With startlingly meaningless sentimentality, Narendra Modi told cow vigilantes who have gone around parts of the country terrorising Dalits and Muslims, that they should shoot him first, not the Dalits. This is a dialogue befitting a Bollywood film of yore, but it is so trite that even B-grade scriptwriters would cringe before writing it for the modern-day equivalent of a Nirupa Roy. And yet, Modi said just that to express his outrage over the criminal thuggery that masquerades as cow protection.
The statement falls miles short of what is expected of a leader. There is a constituency of voters whose support Modi has earned by presenting himself as a development-oriented economic reformer. These voters have no interest in the politics of cows and ghar-wapsi, or reconversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Modi’s advisers may have thought that his words would satisfy them, but his meek, mawkish statement is unlikely to reassure them, disillusioned as they are by the government’s faith-based priorities.
First, there is the vacuous nature of Modi’s remarks. His rhetoric is empty—neither does he expect anyone to attack him, nor do the vigilantes wish him harm. Modi is one of the most heavily-guarded leaders in the world, and he is the vigilantes’ hero. They owe their existence to the politics of the cow; they are emboldened because of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The message they will draw from Modi’s remarks is that they should not over-reach.
They see Modi as a hero because he has led the BJP to a parliamentary majority, which means the party is not beholden to others and does not need to compromise with coalition partners—a fate which has befallen and restrained every Indian prime minister since 1989, including in particular the BJP’s own Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Modi hasn’t shirked from making the cow an electoral issue. During the 2014 campaign, he criticized subsidies given to abattoirs (while he said no subsidies were given for cattle rearing), and lamented the so-called “pink revolution”, which has made India a world leader in meat exports. A BJP government whose leaders sing cows’ virtues spurs the vigilantes, who believe they can act with impunity.
The vigilantes are right in taking cues from the BJP leaders’ cow obsession. A week after the Una incident where Dalits were brutally attacked by self-appointed “cow protectors”, a BJP member of the legislative assembly from Hyderabad praised the vigilantes, saying that the Dalits needed to be taught a lesson. Now the Dalits have taught the nation a lesson, as carcasses pile up on Indian streets.
To be sure, other political parties have banned cow slaughter when they have been in power, and the BJP can justify its actions saying that it is only building on existing laws, aligning them with the spirit of Article 48 of the Constitution. That article outlines the directive principle of state policy, under which the state has a duty to stop the slaughter of cows and calves. But note where the duty lies—with the state—and note too that no individual has the right to enforce a ban on cow slaughter.
If Modi were serious about the attacks, he would have reacted promptly. But think of his timing: his statement comes nearly four weeks after the appalling incident in Una. For a prime minister who appears to spend a disproportionate amount of time on Twitter (where he follows an unusual cast of characters), and who never fails to wish foreign leaders on their birthdays, this delay is, to put it mildly and politely, inexplicable.
And yet, his delayed response is hardly surprising: he had taken more than two weeks before he expressed “sadness” over the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, who was murdered because vigilantes suspected he had eaten beef. Similarly, it had taken Modi a week to react to Rohith Vemula’s death in January this year. Grief expression seems to be one area where his government is remarkably inefficient.
There is then the cynical political calculation. Modi’s response to the Una incident is not because of newfound love for Dalits, but because the BJP cannot afford to send the wrong signals to the electorate in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls next year, and where Dalits represent a major political force. Besides, there is trouble in Gujarat: the Una incident comes on top of the Hardik Patel-led Patidar agitation, and threatens to make Gujarat ungovernable—what a fall from the claims of being the model state barely two years ago.
Far more important is what Modi has chosen not to say: that India is a nation governed by the rule of law; that the right to life is fundamental; that the state will use the law to the fullest extent and hunt down all those who are humiliating and terrorizing Dalits and Muslims; that he will ensure the prosecution of those arrested; and that he will not tolerate discrimination. That’s what a leader should have said.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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