At the end of last month, on June 29, a day after nationwide civil society protests against lynchings spilled into the streets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed anguish. With the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad his backdrop, the PM said that killing in the name of gau bhakti, or devotion to the cow, is not acceptable, that the Mahatma would not have approved of it, and that no one had the right to take law and order into his own hands. At that time, his message did well to break a ringing silence — but it did not seem enough. The PM had spoken of cow vigilantism and lynchings as disembodied events. He did not name the victims, call the crime by its name. He did not say that what India is seeing, across states, is a rash of hate crimes. On Sunday, on the eve of the Monsoon session, the PM spoke again of the continuing violence in the name of the cow. He spoke of “asamajik tatva (anti-social elements)” spreading “arajakta (anarchy)”, called upon state governments to take action since law and order is primarily their responsibility, asked all political parties to condemn the hooliganism. On Sunday, again, the PM’s message was all the less sharp for its unfortunate refusal to go the whole way.
The lynchings, mostly in the name of the cow, mainly targeting Muslims, cannot be treated as mere law and order disturbances generally left to the governments in the states. Of course, state governments are responsible for the failures of the police that are being highlighted in these incidents — the police reaches late, or becomes a bystander, or demonstrates greater zeal in filing cases against the victims. Yet, what sets these lynchings apart, what makes them a hate crime, and what contributes to the police abdications is that, though separated by time and geography, they draw upon a common and centralised pattern of political understandings, cues and messages. The mobs which target minorities are emboldened by a perceived open season on Muslims. They count on a climate of impunity, presided over by a political regime that appears to speak more in defence of the cow — including through the plethora of laws, rules and notifications curbing and banning the sale and slaughter of cattle — than on the equal rights and special protections that governments in a constitutional democracy owe to their most vulnerable groups of citizens.
What the PM needed to say, what he still has not said, is that his colleagues in the Sangh Parivar must no longer deny the gravity of these crimes, or condone them. As the party that rules the Centre and in a large number of states, the BJP must send out the unquivocal message that these mobs do not act in its name. That its governments in the states will act firmly and fairly whenever such violence happens, and the Centre will use all the direct and supervisory powers and mechanisms at its command to ensure that they and other state governments do so. This political message must necessarily travel down from the top — from the party high command to the cadres, from the Prime Minister to the Chief Ministers, from the Centre to the states.