speech than angry voices filled the realms of social media. In shrill tones they denounced Gandhiji for being a symbol of an ‘impotent’ India. In their view, that impotent India is a country that belongs in the past. They mocked Narendra Modi for speaking of non-violence in the ashram of a man whose non-violence they blame for hundreds of thousands of Hindus being massacred by Muslims when India was partitioned. So not only is Gandhi no hero in the new India, he is a symbol of weakness.
It is possible that the Mahatma was never a hero in the eyes of those whose voices are heard loudest today, but it is only in the past three years that they have dared to say this out loud. Violence is the mood of the new India and the armed men who wander our highways in search of Muslims to kill are today’s heroes. Videos of victims being beaten to death with iron rods and stones are circulated proudly by the killers, who seem to believe that the only way to keep Muslims in check is to show them what will happen if they forget their place.
So even as the Prime Minister spoke out clearly against killing people on the excuse of protecting cows, news of another lynching came from Jharkhand. A man identified as Alimuddin Ansari was beaten to death near Ranchi because he was transporting meat in his van. Videos of the lynching show his killers pushing him to the ground and holding his terrified face up in front of the camera for a few last shots before beating him to death. His van was burned afterwards so nobody will ever know if the meat he was transporting was beef or not. In all the lynching videos, the killers are young men who appear to take great pride in their violence. They see what they do as valour, that is why they film every detail despite the danger of providing the police with incriminating evidence.
The Prime Minister said last week that nobody had the right to take the law into his own hands. So what he needs to do now is investigate why it is mostly in states ruled by BJP chief ministers that we have seen so many incidents of cow vigilantism. Could it be that the rule of law is no longer respected or feared in these states because of some secret pact that allows killers to believe that they can get away with murder? Or could it be that law enforcement in India has always permitted political criminals to get away with crimes that ordinary criminals would be jailed for?
Beef vigilantes do not see themselves as ordinary criminals, although many of them may well be just ordinary killers. They see themselves as part of a political movement to save India from being ruled once more by Muslims. They pay close attention to speeches made by men like Syed Salahuddin and Hafiz Saeed in our neighbouring Islamic republic and they take their words seriously. These gentlemen routinely make it clear that their ultimate aim is to bring Islamic rule back in India. And then to confirm the worst fears of today’s Hindutva warriors, there is the worldwide jihad. Every time there is a new act of jihadist terrorism somewhere in the world, a hysteria gets whipped up against our own Muslims, as if they are somehow guilty just by being Muslim.
So although it is very good that the Prime Minister has condemned cow vigilantism in such clear terms, it may not make as much difference as some of us may have hoped. On a personal level, I have often criticised him in this column for not speaking out loudly and clearly against every lynching, but now I find myself wondering if it will make any difference at all. What will make a difference is strict law enforcement, especially in states ruled by BJP chief ministers. It is not enough to arrest the killers and release them on bail quietly as soon as the media loses interest.
If there can be special fast track courts for terrorists and rapists, there can and should be special courts for cow vigilantes. It is no longer enough to say, as our political leaders love saying, that the law will take its own course. In India, this is a very long, slow course indeed. This is why the rule of law in our ancient land is such a tenuous thing that killers do not fear it.