INDIA: Did Modi just legitimise 20% of cow vigilante violence?

Avinash Pandey

Narendra Modi’s high-octane poll campaign in 2014 was littered with the promise of development, with a capital D. Buying into his promise, big business rooted for him, in India and abroad. And now, after a little more than 2 years of premiership, the developments under his watch have rattled the same gung-ho corporate lobbies. Apparently, these are not the “developments” Big Business was looking for. On the contrary, the consequences of these developments under Modi, appear to be harming their prospects like nothing else since the Indian economy opened up to foreign capital in the 1990s.

The growth he had promised is nowhere to be seen in economy. The only thing that has really grown under him is violence, be it large scale rioting that crippled Haryana and Gujarat for weeks, or its MSME version. This Micro, Small and Medium level violence, is being inflicted by self-appointed, and State supported, cow vigilantes, who are running amok and injuring everyone on their path, from farmers to people traditionally dependent on skinning dead cattle and dealing in hides.

The leather industry has been an obvious loser, with almost 10% decline in exports in 2015, as compared to 2014. Yet, it has not been the only one. For instance, cricket, the religion that unites Indians, has been an unlikely victim, with ball costs soaring in multiples. It was inevitable, as the best balls are made of cow skin sheets and they were nowhere to be found in Modi’s India. The industry, overall, was worried and it has shown in clarion calls.

Others were worried about violence too, albeit more over social than economic costs. The media was one of them, with the notable exception of most Indian electronic media, of course. The New York Times summed up the anger in its editorial that slammed Prime Minister Modi’s “shameful silence on cow vigilantes”. The “ever-so-conscious-of-his-image-abroad” PM was expected to take note, and this he did the day after, fittingly, at an event mimicking ‘Townhall’ addresses of President Obama.

The outburst against Gau Rakshaks (cow protectors) was stunning to say the least, more so from someone who had made his political career attending cow protection events and slamming an imaginary “pink revolution” based on cow slaughter. Yes, imaginary, as the statistics showed that even as Modi talked about large-scale cow slaughter, the population of cows in India grew by more than 6%. The outburst was even more spectacular in its repetitiveness; PM Modi slammed the cow vigilantes again in less than 24 hours, this time in a meeting with Bhartiya Janata Party members in Telangana.

Unfortunately, a closer listen to the outburst would have sent shivers down the spine of those who believe in democracy and rule of law and all that these terms entail. In the townhall meeting at Delhi, termed the MyGov anniversary meeting, Modi expressed deep anguish at cow vigilantes and termed 80% of them as rank anti socials. He accused them of wearing the garb of cow protectionism to hide their criminal activities.

He ventured a little further a day later, in the Telangana meeting, and pleaded for stopping the violence against his “Dalit Brethren” at once! Here is what he said exactly:

“I would like to tell these people that if you have any problem, if you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers. This game should stop”.

There is nothing wrong in the statement itself, i.e. unless one notices a spectacular omission. This is the omission of Muslims, the prime target of the violence by cow vigilantes till the focus shifted towards Dalits! Yes, he had not bothered to mention the need of stopping cow vigilante violence against Muslims, never mind expressing any anguish for them!

And it is not that he could be unaware of the facts. He had to break his silence on Dadri, where a mob had lynched a man over suspicion of beef consumption. The news of similar attacks in Pratapgarh, Rajasthan; the lynching and hanging of two Muslims, one a minor, in Latehar, Jharkhand; the killing of another in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh; and the recent attack on Muslim women in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, were all over media.

Why, then, did PM Modi single out his ‘Dalit Brethren’ while leaving out Muslims, equal citizens of India, completely? The only possible explanation for the bizarre omission could be an attempt to create a rift between Dalits and Muslims, tied together, both by the economics of leather and the attacks by vigilantes. Both the communities have come together strongly in the recent past to take on the cow vigilantes and their political handlers, and it must have rung alarm bells among PM’s right wing Hindutva party. Howsoever divisive his past may be, a PM playing this game is ominous for the Republic.

Sadly, the problem with his outburst doesn’t end at it being polarizing. It ratchets up several notches with his melodramatic, almost Bollywoodish call of “come and shoot me, but not my Dalit Brothers”. Was this some sort of admission that law enforcement agencies of India cannot take on these outlaw vigilante groups? Or it was a backhand message to them to read through what he omitted and not take his outburst seriously? It is not everyday that a PM of a country aspiring to be a superpower pleads to criminals to attack him and spare his brothers!

This also exposes the ultimate chink hidden in the armor of this supposedly anguished outburst. The fact is, it was not really an outburst; it was rather a 20 to 30 percent controlled and shrewd political statement. PM Modi did not stop at asking for identifying and cracking down on 70 to 80 percent criminals among the ranks of cow vigilantes. He also called for identifying the real ones and respecting and supporting them.

In plain words, this is nothing but legitimsing and institutionalizing vigilantism and this is dangerous for a democratic country that operates by the rule of law. Vigilantism is illegal in any form in a country that follows the rule of law. All the grievances in such a country are meant to be channeled by public institutions of justice and law enforcement, not by vigilantes. And this is so, even if they are, as the PM insinuated, true cow worshippers.

Looking at it whichever way, the outburst doesn’t augur well for our beloved country.

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About the Author: Mr. Avinash Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, AHRC. He can be contacted at