This week I would have written about the Foreign Minister’s excellent speech at the United Nations, but images from Dadri got in the way. Ever since the barbaric, senseless murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, I have been haunted by those images of a family with modern, middle-class aspirations destroyed by the savagery that lies so close to the surface of Indian modernity. Mohammed Akhlaq’s brutal murder gives the Prime Minister a chance to confront the reality that, if he fails to give India change, development and prosperity, it will be because of enemies inside his own house.
Akhlaq’s death was foretold from the moment Bharatiya Janata Party chief ministers started banning meat on the excuse of festivals during which it has never been banned before. They did this without concern for the jobs that would be lost and without noticing that Muslims would become an automatic target. Where better for this to be demonstrated than in a Hindu village with less Muslim families than you can count on the fingers of one hand? But Akhlaq’s cowardly murder raises other more serious questions.
When he was in Silicon Valley, the Prime Minister talked proudly about his plans to use digital technology to transform rural India. What use is this kind of talk when a murderous mob can gather in a village on the edge of Delhi without the police being able to do anything? The men who planned the murder of Akhlaq, and the attempted murder of his son Danish, used WhatsApp to spread lies about cow slaughter days in advance, but the police did not notice. What use is digital technology if it cannot improve basic policing? What use are cellphones in villages if the temple priest who made the announcement that caused Akhlaq’s death could not use it to alert the nearest police station? Even if the Prime Minister succeeds in spreading the use of digital technology to improve policing and governance, what is he going to do about the primitive mindset of members of his own party?
What will he do with the ex-MLA who said that if the meat found in Akhlaq’s fridge was beef, then the violence was justified? What will he do with BJP spokesmen who justified the murder in other ways? Some said that farmers in the area were relying on their cattle to survive because of the drought and in the village of Bisara a calf had disappeared. Others, including the local MP, dismissed the murder as an ‘accident’ and the result of a ‘misunderstanding’.
It was a shameful display of primitive, provincial thinking, and Mr Modi would do well to notice that, along with the ‘ghar wapasi’ nonsense that went on through his entire first year in office, it serves to distract from the reasons why he became prime minister. The vote was for change and development and not Hindutva. Anyone who tells him otherwise is lying. And yet he has done nothing to stop the theft of his mandate by people who would not have been ministers or members of Parliament if his slogan of ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ had not found such resonance.
Akhlaq’s murder reminds us of how superficial India’s modernity is. The men who killed him and tried to kill his son would have all had cellphones in their pockets and colour television sets in their homes. Some may even have had access to computers and the Internet, and still all it took was a rumour for them to turn into savages. It is only savages who can turn so quickly into a killer mob. And in recent months a very ugly atmosphere has been created across the country by BJP chief ministers and Modi’s own ministers, and he has done nothing to stop them. Nor has he made the smallest effort to call a halt to the misguided ‘ghar wapasi’ (homecoming) campaign launched by his former comrades in the RSS. If the RSS is truly interested in serving India, and if they are true believers in the Sanatan Dharma, then they must concentrate their activities on more useful things like cleaning the Ganga and helping the Swachh Bharat campaign. Ghar wapasi is the antithesis of the idea of the Sanatan Dharma.
Meanwhile the Prime Minister must realise that the investors he woos on his travels in foreign lands halt in their tracks every time they see signs that beneath its new highways and shining malls, India remains a primitive country. Akhlaq was stoned to death in a village less than 50 kilometres away from Delhi and his young son, if he lives, could live with serious head injuries. Do we require more proof that we are going to need more than digital technology to make India into a country that truly belongs in the 21st century, instead of in some hideous, primordial time warp?