On the day Narendra Modi returned from the United States, having wowed Silicon Valley with his openness to all things digital, a Muslim man was murdered in a village a mere 30 miles from the PM’s residence, his life pulped out of him by a Hindu mob that believed that he’d eaten beef for dinner.
The contrast between the modernity of the PM’s diplomacy and the unhinged primitiveness of the mob was so stark as to appear almost make-believe, like some sort of passion play staged to remind us that — for all our pretensions as a global power — we’re still a benighted land mired in the muck of bigotry. Drive 30 miles from 21st-century New Delhi and you’re in the midst of “junglies” from the Dark Age.
When historians sit in judgment of India 50 years from now, the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri will be seen as an event on a par with the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 as a national moral nadir. Personally, I’m inclined to see it as worse.
Here’s why. The Babri demolition was part of an ugly, slow-moving political upheaval in an India on the cusp of change. The event itself, with ‘kar sevaks’ crawling over the structure, clawing and gouging at bricks in a state of messianic ecstasy, was a form of political theatre, part of a contentious narrative of Indian history in which the guardians of historical fact and religious fervour fought each other to a standstill.
Remember: it was 1992. This was India before the Internet, an India impoverished, unglobalised, barely beginning to shake off its economic sloth, a still-stagnant India of frustrated aspirations and repressed ambition. Mark Zuckerberg, the latest god in the Indian pantheon, was only 8 years old.
The murder of Mohammad Akhlaq — whose son, it is reported, is a technician in the Indian Air Force — was the kind of demonic incident that mars a society forever. It was the reaching by a mob (and the ideology that drove that mob) into the private life of a citizen of India. It was an eruption into the innermost recesses of a citizen’s sanctity, and will breed the kind of viral fear and paranoia that you only get in totalitarian countries — or in primitive societies where rumours of blasphemy or odium settle on people arbitrarily, like a curse.
After all, in such a lynch-mob climate, no one knows if the original offence — however preposterous in the first place — even took place. Suddenly, you have a mood of fear and whispers; of rumours that poison all social relations; of rumours, in fact, that are broadcast by priests in temples, inciting mobs to take matters into their own hands. Inciting mobs to murder.
A news website carried a photograph of Akhlaq’s fridge, broken and on its side, the door detached from the frame. There had been meat in it — mutton, says his family; beef, said the temple priest; beef, bawled the mob. We now know that its origins weren’t bovine, because the police made it a priority to send the flesh for forensic testing, the message being that the bloodlust of the mob would have been explicable if the contents of the fridge had been beef.
This was not an ugly moral lapse by the police. It was proof of a mentality. If the meat had been beef, we’d have politicians rationalising the murder with talk of religious “offence”. After all, where there’s sentiment scorned, there must be blood. The blood of Mohammad Akhlaq.
The writer is the Virginia Hobs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.