History came full circle this Monday. Three years after Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob on the suspicion of possessing beef, Subodh Kumar Singh, the police officer investigating that case died a violent death earlier this week. Like Akhlaq, Singh too was killed in a clash triggered by a mob protesting cow slaughter.
Though separated by time, the two narratives are located in the same state, Uttar Pradesh. They are also tied to the common and now normalised mob frenzy over the mere suspicion of cow slaughter or possessing and consuming beef. Moreover, these narratives are bound by the destructive agency rumours have come to possess. The power they have come to wield over our everyday lives.
There is, of course, an overriding question of the rule of law. Is India committed to preserving and implementing the rule of law? It may be argued that Uttar Pradesh, which has a chequered history in this aspect, has further slipped on this index since Yogi Adityanath’s ascendancy to power. But even prior to that, a culture of lynchings was rapidly gaining popular legitimacy.
On the night of September 28, 2015, a mob barged into Akhlaq’s home in Dadri and accused his family of consuming beef. The incensed crowd dragged the family outside, beat Akhlaq and his son Danish. By the time the police arrived at the scene, Akhlaq was dead, his son badly injured.
Three years on, this Monday, a police station in Bulandshahr became the site of yet another mob frenzy. Reports said people showed up in tractors carrying what they claimed were cow carcasses. Demanding immediate action, the mob started torching cars and attacking policemen. Station house officer Subodh Kumar, first injured, was later fatally attacked as he was being taken to a hospital.
As we await poll results in five states and move towards the general elections next year, there are few indications to reassure us that such violence will come to an end. There seems to be a singular lack of will on the part of the political class to squarely confront normalised violence. One of the primary reasons behind such apathy is the cynical logic of winning elections.
Unfortunately, electoral compulsions tend to sit uneasily with political ethics. That has always been the case. But seldom before has the crisis of confidence among marginalised and minority communities been so acute. Seldom before has the need to reassure these communities been so urgent. But if the rhetoric and content of the opposition’s recent poll campaign is anything to go by, nothing much will happen.
For instance, the main opposition – Congress, while campaigning in Rajasthan, has kept mum on the spate of lynchings and rising violence the state has witnessed recently. The party has, instead, chosen to frame a culture of violence as one of routine crime or violation of law and order.
Remember that this is the state where Pehlu Khan, Rakbar Khan, and Umar Khan were murdered by cow vigilantes last year. But the Congress does not even mention their names. As a report in the Indian Express said, during its campaign in Behror, where Pehlu Khan was killed, “with just two days left before campaigning ends, none of the frontrunners brings up the lynching directly. Of the nine candidates in Behror, eight are Yadavs and the community accounts for more than 70% of the 2.2 lakh electorate.”
Do political ethics have no place in elections? Some would argue ethical compromises are part of a strategy for achieving a larger goal – defeating the BJP, for instance. The Congress could justify tiptoeing around cow vigilantism and the many bouts of violence that have convulsed Rajasthan on these grounds. The party may argue that mentioning Pehlu Khan is tantamount to losing the support of the Yadavs and giving BJP a stick to beat the opposition with. That may well be true. But such strategic calculations – which don’t appear to be helping the party win elections anyway – do not dispense with the ethical question.
The opposition’s argument feeds into the very politics the Congress claims to fight. A primary plank of the Sangh parivar’s politics, channelled through many state-based gau raksha committees and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has been rooted in anti-cow slaughter activities. Since 2014, the activities of such organisations have spiralled and taken violent forms. Their campaign has grown shriller.
By skirting the issue, the Congress, even if it wins Rajasthan, would once again have failed to confront the culture promoted by the Sangh. It may even be argued the Congress, in that sense, is colluding – even if indirectly – in perpetuating violence; in not assuring minority communities safety. On the other hand, the party, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in a bid to appropriate the mantle of the “good Hindu,” is going all out visiting temples and performing pujas.
The narrative of violence left untouched, there is little hope of changing ground realities. The only thing that may change is the ruling party. Ordinary citizens, especially from targeted communities, will continue to live under a shadow of uncertainty and fear.
Changing the reality on the ground is undoubtedly not easy. But elections are just one form of democracy. Political parties, especially those who claim to be on the side of minorities, are yet to begin fighting the hard and long political fight. The fight which, if fought with conviction and consistency, may redeem our present state of affairs.
It is undeniable that this fight hinges on issues of social justice historically denied to all underprivileged and minority communities. Pledging to build more roads, bridges and improving connectivity does not address such issues. But no one on the political landscape seems to have the courage to make these, more difficult, promises.