Narendra Modi may fervently want cow vigilantism to end, but it's moot without BJP's transformation

At a meeting of all parties on the eve of the monsoon session of Parliament on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a speech in the course of which he visited a contentious theme that has already stalled the two-day-old session and will undoubtedly continue to do so intermittently: This is the issue of people being lynched because they are in the possession of beef, or are, often enough, merely suspected to be carrying the banned meat.

Modi was quite categorical in his comments, the gist of which was that though the cow is revered as a mother here, there are laws for its protection and taking the law into one’s own hands is not a solution. He also asked all state governments to ensure that strict steps are taken to prevent communal violence in the name of cow-protection and sought the cooperation of all parties to make this possible. So far, so good.

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

File image of Narendra Modi. PTI

The problem is that almost exactly a year ago, early August last year, Modi had made similar noises. He had said real cow protectors do not terrorize people and that the vigilantes were actually criminal elements operating under the cover of ‘cow protection’. He had similarly urged state governments to prepare dossiers on these people.

A year on, nothing has changed on the ground, and the prime minister has had to issue another statement and another appeal.

The problem is fairly simple. Modi may fervently want this vigilante thing to wind up. After all, in purely pragmatic terms, it is not, for example, particularly good for India’s global reputation — something the prime minister justifiably sets a great deal of store by — nor does it do good things for economic indicators that most rational governments would want to see in a warm glow of light. But, at this point of time what Modi wants, fervently or otherwise, is less than germane.

The bottle has been uncorked and the genie has been freed. And to mangle the old saying, you can take the cork out of the bottle, but it’s not so easy to put the genie back into the bottle. The important point in this context is that the cork did not just somehow pop out.

Many of the people who are leading the country today — in other words, a number of senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – were complicit in this uncorking. In a number of ways: some by actively encouraging the vigilantes; some by making irresponsible statements, not excluding union ministers; and some by remaining silent when they should have been vocal.

One might argue, of course, that the proximate cause triggering this spate of vigilantism with Muslims and Dalits as the primary targets was the rash of amendments to old laws in BJP-ruled states which “upgraded” cow-protection or anti-cow slaughter laws, introducing more stringent penal provisions not just for slaughter but for possession as well.

To many, this argument would sound right, though legally speaking the state governments in question had the jurisdiction and legal challenges were overcome. But when the first signs of the lynch wave appeared no attempt was made to contain it. It should be noted that some of the lynching incidents occurred in Uttar Pradesh when it was governed by the Samajwadi Party, while it must also be remembered that most of those involved in the brutalities either belonged to or were connected to the Sangh Parivar.

Given that the prime minister’s verbal intervention had no effect a year ago, there is no compelling reason to believe that it will this time. This effectively means that the state governments in northern and western India, from where most incidents of lynching and vigilantism seem to be reported, will have to get tough. And as we know, most states in these regions are governed by the BJP.

What does getting tough mean? Just arresting a few people after the crime has been committed won’t help, because in all likelihood they will be out on bail soon enough. And given the overload on the system, another set of fast-track courts is not feasible. And, anyway, there’s no evidence that ‘deterrence’ will work. What getting tough, thus, means that the union government and the BJP brass has to transmit the message to the state governments and the party’s state units that this kind of ‘political’ action has to stop. This message will then have to filter downwards.

But if this has to happen, the BJP brass will first have to undergo a transformation, casting aside its narrow, bigoted, exclusionary frame of reference and embracing a more liberal, inclusive way of thinking about ideas like nationhood and citizenship. In many ways, it will have to stop being the BJP. Pardon me for being just a mite pessimistic, but I’m not holding my breath.

The author, a former journalist and academic, is an independent researcher and commentator

Updated Date: Jul 20, 2017 06:21 AM

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