In April 2017, a mob lynched 55-year-old dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. A video of the crime went viral and fanned an emotional political debate. The killing of Mr. Khan is the sixth fatality since 2015 of a Muslim man subjected to such vigilante “justice.”
Cow vigilantism, as assaults against those dealing commercially with the animals are called, has become a grim reality in India – with potentially poisonous effects for communal harmony.
An escalating cultural war
The deadly attack against the Muslim Pehlu Khan symbolizes a low point in an escalating cultural war. The perpetrators belong to the extremist rim of the Hindu-Nationalist movement. According to media reports, they often operate with underhand tolerance of local authorities.
Allegations of impunity undermine the victims’ faith in the impartiality of the state and the rule of law: “A lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it,” writes Aatish Taseer in a scathing oped in The New York Times.
A matter of life and death
While not all vigilante attacks result in the killing of the victim, they are always a matter of life and death for the attacked.
The victims are usually members of the Muslim community — or they are Dalits, Indians who until recently used to be defamed as “untouchables.”
If you consider the cow a normal animal
Unlike India’s majority Hindu population, these people consider the cow a normal animal and beef a comparatively inexpensive source of proteins.
Muslims and Dalits play an important role in India’s booming meat industry. A little known fact: The country is the biggest exporter of beef in the world.
India’s main export markets for buffalo meat are the Middle East and South East Asia. Muslims and Dalits are an indispensable workforce in the country’s slaughter houses and the meat-processing industry.
Others earn a living transporting the animals from one part of the country to the other. Because some Indian states prohibit their slaughter, this forces the meat industry to move the cattle around.
Thus, some highways have become operating fields for cow vigilantes and truck drivers transporting the cattle are easy prey for the self- proclaimed guardians of virtue.
The lynching of Pehlu Khan stands as a stark symbol of polarization in India’s society.
India as a nation seems split between supporters of a secular order — for whom religion is secondary and what you eat (or drink) is a private matter – and those who are the followers of Hindu-Nationalism. For them, religion and cultural traditions are the be-all and end-all.
The political face of this popular movement is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With him as their figurehead, the party aims to secure political power for years to come.
Strong results at recent regional and local elections indicate that this plan has a solid political grounding.
The focus of the prime minister and his team is mainly political. However, the commitment for the cow is proof that culture and religion take center stage in the BJP’s long-term strategy.
Fanning intolerance for political gain
Critics of the BJP, whose commentaries reflect an open-minded intellectual minority in the English-language press, talk of the BJP’s stance as a dangerous form of “majoritarianism.”
Meat bans are just one, but arguably the most symbol-laden example of the illiberal outburst.
Dinner table contents as politics
In many societies, cultural and religious traditions determine what is put on the dinner table and what not. Arguably, in no other country eating habits are as politicized as in India today.
The killing of Pehlu Khan happened just a few days after a political earthquake rocked the country when Mr. Modi’s party scored a landslide victory in the Assembly elections of Uttar Pradesh and installed a radical Hindu priest to be the state’s chief minister.
The new chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, had gained national prominence with a series of anti-Muslim diatribes. For many liberally minded Indians and members of minorities, the Yogi’s elevation is a provocation.
Once in office, the new chief minister lost little time for his campaign against the meat industry. According to media reports, of 41 meat processing and export units in Uttar Pradesh, 17 have been shut after the new government came to power.
And 30,000 workers have lost their jobs. Officially, the clampdown targeted only illegal slaughterhouses, but at least the timing of the campaign and the rhetoric surrounding it underpin the ideological thrust.
Next stop: Gujarat, Modi’s home state
Uttar Pradesh is not alone in its campaign against the meat industry. In a lead commentary titled “Meat Under Attack,” The Times of India bemoans “worrying signs of a rise of food bigotry, cow vigilantism, harassment of legitimate meat businesses and competitive fundamentalism.”
Raman Singh, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, India’s tenth largest state, is on record as saying that “those who kill cows will be hanged” in his state.
In the state of Gujarat, where Mr. Modi was the Chief Minister from 2011 to 2014 and where Assembly elections are slated for later this year, the BJP government just amended its cow protection law to introduce life punishment for slaughtering cows.