Mohammad Akhlaq, father of an Indian Air Force employee, was murdered in 2015. He was lynched in his neighbourhood on “suspicions” that he had consumed beef. Little is known about his post-mortem report, but the meat was pulled from his refrigerator and from bins in the neighbourhood and post-mortem-ed promptly. The meat declared itself as legal and non-bovine. Just 40 kilometres from India’s capital, the death caused understandable outrage and grief in the country. It stood out as a marker for what must necessarily not happen in a proudly modern India that loves to distinguish itself from its neighbour Pakistan’s barbarity.
The gruesome murder on an Alwar street of dairy farmer Pehlu Khan, recorded on a cellphone, for just travelling with a cow, legally purchased in the state, is only one of a string of disturbing accounts of a similar nature being witnessed for three years now. Two Muslim cattle traders, including a minor, were found strung and hanged in Latehar in Jharkhand. A young man died in police custody in the same state for allegedly WhatsApp-ing cow-related texts.
What shocks is the response of the authorities in such cases. In the Pehlu case, Rajasthan’s home minister even questioned if a death of said nature had taken place. A Union minister followed suit in Parliament, denying the cold-blooded murder for which the video recording and post-mortem report is available. Some ministers are worried, if at all, only that “brand India” may get tarnished if word was to get around and a pattern discerned. After all, it is freedom to garland Godse in India while speaking of Gandhi abroad that gives them their sheen.
Pakistan, having inherited the same laws as India did from the British, went on to fashion itself as a different beast. Differences were enhanced in the 1980s: A series of actions were undertaken by the Zia-ul-Haq regime to create and sharpen blasphemy laws. In 1980, making derogatory remarks against Islamic personages carried the punishment of three years in jail. In 1982, it became life imprisonment for “wilful” desecration of the Quran. In 1986, a separate clause was inserted to punish blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad and the penalty recommended was “death, or imprisonment for life”.
Like all blasphemy laws, this had little to do with protecting God. In Pakistan, non-Muslims could lose their lives for just being reported as having questioned Prophet Mohammed. What started with Zia didn’t end with him. Every month, you see minorities being attacked, churches burnt and people being arrested on mere suspicion of blasphemy, as mobs lead the charge against non-Muslims.
Is using the cow as an excuse for an attack on minorities — met with a chilling silence, indifference, and now, a straight-faced denial by BJP governments — a way of having our own blasphemy laws?
Plenty binds Indians. But things like a cow test are pushed to deliberately play on differences and enable the generation of hate. This, perhaps, was the problem when the Prime Minister invoked shamshans and qabristans. An unstated but acknowledged line — mortality — seen as binding all humans, is evoked to draw a sharp line of difference.
The BJP has been asserting itself as “different” in the Northeast, Goa and Kerala, where laws around cow slaughter and beef consumption are different. When its leaders promise better beef in Kerala, any claims of the BJP to being protectors of the cow don’t stand the test of facts.
No one can have a dispute with those who accord a special place to the cow in their hearts and minds. Worshippers are fully within their rights to do so, and must be free to do it, but it can’t be used to promote enmity. As in the case of the blasphemy law, the problem is when the idea is distorted to not to benefit the Quran reader but to go after the “enemy”. The laws of blasphemy and the love of the Quran are weaponised to kill those one hates. Love, for one thing, can’t end up as hate of the other.
India’s first home minister and deputy PM, Sardar Patel, wrote to the RSS in the light of the Mahatma’s murder in 1948, saying clearly that he did not mind the RSS arguing for the welfare of Hindus but he had issues with it becoming an anti-Muslim idea, principally. He also wrote to S.P. Mukherjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh, on the importance of keeping the atmosphere sane: “As regards the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. our reports do confirm that as a result of the activities of these two bodies, particularly the former (RSS) an atmosphere was created in the country in which such a ghastly tragedy [Gandhi’s assassination] became possible.”
Patel’s warning holds true even today. Once an atmosphere of hate has been created, ghastly acts become the norm. “Zeitgeist” is not just another German word. The responsibility for at least ensuring that hate crimes are not allowed to become routine is the duty of governments everywhere; certainly as important as the ease of doing business. Unless these governments are in the business of doing something else.