Politics

The BJP, Beef and the Battle of Kerala House

The forces of intolerance can be successfully fought on a broad secular-democratic platform. Of course, the fight is going to be tough but the way forward is resistance not retreat

Kerala MPs protesting the police action at Kerala House, New Delhi: Credit PTI

Kerala MPs stage protest outside Kerala House over the beef controversy in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI Photo by Atul Yadav

It was in 1968 that the celebrated author Kamala Das wrote a short story titled ‘The Holy Cow’.

In that story, a hungry orphan boy managed to pick up a banana lying in a waste bin after shooing away a cow that had set its sights on the abandoned fruit. Soon, some sants appeared on the scene and angrily scolded him for ill-treating gau mata. The boy innocently asked whether they were the owners of that cow. The sants lost control, killed him and threw his body into the same waste bin.

This story accurately reflects the unfortunate reality prevailing in the 21st century ‘Digital India’ that Narendra Modi is trying to build. In a matter of a few weeks, at least three people – all belonging to the minority community – were brutally murdered on charges of either eating beef or trafficking in cattle. The sangh parivar, in pursuance of its aggressive communal agenda, is spreading the communal virus of ‘mad cow decease’ throughout the country. The latest in this series of hysterical incidents is a raid conducted by Delhi Police on the Kerala House canteen in New Delhi.

The new experiment of poisoning our society with the issue of beef, after the bogey of the ‘Love Jihad’ campaign was exposed, is unleashing a climate of fear and intolerance in the national capital right under the nose of a Prime Minister who is busy with sloganeering and propaganda. On the one hand, he is talking about ‘Make in India’ and on the other he is presiding over a regime which is actively engaged in breaking the very idea of India.

What happened in Delhi was shocking, shameful and unjustifiable. A 30-member police team entered the canteen of Kerala House to search for beef in utter disregard of all rules and regulations. The Delhi Police, controlled by the Union government, acted on a complaint by some Sangh Parivar elements which subsequently was found to be baseless,. The raid was illegal not only because the police did not even inform the Resident Commissioner, who is the senior-most officer in charge, but because as per the law itself the police has no authority to conduct a raid even if there is a complaint of an establishment serving cow meat.

As Justice Markandey Katju has rightly pointed out, the relevant statute stipulates that only a Veterinary Officer can enter and inspect any premises to seize cow meat. Despite this clear provision in the law, the police acted hastily on a fake and motivated compliant. Had they shown such keenness in dealing with crimes against women, the capital would not have the reputation of becoming one of the most unsafe places in India for women.

Serious issues

The Kerala House incident raises many serious issues including that of the state deciding what people can eat, the violation of federal principles, the forceful imposition of cultural homogeneity on a plural society, the assault on personal freedom and choice and an onslaught on democratic rights in general. The food culture and habits of the people of Kerala including Hindus is at sharp variance with that of the people of north India. Beef is an important item in the non-vegetarian menu of Keralites. Even a major section of Hindus – including those belonging to the so-called upper castes – eats beef in the state. For people belonging to the lower strata of the society, both socially and economically, beef is an affordable source of protein where fish, chicken and goat meat are comparatively costly.

As the reality of Kerala is completely different from that of the north India, even the local unit of the BJP has been half-hearted in calling for a beef ban in the state. Since beef is an important part of the cuisine of the Hindus in Kerala, the BJP was not sure about its polarising potential.

The ‘beef festivals’ organised by youth and other organisations to protest the beef ban in Maharashtra has received unprecedented support across Kerala. Sensing the popular mood and fearing a backlash, the BJP state leadership was forced to convene a press conference to clarify that the party will not interfere in the food habits and choices of people. They even went to the extent of saying that even if somebody wants to eat beef or pork, they would not object. They took such a stand not because of their regard for personal liberties and democratic rights but out of compulsion.

At a time when hardliners like BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj were demanding the death sentence for beef eaters and Hindutva fanatics were actually carrying out such sentences, the newly announced chief ministerial candidate of the, Vellappally Natesan, revealed that cow meat is his favourite dish. Along with this, pictures of some top BJP state leaders openly eating beef in restaurants have gone viral on social media. Some of these leaders became comic figures when they later claimed they were only eating ‘onion curry’ and not beef.

BJP’s strategy

These developments underline the difficulty the BJP is experiencing in deploying its traditional methods of polarising society for electoral gain. The beef issue has been raised nationally and may generate dividends elsewhere but the party knows it needs to tread carefully in Kerala. It has not entirely given up on beef as it is desperately in search of a political weapon for the upcoming local body elections in the state. At the same time, the BJP and the sangh are shrewd enough to avoid any direct involvement in the issue for fear of a backlash. That is why fringe elements were entrusted with the task in connivance with the Delhi Police to create a false impression of legitimacy for their divisive cause.

The BJP’s strategy in Kerala was to conveniently distance itself from the controversy by pretending that in Delhi – where there is a ban on cow slaughter – the law was only taking its own course, while at the same time reaping whatever political gains this can generate at this peak hour of campaigning in Kerala’s local elections.

Though the BJP claimed it played no role in the controversy, its spokespersons and leaders were in the forefront in justifying the police action. The BJP and other sangh elements have been busy taking on any body that opposed the police raid. The BJP Kerala unit chief even stated that if beef is served in the canteen of Kerala House not only would a police raid be justified but that there would be other adverse consequences as well. However, the party’s game plan flopped and misplaced and now they stand thoroughly exposed.

In this entire episode, the Delhi police proved that apart from the slight difference in the uniform of the force, their mindset is not very different from that of the RSS swayamsevaks. This is a most dangerous trend, especially given increasing apprehensions of communal infiltration into the state machinery and the dubious history of the police acting with communal prejudice on many occasions in north Indian states, Gujarat etc. The fact that the distinction between the moral police of the sangh parivar and the police of the state is increasingly getting blurred is certainly a matter of grave concern.

The Kerala House incident has evoked unprecedented protest across the political spectrum, though initially this was mainly led by the Left. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, his party and the entire media – both national and international – extended solidarity to the resistance against this blatant abuse of democratic rights. Though the Kerala government led by the Congress initially downplayed the police action – as seen in the mild response of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy – the national outrage compelled the party to subsequently change its position. Now while I am writing these lines, the news has come that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has expressed regret for the police raid. He has also said that the ministry has issued strict directions to the Delhi Police that they should avoid such mistakes in the future. The spontaneous and spirited protest has for the first time forced the Union government to accept its fault on the issue of beef. The lesson is that the forces of intolerance can be successfully fought on a broad secular-democratic platform. Of course, the fight is going to be tough but the way forward is resistance not retreat.

M.B. Rajesh is a Member of Parliament from Palakkad, Kerala. He is with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

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