On Thursday, a day after nationwide protests against lynchings spilled on to the streets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke his silence at Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat. His words were welcome. But it is immensely grim and sobering that it should need a PM to say in India of 2017: Killing people in the name of gau bhakti, or devotion to the cow, is not acceptable; Mahatma Gandhi would not have approved of it; no person in the country has the right to take the law into his own hands. And then, the PM could have used this moment to say more than just that. From him, all those chilled by the brutality and banality of the violence of the lynch mob, most needed to hear: The law and order machinery will act quickly and firmly, show zero tolerance for such crime. And:
And: The government will make a special effort to reach out to assure Muslims that their right to life and liberty and dignity will be protected at all costs. The PM’s characterisation of the criminals was incomplete — he did not say that these are hate crimes which mainly target the religious minority. His intervention, or admonition, was all the less powerful for the fact that he did not name the victim.
The PM, and his ministers, need to take the names of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan and Junaid Khan if the monstrosity of lynching is to be looked fully in the eye, and stripped of its claim to a politics and an ideology. The PM, known to be a tough taskmaster who runs a tight ship, must ensure that what he said in Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat is heeded and respected by his own party and its spokespersons. They must cease their whataboutery. They must be told that comparisons between the killing by the mob of a young Muslim boy returning home from Eid shopping on a train and a Muslim police officer in the Valley are odious — that weighing the outrage sparked by one against that which followed the other makes for a perverse math and is a morally degrading exercise disrespectful to those who lost their lives.
Law and order is a state subject, but the Modi government at the Centre must use all the mechanisms at its command to send the Sabarmati message to the states — including and especially those ruled by the BJP, which have been so quick to announce bans and notifications restricting the sale and slaughter of cattle. The home ministry should issue advisories and ask for reports. Centre-state forums should be used to talk to the chief ministers, hold them accountable.
What PM Modi said at the Sabarmati Ashram on Thursday could become yet another echo, as his rebuke to cow vigilantes in August last year, breaking the silence since the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, turned out to be. Or it could be a beginning — but for that, his message will need to be reinforced by the political and administrative machinery at his command.