Killed for eating beef: Lessons for the world

On Sept 28 this year, in Bisara village near Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, India, a Muslim citizen, Mr Mohammed Akhlaq Saifi, was lynched on the basis of a false rumour that he had killed a cow and consumed its meat in his home. In Himachal Pradesh, two Muslim citizens were attacked and killed under the suspicion that they were trading in cattle.

The disproportionate attacks on Muslims accused of eating beef reflect the targeting of Muslims by the Hindu right in India, in spite of evidence that Christians, as well as a significant proportion of Hindus, also consume beef.

According to a 2012 United States Department of Agriculture Report, India ranks seventh in the world in domestic consumption, and first in exporting beef. Also worth noting is that beef is a primary source of protein for large numbers of India's poor.

A relative shows a photograph of slain Indian villager Mohammed Akhlaq Saifi at his home in the village of Bisara, after his death in September at the hands of a mob in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
A relative shows a photograph of slain Indian villager Mohammed Akhlaq Saifi at his home in the village of Bisara, after his death in September at the hands of a mob in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Since the murder of Mr Akhlaq, the subject of a beef ban has surfaced in public discourse across India, specifically targeting Muslim minorities.

The rise of the Hindu right in India since last year has been accompanied by increasing pressure on religious freedom of minority groups. Several caste-based massacres have taken place. These murders have been accompanied by the denial of justice to the victims, offering instead implicit protection to the religious right who kill or incite violence in the name of religion.

The violence on the margins of Indian society is accompanied by the quick spread of a chilling climate, with a number of prominent rationalists being attacked and/or murdered, allegedly by right-wing religious groups.

Earlier in the year, when the government foisted unqualified administrators with Hindu right-leanings on the acclaimed Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the students there went on strike. The strike, lasting an almost unprecedented four months, demonstrated the resolve of the students to maintain the integrity of their institution. It also emerged as a harbinger of cultural awakening and participation in everyday politics, seeking to fight back the monolithic agenda of the Hindu right to rewrite the Indian narrative.

ACTIVISTS SPEAK OUT

Even as the government initiated sustained attacks on whistleblowers such as Ms Teesta Setalvad and Mr Sanjiv Bhatt, cultural and literary activists spoke out in protest, finding spaces of solidarity to protest against the authoritarian impulse of the state.

The murder of rationalist thinkers and activists Professor M. M. Kalburgi, Dr Narendra Dabholkar and Shri Govind Pansare - who sought to promote a scientific temper by fighting superstition - speaks to the chilling climate.

Equally chilling is the silence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on these attacks on rational thought and the spirit of scientific inquiry.

The attacks are accompanied by large-scale efforts at rewriting Indian history and removing critical inquiry. Appeals to Vedic science and the ancient glory of India have overshadowed the pursuit of science.

Responding to this rapidly rising authoritarian climate and the marginalisation of diverse voices that make up the multicultural fabric of India, 36 leading writers including Nayantara Sahgal, Ashok Vajpeyi, Uday Prakash and K. Veerabhadrappa; 12 film-makers; and prominent scientists including three Padma Bhushan recipients - Dr Ashoke Sen, Dr P. M. Bhargava and Professor P. Balram - announced their decision to return their awards.

In each of their statements, these cultural and academic voices of India pointed to the rapidly growing climate of sectarianism and authoritarianism.

Over 50 prominent historians, including professors Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, K. N. Pannikar and Mridula Mukherjee, have spoken up against the wholesale rewriting of history and the atmosphere of silencing. In a joint statement, the historians noted: "What the regime seems to want is a kind of legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others, without any regard for chronology, sources or methods of enquiry that are the building blocks of the edifice of history."

The secularism that once defined the spirit of India and offered the mainspring for its national imagination is now under threat.

The digital and technological visions of the government initiative, "Make in India", ring hollow in a regressive climate that denies minority communities their right to practise their faith, and constrains critical debate.

Amid these silences, I am heartened by everyday Indians in their dignity, resilience and solidarity. When a Muslim family in Bisara village was targeted by a Hindu mob, the Hindu neighbours opened up their home, transporting the family of 70 to safety. When police in Delhi attacked Kerala House to impose the beef ban, politicians from Kerala stood in solidarity to protect their right to eat what they want to eat.

Growing up in the mofussil (rural) town of Kharagpur in West Bengal, I had the opportunity to experience the coming together of many faith traditions in Indian culture. I am a Hindu, a Hindu who loves my meat and my beef. I am one among the many Hindus who eat beef.

I love the spectacular diversity of India that has taught me to cherish many world views, to believe in the idea of syncretism - the possibilities of the coming together of many traditions and cultures.

I celebrate Deepavali with as much joy as I celebrate Eid and Christmas.

I love the poetry of the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Bangladeshi national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, and the Ghazals of Noor Jahan, Ghulam Ali and Farida Khanum, as much as I cherish the poetry and songs of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The World Economic Forum recently recognised Prime Minister Modi as the 10th most admired personality globally.

However, any indicator of popularity cannot be devoid of an objective assessment of a leader on their governance in ensuring protected spaces for religious minorities and in promoting diversity of cultural and religious expressions. No vision of progress is possible without an openness to debate, critical inquiry and conversations based on evidence.

India offers many valuable lessons to a global audience on the possibilities of confluences and synthesis.

To keep alive these multicoloured visions of India, Indians in India and diaspora communities must stay ever vigilant and speak up, because speaking up is the only thing to do to safeguard the polymorphic vision of India as a land of contradictions, differences and multiplicities.

• The writer, an American citizen, is Provost's Chair professor of communications and new media, and director of the Centre for Culture-Centred Approach to Research and Evaluation, at the National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'Killed for eating beef: Lessons for the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe