It was a discussion in Rajya Sabha last week on Thursday, the subject was lynchings and attacks on Muslims and Dalits, and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was speaking. He said that all sides have condemned the killings, that the Prime Minister has spoken about it thrice, that there can be no justification of the violence and the right to equality and religious belief comes with the obligation of mutual respect and tolerance. But the senior minister chose not to leave it at that.
“But … have we twisted the definition of secularism?” he continued. Jaitley read out from Article 48, and harked back to the discussions on cow protection in the Constituent Assembly. He spoke — in the same breath — of the lynchings in the name of the cow and those who, despite a prohibition in law, “see nothing wrong in a cow being slaughtered” , a pointed reference to Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s statements, insensitive at most, on beef and the slaughter of a calf in Kerala by Youth Congress activists. “By doing this, they do as much damage to the country as the gau rakshak on a train”, the minister said.
It is necessary to rewind and listen carefully to Jaitley’s intervention in Rajya Sabha on Thursday to get a full sense of the challenge to the rule of law and to democracy itself in India today — posed by the mob killings of citizens belonging mainly to the minority community in the name of the cow. It is a challenge made most formidable by the government’s response to it.
When it is not denying it, as Jaitley’s response illustrates, it is lacing its condemnations with a whataboutery that should be called out as inappropriate and unseemly in any constitutional democracy worth its name. The Prime Minister’s own statements, on all three occasions, have fallen short of facing up to the phenomenon.
He has not called the hate crime by its name. He has portrayed the rampaging gau rakshaks, emboldened by a permissive political environment and rash of bans on the slaughter, sale and transport of the cow, as only “anti social elements” taking law into their own hands. Now by, in effect, painting an equivalence between the crime of the lynch mob and the perceived disrespect shown by some to religious sentiment centred on the cow — Jaitley also spoke of “selective morality” and “selective call of conscience”, lending his weight to the dominant imaginary of Hindus-under-siege — the minister has underlined his government’s continuing refusal and failure to recognise the horror and enormity of the hate crime it is constitutionally obligated to act on.
Jaitley’s exposition is a special let-down because as a senior BJP politician who has held an array of high offices — including as former minister of law and justice — his is a voice heard with seriousness and respect across a range of subjects. He was the young student leader who went to prison in the fight against the Emergency in the 1970s. He is one of the most articulate and measured advocates of his party and government now. His Rajya Sabha intervention on Thursday does not do justice to his formidable record of commitment to an individual’s right to life, liberty and justice.