L ET me say at the outset that two factors about this book deserve credit: first, the author who chose a theme such as this to write about and second, the publisher who published this book at a time when every word, spoken or written, is weighed on the scale of political correctness.
In this book, Ziya Us Salam has documented the spate of gruesome cow/beef-related lynching cases, both chronologically and by location. He has also placed in context the importance of the cow in the religio-cultural life of society in north India.
Ziya Us Salam argues that in ancient India, the cow did not have the significance that it came to acquire in later times, particularly in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. The cow became a rallying point for the Kuka movement, especially in Punjab. Around the same time, the Arya Samaj movement also focussed on the cow to create an assertive Hindu cultural identity.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, nineteenth-century Islamic reformist who was sensitive to the emerging climate of discord among the two religious communities, especially on the question of the cow, wrote two essays, in 1887 and 1898, in “Tahzeebul Akhaq”, the journal that he edited. In both essays, the central point was to dissuade Muslims from sacrificing cows on the occasion of Bakr-i-Eid, suggesting that such a sacrifice was not essential to the Islamic faith. On the other hand, giving up the practice of cow sacrifice was sure to bring about good neighbourly relations among Hindus and Muslims.
The cow remained a vital component of Hindutva mobilisation from the 1920s to the 1940s. In independent India, pressure began to mount, especially on Congress regimes in the States, to bring about legislation to prevent cow slaughter, and this was carried out with great public commitment. And it seemed that the cow factor was a settled matter.
But that was not to be. Many may not remember that Narendra Modi, during his electoral campaign in 2014, castigated the flourishing Pink Revolution (the technological revolution in the meat and poultry processing sector) and called for it to be curbed. It was clearly implied that the meat industry was purposely allowed to grow in order to benefit a particular community. It is not surprising at all that soon after Modi assumed power, the beef- and cow-related attacks began.
In 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq from Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, became the first victim of a new cult of violence approved by the ruling dispensation which also ensured inaction on the part of state agencies, including the police. The accusation against Akhlaq was that he had consumed beef. He was attacked by neighbours inside his home, and the attackers were later accorded respectability by the Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma and subsequently the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in a public meeting.
Thereafter, a distinct pattern emerged in the harassing and, in several cases, lynching of cattle traders in the name of cow vigilantism. The Akhlaq case was followed by the lynching of Pehlu Khan in Alwar, Rajasthan, in 2017, Rakbar Khan in Alwar in 2018, and many others.
Cattle traders were targeted, the police were found to be lackadaisical in handling these cases and even if the cases reached the court of law, the police investigation remained tardy and in some cases, turned hostile to the victims.
The court depended on the build-up of the cases by the police, which often fell apart owing to shoddy investigation. There were occasions where victims were meted hostile treatment by the police. The only exception was the case of Alimuddin in Jharkhand, where the perpetrators of the crime were punished by a court of law. The maximum instances of lynching happened in the three Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States of Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, although there were similar incidents elsewhere too.
The author has also discussed cases unrelated to cow and cattle trade. The lynching of the software engineer Mohsin Shaikh in Pune in June 2014 is a case in point. He was killed because of his religious identity. So was the case of Junaid, a teenage boy who was stabbed to death on a local train between Delhi and Mathura in June 2017. The lynching of many Dalits, too, has been recorded for chronicling and analysis, the most famous being the public flogging of Dalits in Una, Gujarat in July 2016.
Three distinctive features emerge from these cases. First, the frequency of lynchings as expressions of hate crime has increased phenomenally post-2014. Second, the complicity of state agencies, especially the police, is glaring, where the victim, instead of receiving immediate help, has either not been helped or is counter-framed with charges. Third, and most disturbing, is the increasing capacity of civil society to accept these incidents as the new normal.
Lynching itself is not a new phenomenon. In rural areas in India, women have long been declared dayen (witches) and lynched for practising “black magic”. Many members of the Scheduled Castes have been killed in a similar fashion for making attempts to enter temples. Twenty years ago, the Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines, who worked among leprosy patients, was burnt alive along with his children in a car in Odisha.
Any government of the day, in other times, would have woken up to control and contain these incidents and bring about course correction. In the present circumstances, citizens’ expectations are at rock bottom, but there is hope that civil society will wake up to the realisation that the normalisation of these ghastly acts will only further bruise the soul of India.
This book is a must-read for anyone who is concerned about India’s plural past as well as its future, where communities need to not merely coexist but celebrate their diversity.