A relative holds a photograph of Mohammad Akhlaq, who was beaten to death on September 28 in the village of Bisada, some 22 miles north-east of New Delhi, over rumors that he had eaten beef. 
Credit: STRDEL

BISHADA, India — Dadri, a district on the outskirts of New Delhi, isn’t used to getting this much attention. Yet ever since a man was lynched a fortnight ago in the district’s Bishada village, Dadri has made headlines worldwide. 

His offense, the reports say, was eating beef. The meat is strictly off-limits to India’s Hindus and the slaughter of cows is banned throughout the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Dadri lies. 

Going by what district residents here told GlobalPost, however, it may be more accurate to say that he was killed because he was Muslim. 

On September 28, an announcement was made at Bishada’s Hindu temple that 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq and his family had slaughtered a calf and eaten its meat. That night a mob of around 200 people descended on his house, dragged him and his 22-year-old son out onto the street, and beat them until Akhlaq died and his son was grievously injured. The next day Akhlaq’s wife and daughter insisted the meat was mutton, a statement that forensic tests appear to have confirmed.

The incident has polarized politicians and provoked a storm of criticism. A “Beefy Picnic” was announced outside the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in Delhi, where people were invited to eat beef in protest. Under the hashtags #BeefSelfie and #IEatBeef, Twitter users posted pictures of themselves with meat. In Kerala, college students held a “beef fest”, wearing placards which read: “Eating beef. Come and kill us.

Back in Bishada, residents are resentful of the coverage they have received. A police blockade is in place after reports of attacks on visiting journalists, including one that left a cameraman injured and car windows smashed. 

Among those who would answer GlobalPost’s questions, regret seemed scarce. Villagers dismissed the incident as “inevitable” or “blown out of proportion” — and the rumor mill was in overdrive. 

“This is just a crime of jealousy,” one Dadri resident claimed. “The Muslim man’s son got into the Air Force and the Hindu sons did not. The beef rumor was just an excuse.”

“We have state elections in 2017,” another said. “This is politically motivated.”

The police checkpoint in Dadri district.

Other residents told GlobalPost that Akhlaq had visited Pakistan and held meetings in mosques, or that the controversial carcass was roadkill — a dead donkey. Another complained about the state compensation his family had been given, claiming it was more than soldiers or Hindu families would receive after a death. 

People grimaced when speaking of the dead calf, real or rumored. Ahklaq’s death was described as “possibly excessive.”

Such apparent nonchalance is neither exceptional nor incidental. It brings to the fore a frightening question for secular India — was this murder about religious offense, or asserting the majority’s dominance over a minority?

A Hindu nation

Religious tensions in India are neither new nor uncommon. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu BJP came to power last May, however, there has been a spurt in acts of violence and hate speech by the Hindu majority.

“It is a question of cultural homogenization, the Hindu nation project where you are telling the minorities that they are secondary citizens. Now that is being executed at an everyday level,” says Aditya Nigam, a social and political theory professor at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, of the BJP’s agenda. 

These everyday assertions of dominance come in multiple forms — beef bans, allegations of a conspiracy to convert Hindus, politicians sympathizing with those who commit violence, physical fights among lawmakers over acts perceived as “not Hindu enough.”

As Nigam points out, religious hate-mongering will disqualify you if you are campaigning for political office in India, but once you are elected such statements count as protected free speech.

Hindutva — the belief that Indians should follow the Hindu way of life irrespective of their religion — has been growing since the 1990s, according to Tanweer Fazal, a sociologist at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This fringe movement has become mainstream in the last 18 months. A homogenous India might be its long-term goal, but in the short term, violent fundamentalism targets the only thing that matters: votes.

Violence for votes

“In the shorter term, [violence] is always related to elections,” says Nigam. “It is always related to the fact that they seek a Hindu consolidation and a Hindu versus Muslim division, so that they can hope to win the election.” 

In the face of communal violence, Muslims are made to feel vulnerable and side with the party that openly supports them. Hindus, often otherwise divided along caste lines, typically end up supporting the political group that stands for the rights of the majority. 

"All our social science literature on communal violence has suggested that it is always an organized effort, they are not spontaneous."

Fazal points out that the communal violence of recent years has most often occurred in constituencies where the BJP is in second place or a close third. A 2014 Yale study found that the party has consistently benefited in the polls after communal riots in the year prior to an election. 

The 2002 Gujarat riots, which made Modi — the state’s then chief minister — unwelcome in the US until his election as prime minister last year, is a case in point. Modi’s party was trailing at the time of the riots. Thirteen years later, it is still in power in Gujarat.

Convenient rumors

Research indicates that these factors — political currents, nationalism — are more likely to explain violence than “sudden provocations,” whatever hard-line right-wingers maintain

“All our social science literature on communal violence has suggested that it is always an organized effort, they are not spontaneous,” according to Fazal.

Across the country, organizations such the Bajrang Dal — Hindu Youth League — and “cow protection committees” keep a close watch for violations of Hindu values, which they militantly defend. They tend to be especially active in states with a high rate of communal violence. 

“With the coming of the BJP, all these forces do feel encouraged,” Fazal said. “There is a feeling that there is a conducive atmosphere, that they can keep society constantly at a level of low-intensity conflict.” 

In this context, the vaguest rumor can be an excuse to act. In the past three years, violence has broken out after claims that a Hindu girl was kidnapped by a Muslim, that a Koran was defaced, that Hindu idols were stolen, that a Muslim youth harassed a Hindu girl. After the unrest subsided, no proof was found to say that any of the rumors were true. The Ministry of Home Affairs found that in 2013, close to 250 such incidents took place in Uttar Pradesh alone.

Amid the recriminations over the Dadri case, Prime Minister Modi remained noticeably silent. 

Ten days after the incident, at a state election rally in Bihar, he called for Muslims and Hindus to fight poverty, not each other. Yet Akhlaq’s murder, protection for minorities or any definite action were not mentioned. Meanwhile, in the Kashmir state assembly, politicians from his party were physically attacking a Muslim legislator who served beef at a party.

“[Modi’s] silence is a politician’s silence, it is sinister and devious in nature,” argues Nigam. 

“He knows exactly what is going on, and I will go further and say it is happening with his encouragement. Which is why his silence is not simply an act of omission, it is an act of commission.”

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