Protecting Cows and Persecuting People
So far in 2019, six people have been killed in incidents linked to a backlash against cow slaughter in India. One recent incident occurred on September 23 in the Indian state of Jharkhand. Suspected of selling beef, Kalantus Barla was beaten to death by a mob of vigilantes. While there have still been no arrests or convictions in the case, the alleged culprits were members of Bajrang Dal, a Hindu militant organization that espouses Hindutva, the philosophy that India ought to be a Hindu homeland, governed according to the principles of that religion.
Jharkhand, like many other states, has strict laws prohibiting the slaughter of cows or calves, and only allows the slaughter of bulls or bullocks in very specific situations. Like in some other states, the slaughter of cows is a cognizable offense in Jharkhand, meaning that the police can make an arrest without a warrant. The punishment for cow slaughter can include fines or jail time, but it is not regarded as a capital crime and Indian law certainly does not condone lynching. Even so, between May 2015 and December 2018, 44 people were killed in retaliatory attacks for the slaughter of cows, often through mob violence. The majority of these victims have been either Muslims, for whom the consumption or slaughter of bovines does not violate religious law, or Dalits — one of the “lowest” groups of the caste system who are known for trading in cattle and consuming beef.
The BJP’s Bovine Agenda
Hinduism, like other Dharmic faiths, highly values the lives of animals. But Divya Cherian, a historian at Princeton University studying early modern South Asia, noted in an interview with the HPR that “in the pre-colonial period, there really are no precedents for the singling out of the cow” for legal protection. Cow slaughter was seen as problematic among Hindus, but “it would remain a problem at the level of the caste group.” Until the rise of Hindu nationalist movements in the late 19th century, movements to protect cows and punish cow slaughter on a subcontinent-wide scale were few and far between.
Even during the colonial period and in the period immediately following independence, cow protection movements were not exceedingly popular. A lecturer and researcher of the history of modern South Asia at the University of London, Shabnum Tejani, explained to the HPR that cow protection movements have tended to emerge as byproducts of surges in Hindu nationalism. She added that these moments are generally accompanied by spikes in communal violence. Tejani described one such moment in the 1960s, when cow-protective legislation was instituted across the subcontinent. But the next few decades, she said, marked a period without “any real [new] cow protection movements, any violence, any legislation.” This period lasted until the recent national rise of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. After Modi’s election, Tejani described a “sudden and manyfold increase” in violence relating to cow protection.
In 2014 — and again in 2019 — the BJP won the Indian general election and formed a government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP platform was extensive, but its social policies, in particular, featured elements of Hindutva. The enumeration of the principles of Hindutva in their present form are often credited to Vinayak Savarkar, an Indian independence activist who criticized the Indian National Congress’s perceived appeasement of Muslims. Tejani said that in the 20th century, Savarkar had “looked to European fascism and incorporated it within his ideas.” But Radhika Govindrajan, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, traces the development of ideologies “targeted at the production of a nation that is Hindu in its essence” to before Savarkar. Regardless of the source from which Hindutva derives its theoretical underpinnings, the consensus is that it is a distinctly majoritarian ideology rooted in the equation of being Hindu with being Indian, something that inherently excludes those of other faiths. While the BJP itself rejects the notion that it has any ideological interest in the exclusion of members of other faith communities, it has backed policies seen as being deferential towards India’s Hindu majority.
In the past, Hindutva has manifested in the BJP’s support for the demolition of certain mosques built on Hindu holy sites or the end of India’s “personal law” system, which applies a different set of civil laws to members of different faith backgrounds. The personal law system is often seen as necessary to protect the identities of India’s various religious minorities, especially its significant Muslim minority. In past elections, the BJP has notably taken a stance supporting more strict enforcement of cow protection laws, going so far as to establish a national commission for cow protection in February 2019.
BJP leaders have also been dismissive of the violence caused by lynching mobs. The BJP Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh trivialized a riot that occurred when two cow carcasses were found in the city of Bulandshahr. The resultant death of a police officer was framed as accidental and used as an opportunity to warn of the illegal nature of cow slaughter. The police department of the city stated that its primary purpose was to catch the people who slaughtered the cows, not the people responsible for killing the police officer. Modi himself has been slow to condemn the violence across India; when he has, he has focused largely on violence against Hindu Dalits, failing to acknowledge the Muslims who have also suffered. He qualified his condemnation of lynch mobs by reaffirming his support for the cow protection policies that have become increasingly emblematic of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda.
Increased Sectarian Tensions
It is somewhat difficult to connect this increased focus on the enforcement of cow protection laws and the mob violence that has escalated in recent years. In theory, cow protection laws should restrict cow protection to the domain of law enforcement. However, the rise in communal violence has clearly accompanied the rise of the BJP — 90 percent of the incidents targeting religious minorities between January 2009 and October 2018 occurred after the BJP’s rise to power in May 2014.
Increased support for cow protection legislation and other key parts of the BJP’s Hindutva-oriented legislative plan have also been accompanied by a marked increase in hate speech. Following an analysis of 1,300 articles and 1,000 tweets, A New Delhi TV study concluded that hate speech had increased among Indian politicians by 500 percent between 2014 — when the BJP first gained control of the national government and many state governments — and 2018, with most of the perpetrators being members of the BJP. Perhaps the increase in communal tensions is a cause of the BJP’s popularity and not a consequence, but the cow protection laws have steadily fomented communal violence.
And why has the BJP chosen cow protection measures as a policy objective? Tejani argued that cow protection laws and movements channel a “long-standing hurt.” They serve to connect contemporary Indian Hindus to a “deep sense of loss and anger” by using “language that carries this emotion across time.” Saying, for instance, that “the cow is our mother,” Indian legal and political authorities dismiss concerns around violence relating to cow protection. This language echoes the pain Hindus experienced during periods of both Muslim and colonial rule over the Indian subcontinent; now that Hindus have social, political, and legal power in India, it further emboldens them to retaliate. Of course, most of India’s over 800 million Hindus do not engage in this violence. The connection to feelings of historical pain, however, helps “polite society to … look away from” and dismiss incidents of cow violence.
The cow protection movement, it should be noted, is more than just mob violence. It certainly includes the violent lynchings of those who trade in cattle, but there is also a broader movement that is attempting to create a more general rallying point for Hindus around cow protection. Govindrajan cautioned that a “focus on lynching takes us away from some of this groundwork that’s happening, that’s drawing in a much wider range of people.” This “groundwork” takes the form of a growing grassroots movement that is engaging Hindus in a variety of ways around the idea of the sanctity of a cow’s life. Govindrajan pointed to groups devoted to tending to cattle, which have attracted more women to a movement that was typically perceived as “very masculine.” Focusing exclusively on mob violence obscures the greater political mobilization of Hindus that the cow protection movement represents. Sectarian tensions need not always manifest themselves through violence, and it is certainly possible that these less explosive movements represent a slowly building, but equally important, source of tensions.
Devolution of Justice
The mob violence that has characterized this movement also indicates another pattern in Indian justice: the power of the mob. Mob violence has become a solution for issues beyond cow protection. The spread of WhatsApp and social media in India has allowed for the propagation of “fake news” stories, a phenomenon that has amplified and informed patterns of mob violence. 2018 saw a spate of viral WhatsApp news stories about child kidnappings. These stories called on Indians to be vigilant, and the result was a series of incidents in which mobs lynched or attacked those suspected of kidnapping children.
In these cases as well as in the cow protection incidents, the police have been fairly lax in their approach to investigating and punishing. communities are often unwilling to collaborate with the police as they perceive the vigilantes to be justified in their actions. This devolution in perceived judicial authority from the justice system to the vigilante population is a concerning trend for the people most affected by vigilante justice, who tend to be members of minority religions or castes.
In the case of cow protection-related violence, Tejani pointed to the slow pace and corruption associated with the Indian justice system as a partial explanation for this trend. Minorities being persecuted have little reason to believe that institutions dominated by those sympathetic to the cause of cow protection will act with their interests in mind. Majority populations have taken the government’s silence and inaction as a signal empowering them to take justice into their own hands. And with Modi’s recent reelection affirming Hindutva and everything it represents, these patterns of mob violence and official inaction show no signs of abating.
Courtesy : HPR