October 05, 2015

India: BJP Lynch Bites (The Wire)


BJP Lynch Bites: Akhlaq and Family are ‘Cow Killers’, Muslims are Being ‘Appeased’

Dadri: In the first sign that the BJP is abandoning its careful equivocation over the recent lynching of a Muslim man in a village near Delhi, a key party leader has described the victim and his family as “cow killers”. Levelling the incendiary charge during a visit to Bisara – the village where the murder took place on September 28 – BJP MLA Sangeet Som accused the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh of “appeasing” Muslims by framing innocent Hindus for the crime.
Som, who was accused of making inflammatory speeches during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots, visited the families of those arrested for the lynching on Sunday.
The Muslim man, Akhlaq, was killed by a mob enraged by a rumour that a calf had been killed in the village, and the MLA insisted the victim and his family had indeed been involved.
The UP government “has taken those who have slaughtered a cow in a plane”, he said – in a direct reference to Akhlaq’s surviving family members who traveled to Lucknow to meet Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Som was speaking to reporters at Bisara village.
The MLA’s remarks came even as BJP leader and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the incident should not be given communal colour or politicised.
Som questioned why the state government had allowed AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi to visit the village and spread “communal frenzy”.
“A person like Owaisi was allowed to come here from Hyderabad. Is the Samajwadi Party government colluding with him? A person from Hyderabad comes and is able to make such statements. Is it not the weakness of the government? … This is UP, we know how to send him packing.”
“This government is trying to appease a particular community. They want to do politics of appeasement which we will not allow,” said the MLA who also reportedly addressed a meeting at the local temple from where an announcement had triggered mob fury on Monday night.
Questioning the arrests in the lynching case, he said, “We don’t want that those guilty of murder should not be tried but the government should stop framing the innocent. Murder cases are on the rise in the state but is the government acting in the same manner in those cases. Are terrorists living here? Police should make arrests only after completing the investigation,” the MLA said. He accused the media of ignoring the fact that a Hindu man had been shot by the police during the lynching incident and demanded that he too be compensated by the government if not as handsomely as Akhlaq’s family had but “at least with five to seven lakh rupees.”
Aqlakh, 50, was dragged out of his home and stoned to death on a village street after a public announcement from the local temple that the family had slaughtered a calf and eaten its meat.
While Aqlakh died, his 22-year-old son Danish is battling for life at a hospital following two brain surgeries.
‘Talk of Beef make Hindu souls shake’
Meanwhile, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma – who represents the area in Parliament – has reiterated his controversial description of the lynching as an accident. “You can use whatever expression you like — incident, accident, durghatana, haadsa — but it was not premeditated,” he told the Indian Express in Varanasi on October 4.
Among the other statements he made to the newspaper were:
  • “You must have seen that whenever there is any buzz about cow slaughter, media, people all rush (to the spot). All those who love the cow rush (to the spot). It (the murder) took place as a reaction to that incident (cow slaughter). You must also consider that there was also a 17-year-old daughter in that home. Kisi ne usey ungli nahin lagaayi (nobody did anything to her).”
  • “Whenever a person faces an attack by lathis, he thrusts his hands forward, and five-seven of his fingers are inevitably broken. I have 30 years’ experience as a doctor. He received at least 10-15 fractures in his body and fingers. Danish is admitted in my hospital. He does not have a single fracture in his entire body except a head injury that was caused when he was hit by a lathi. Maar diya hoga kisi shaitaan ne (Some devil must have hit hm) But it means that the intention was not to lynch.”
  • “Momentarily hai (It was momentary). Gaay ke maans par hum logon ka… andar se aatma hilne lagti hai (On beef… our soul starts shaking). You can kill other animals, mutton, and people don’t (react)… (but) when you name cow… We have linked the cow with our mother.”
  • “What happened there (in Bisara village) is that a calf had gone missing. There has been a spurt in the cases of cattle theft. Log raat ke time pashuon ko utha lete hain, wahin kaat daalte hain (People pick up cows at night and slaughter them on the spot). They know such an art. They tie the four legs (of the animal) in a special knot, use some instrument, kill it. Within minutes, they skin it, pack its meat in a vehicle, and escape. Within five-seven minutes, they skin an entire adult cow. A gang of just 3-4 persons can do it. They take out everything (from inside the animal’s body), leaving just the skin and bones behind.”
  • “These (the slaughter of cows) are frequent incidents. Often trucks are seized and cows are recovered. It then causes a ruckus. A few hundred people gather, shout slogans. Someone sets the truck on fire in reaction.”
  • “In the same way, someone said that it was beef (in Bisara). It also appeared like beef. Then they announced from the temple that ‘beef was recovered’. ‘Where was it found?’ ‘It was found in his (Akhlaq’s) home’. Perhaps there was a trail of blood coming out of that home. People then reached his home. They got furious, a mob gathered, broke the door. That’s how it happened.”
Police have arrested eight persons and detained a Home Guard for questioning after the local temple priest alleged that he forced him to make the announcement. One of the persons arrested, Vishal Rana, is the son of a local BJP leader, Sanjay Rana.
(With inputs from PTI)

October 04, 2015

India: Ayodhya sadhus condemn Dadri lynching / police intelligence report says lynching planned to stoke unrest

The Times of India

Ayodhya sadhus condemn Dadri lynching

Arshad Afzal Khan,TNN | Oct 4, 2015, 01.33 AM IST

Dadri lynching was a 'hadasa', reiterates Mahesh SharmaUP orders magisterial inquiry into Dadri lynchingFarhan Akhtar expresses outrage over Dadri lynchingDadri lynching: Arvind Kejriwal stopped from entering Bisada villageDadri lynching a pre-planned murder: Asaduddin Owaisi

AYODHYA: Sadhus in Ayodhya have forcefully condemned the brutal lynching of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq by a strong mob that gathered in Bisada village reportedly after a loudspeaker announcement in Bada Mandir on Monday that said that Akhlaq and his family were storing and eating beef in their house.

Acharya Satyendra Das, the chief priest of Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir, said "It is a crime against humanity and it is very sad. Such an incident should not happen anywhere in the country. Perpetrators of the crime must be punished."

Mahant Bhav Nath Das, a prominent Sadhu of Ayodhya and chief priest at the Hanuman Garhi temple, said, "We the Sadhu-Sants of Ayodhya stand in support of the Muslim community of the country. We want to ensure the Muslim brothers not to be scared of a handful of fascist forces. It is time now for the complete elimination of such communal forces."

Mahant Bindu Gadyacharya, the chief priest of Bara Sthan Mandir at Ayodhya, "When we heard about it, we arranged a special prayer in our temple for the deceased Mohammad Akhlaq. Those who have committed this barbarous act have not only defamed the tolerant and liberal Hindu religion, but also brought a bad name for the country in the rest of the world."

Raghunandan Das, a young Sadhu associated with Saryu Kunj Mandir, giving a strong reaction. He said, "It is not only a killing of a person, but a total collapse of the social values taught to us over time. Who can we blame for this? Is the government responsible, or the society, that is the question?"

Mahant Yugal Kishore Sharan Sahstri said, "To show solidarity towards the minority community, we will take out a 'Yatra' from Ayodhya to Dadri and also to give a message to communal forces that we are united and against all such violent acts."

o o o

The Times of India

Lynching planned to stoke unrest: Intel

Purusharth Aradhak,TNN | Oct 5, 2015, 01.04 AM IST

GREATER NOIDA: A police intelligence report accessed by TOI suggests Bisada could have blown up in a bigger way than Muzaffarnagar as it is surrounded by Rajput villages, known as the Satha Chaurasi. Indicating a planned move to fan communal flames, the report also talks of plan to demolish a mosque in a nearby village.

The report also says prompt action by the administration, and intervention of villagers after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq on September 28, had helped prevent the violence from spreading to nearby villages.

Bisada is in the middle of Satha Chaurasi. Adjacent to these Rajput villages are Dasna and Masuri, which has a large minority population. The report says efforts were made to fan communal flames after the murder of Akhlaq, with some "cow slaughter protesters" agitating near NTPC, Dadri the day after.

The report also mentions the presence of some "elements" in the that are misguiding local people in the name of religion. It cites protests that broke out against cow slaughter after Akhlaq's killing to illustrate its point.

Satha Chaurasi is a part of the Ghaziabad Lok Sabha constituency. The region includes parts of Ghaziabad, Hapur, Gautam Budh Nagar, Bulandshahr, Baghpat, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. There are 60 villages where members of the Sisodia Rajput clan dominate and 84 villages where the Tomar Rajputs dominate. Bisada is a Rajput-dominated village.

The report says the lynching was reported to the police at 10.40 pm on Monday. Acting on the information, Jarcha police post in-charge Ranveer Singh and his team reached the scene at 10.50 pm. The mob was could have attacked the police had villagers not intervened, a police officer said.

By 11.10 pm, deputy superintendent of police Anurag Singh and superintendent of police Sanjay Singh arrived. Gautam Budh Nagar police chief Kiran S was also informed.

Kiran S reached Bisada around 1 am. The DM reached by 2.30 am. Both the DM and SSP held talks with villagers to ensure peace in the area village while another team led by Anurag Singh went after the suspects, the report says.

India: Violence in Dadri did not happen by chance


‘You can feel it in the air’: Violence in Dadri did not happen by chance

  • Chanakya, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 04, 2015 12:39 IST
The genesis of any violence can be traced to preceding events, and Bisada is no different. For two months, there have been smaller skirmishes over issues related to cow slaughter. (Hindustan Times)

For those who stay in Delhi, Dadri is the quintessential ‘town next door’ that nobody keeps track of until, of course, something untoward happens. The last time I remember Dadri, a tehsil in Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Budh Nagar district, making it to the front pages of newspapers was when the NTPC power plant located there went on the blink in 2012.
Last week, Dadri returned to the front pages after a 55-year-old man, Mohammad Ikhlaq, was beaten to death and his 22-year-old son injured at Bisada village, one of the 116 villages in the tehsil, by a 100-strong mob after rumours spread that the family was storing and consuming beef.
Now there has been a blanket ban on cow slaughter in UP for the past 60 years but, and this is the important part, there is no restriction on the consumption of beef or beef products. The meat has now been sent to a laboratory for testing — as if that were very relevant — but tension in the area is escalating.
“You can feel it in the air,” one of my colleagues told me after a visit to Bisada. “The rupture between the two communities is deep and could be difficult to heal.”

Fearing more violence Muslim families have sent their women and children to relatives in other villages. There was a drop in the number those who attended the Friday prayers and, tellingly, the azaan was not on the loudspeaker. So there is every reason to believe that Muslims are feeling cornered after the violence. This is not surprising since the demography of the place is hopelessly against them.
The area falls in the Satha-Chaurasi (60-84) region, a stronghold of Jats and Rajputs. There are 60 villages where members of the Sisodia Rajput clan dominate and 84 villages where the Tomar Rajputs call the shots. Of the nine accused in the riots, eight have been arrested.
The thing about places like Bisada — agrarian and located on the fringes of economic hubs like Noida and Delhi — is that they are always at risk of such flare-ups because of their demographic mix, politics and a struggling local economy that ensures a steady stream of unemployed young men who are prone to instigating and participating in such violence. In Bisada too, those arrested were either unemployed or into some kind of small-time job.
Opposition criticises Modi's silence: Do you think the PM should make a statement on the Dadri lynching incident?
But communal violence doesn’t happen overnight: Its genesis can always be traced to a string of preceding events, and Bisada is no different. For the past two months, there have been smaller skirmishes around the area over issues related to cow slaughter and with “Pink revolution” becoming a part of the political lexicon, the area was ripe for such an event.
It only took a rumour — just as it happened in Muzzaffarnagar in 2013 — to light the fire. In Muzzaffarnagar, it was a video clip depicting the killing of two youths uploaded on social media by a politician that led to the violence, which claimed the lives of over 64 people and left over 50,000 homeless, mostly Muslims. Like in the Bisada area, Muslims were encircled by Hindus; there are 60 villages of Malik Jats in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar and 84 villages of Raghuvanshi Jats and Tomar Jats in Baraut and Muzaffarnagar.
Moreover, in this day and age of instant communication, all major incidents have ramifications across the country. Events as geographically distant as the recent meat ban controversy in Maharashtra could have help shape opinions in Bisada too. Surely, 100 people cannot congregate at the drop of a hat to start such violence; there must have been extensive pre-planning.
Food is a personal and cultural choice but of late it has been politicised in a big way with vegetarianism getting a moral upper-hand because, as many would love us to believe, India is a vegetarian country. That’s a joke. India is predominantly a non-vegetarian country. Here is the ‘official’ evidence, if you like: The most authoritative study on the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide was done by the People of India Survey, a mammoth study enterprise of the Anthropological Survey of India completed in 1993. It concluded that of the 4,635 communities, nearly 88% were meat-eating and they ate all kinds of flesh.
So this assertion that the Right makes about the majority being vegetarian and others having to follow must be resisted at every opportunity. Yes, the cow is sacred in India and even many non-vegetarians don’t eat beef, but then that’s matter of personal choice.

It’s instructive to listen to the words of Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday we have just celebrated. He said in a prayer discourse on cow slaughter: “In India no law can be made to ban cow-slaughter ... I have been long pledged to serve the cow but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.”
Politicians will exploit the situation, as they did in 2013, leading to more violence. In fact, the panel report on the 2013 riots has blamed the BJP and SP politicians and lax administration for the deaths. In Bisada, the script has been similar. After the death, BJP leaders have only created more bad blood by calling the death just an accident; calling the lynch mob “innocent children”; putting the onus on Muslims to maintain peace, etc. In response, Hyderabad MP and AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi, who is steadily gaining ground in these parts, has called it a pre-meditated murder in the name of religion.
But what I find absolutely appalling is the way Union ministers have been behaving. Take, for example, Noida MP and culture minister Mahesh Sharma. Initially, Sharma termed the lynching of Ikhlaq as a “misunderstanding” but on Friday violated prohibitory orders to conduct a meeting there, escalating the tension.
The second one is Union minister of state for agriculture Sanjeev Balyan, an accused in the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. The root of Hindu-Muslim conflict, said the minister, was cow slaughter; he went on to accuse the Samajwadi Party government of failing to stop such incidents. The last thing we need now is a Balyan in Bisada making inflammatory statements.
Muzzaffarnagar had a sinister political motive, so does Bisada. There were general elections in 2014 and the polls are due in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. I fear Bisada will not be the last case.
After Ikhlaq’s murder, his quiet and dignified 18-year-old daughter Shaista asked one question: “If it is not beef, will they bring back my dead father?”
That question should haunt everyone.

India: A beef-eating Hindu demands his rights - SA Aiyar (October 4, 2015)

The Times of India

A beef-eating Hindu demands his rights

October 4, 2015, 12:00 am IST in Swaminomics | India | TOI
As a beef-eating Hindu, I am utterly outraged at the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri by a Hindu mob claiming the man had beef in his house. Even worse is the attempt of BJP politicians to sanitize the lynching.
Culture minister Mahesh Sharma claims it was just “an accident.” Former MLA Nawab Singh Nagar says those who dare hurt the feelings of the dominant Thakurs should realize the consequences. He claims the murderous mob consisted of “innocent children” below 15 years of age. Many BJP leaders blame the Muslims for eating beef. Vichitra Tomar wants cow-killers to be arrested, not Muslim killers. Srichand Sharma says violence is inevitable if Muslims disrespect Hindu sentiments. Sorry, but these are all lame excuses for murder.
Mob fury at Dadri began when a temple priest said a calf had been killed. Later, the priest admitted he had been pressured to make this false statement by two Hindu youths. So, this was a planned, murderous riot.
The police have sent the meat found in Akhlaq’s house to determine whether it was beef or mutton. Why? How does it matter? The mob will be just as guilty of murder if it is beef. Muslims have every legal right to eat beef, just as I do. Several states have bans on cow slaughter, while allowing the slaughter of bulls and buffaloes. But there is no ban on eating beef.
Hindus who hear a cow has been slaughtered can ask the police to investigate a possible violation of cow slaughter laws. But if instead they organize lynch mobs, they are murderous thugs, and should be treated as such. If Modi refuses to condemn such incidents, he will, rightly, be seen as blessing them.
Bloodlust: Ancient literature talks of beef consumption by Hindu sages. The modern intolerance of Hindu goons is a cruel rejection of great Hindu traditions.
The claim that all Hindus oppose cow slaughter is false. Yes, there is a strong upper-caste tradition today against beef, but Dalits and tribals have always eaten beef. “Beef is one of the most affordable sources of protein for the Dalit community,” says Mohan Dharavath, president, Dalit Adivasi Bahujan and Minority Students’ Association.
Ancient Hindu scriptures establish beyond doubt that even upper-caste Hindus and great rishis ate beef in days of yore. For a quick primer, read Nirad Chaudhuri’s ‘The Continent of Circe’. He says, “Love of cows in the Vedas goes with every possible economic use of cattle, including, of course, their slaughter for food”. There was a long debate, says Chaudhuri, between opponents and defenders of cow slaughter. The two ideas co-existed, very much like the debate today about vegetarianism. The Mahabharata mentions, “without thinking it necessary to add any excuse, that a very hospitable king used to have 20,100 cattle slaughtered every day for his guests.” On the other hand, another story tells of a king who has slaughtered a cow to entertain a sage, an act that is criticized as sinful by another sage.
Such differences and debates were the very essence of ancient Hinduism. It was not a rigid religion. By the time the Dharma Shastras were penned, beef consumption had “ceased or virtually ceased”. Nevertheless, Bhavabuti’s famous play, Uttara-Rama-Charitra, written in the 8th century AD, has the following dialogue between two hermit boys at Ayodhya, Saudahataki and Dandayana.
D: It is no less a person than the revered Vasishta himself.
S: Is it Vasishta, eh?
D: Who else?
S: I thought it was a tiger or a wolf. For, as soon as he came, he crunched up our poor tawny heifer.
D: It is written that meat should be given along with curds and honey. So every host offers a heifer, a big bull, or a goat to a learned Brahmin who comes as a guest. This is laid down in sacred law.
In India today, such a play would be banned, and its author threatened with death. But ancient Hindu traditions gave Bhavabuti an honoured place in literature, with no censorship or fear of mob lynching. The modern intolerance of Hindu goons is a cruel rejection of great Hindu traditions.
In ancient times, neither untouchables nor tribals were regarded as Hindus. Early 19th century censuses did not count dalits and tribals as Hindus. But modern Hinduism claims as its own these two groups whom it cruelly reviled and oppressed through the ages. I am all for the change. But that change must allow for the fact that Dalits and tribals have always eaten beef.
As a libertarian believer in free choice, I have always championed the freedom to eat anything one likes. But I also claim the right to eat beef as part of the ancient Hindu tradition highlighted by Bhavabuti. As a Brahmin, I am happily following in the footsteps of the sage Vasiishta.

Beef with tolerance - Times of India Editorial

Beef with tolerance: BJP leaders must steer clear of schizophrenia when they comment on Akhlaque’s lynching

October 5, 2015, 12:02 am IST in TOI Editorials 

BJP leaders are speaking in two voices on the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque in UP’s Bisada village, following suspicion that he consumed beef. While finance minister Arun Jaitley condemned the barbaric act, agriculture MoS Sanjeev Balyan took a different view of the matter on the same day. He described cow slaughter as the root cause of Hindu—Muslim conflict, which not only provides an alibi to Akhlaque’s murderers but also dials us back to dark post—Partition days when cow slaughter was a common ruse for large—scale rioting. Since it’s impossible to put an end to the suspicion of cow slaughter — or even the reality of it because lower castes among Hindus, apart from minorities, consume beef — Balyan is projecting, in effect, a future of unending medieval witch hunts and communal strife.
Meanwhile, culture minister Mahesh Sharma has jumped in and given another twist to the matter — it wasn’t a communal incident at all but an “accident”. In the strange inverted reality many of our leaders like to inhabit he proceeded to shoot the messenger. He blamed the media for fanning communal flames, following which journalists at the site found themselves under attack.
It’s high time we put an end to the commonly used “hurt sentiments” excuse for violence and murder. Millions of sentiments are being hurt across the country every day. If we respond to them with violence we will speedily descend into anarchy. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious development and modernisation programme is to succeed, witch hunts and flagrant contempt for the rule of law are not going to attract foreign — or even domestic — investors. A murder is a murder and political leaders should come together to condemn it unequivocally. Given that the PM tweets prolifically a tweet from him in this regard would help by clarifying the confusion sowed by his ministers.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

India: We’re still a benighted land mired in the muck of bigotry (Tunku Varadarajan)


Fridge of death: We’re still a benighted land mired in the muck of bigotry

Dadri lynching, dadri killing, BJP, Dadri beef row, dadri man lynching, dadri beef man killing, beef ban, Mahesh Sharma, dadri beef ban lynching, dadri beef rumor killing, india news, nation news Akhlaq’s family in Dadri. (Express Photo by: Gajendra Yadav)
On the day Narendra Modi returned from the United States, having wowed Silicon Valley with his openness to all things digital, a Muslim man was murdered in a village a mere 30 miles from the PM’s residence, his life pulped out of him by a Hindu mob that believed that he’d eaten beef for dinner.
The contrast between the modernity of the PM’s diplomacy and the unhinged primitiveness of the mob was so stark as to appear almost make-believe, like some sort of passion play staged to remind us that — for all our pretensions as a global power — we’re still a benighted land mired in the muck of bigotry. Drive 30 miles from 21st-century New Delhi and you’re in the midst of “junglies” from the Dark Age.
When historians sit in judgment of India 50 years from now, the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri will be seen as an event on a par with the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 as a national moral nadir. Personally, I’m inclined to see it as worse.
Here’s why. The Babri demolition was part of an ugly, slow-moving political upheaval in an India on the cusp of change. The event itself, with ‘kar sevaks’ crawling over the structure, clawing and gouging at bricks in a state of messianic ecstasy, was a form of political theatre, part of a contentious narrative of Indian history in which the guardians of historical fact and religious fervour fought each other to a standstill.
Remember: it was 1992. This was India before the Internet, an India impoverished, unglobalised, barely beginning to shake off its economic sloth, a still-stagnant India of frustrated aspirations and repressed ambition. Mark Zuckerberg, the latest god in the Indian pantheon, was only 8 years old.
The murder of Mohammad Akhlaq — whose son, it is reported, is a technician in the Indian Air Force — was the kind of demonic incident that mars a society forever. It was the reaching by a mob (and the ideology that drove that mob) into the private life of a citizen of India. It was an eruption into the innermost recesses of a citizen’s sanctity, and will breed the kind of viral fear and paranoia that you only get in totalitarian countries — or in primitive societies where rumours of blasphemy or odium settle on people arbitrarily, like a curse.
After all, in such a lynch-mob climate, no one knows if the original offence — however preposterous in the first place — even took place. Suddenly, you have a mood of fear and whispers; of rumours that poison all social relations; of rumours, in fact, that are broadcast by priests in temples, inciting mobs to take matters into their own hands. Inciting mobs to murder.
A news website carried a photograph of Akhlaq’s fridge, broken and on its side, the door detached from the frame. There had been meat in it — mutton, says his family; beef, said the temple priest; beef, bawled the mob. We now know that its origins weren’t bovine, because the police made it a priority to send the flesh for forensic testing, the message being that the bloodlust of the mob would have been explicable if the contents of the fridge had been beef.
This was not an ugly moral lapse by the police. It was proof of a mentality. If the meat had been beef, we’d have politicians rationalising the murder with talk of religious “offence”. After all, where there’s sentiment scorned, there must be blood. The blood of Mohammad Akhlaq.
The writer is the Virginia Hobs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Follow Tunku Varadarajan on Twitter: @tunkuv

Inside the Indian village where a mob killed a man for eating beef (Jason Burke)

The Guardian

Inside the Indian village where a mob killed a man for eating beef

In Bishara, near Delhi, fear and tension are both on the rise as India’s nationalist right and its Muslim minority live uneasily together
The minister has arrived. The motorcade fills the unpaved street. Policemen who were slumbering in the early autumn midday heat stir, straighten, then spring into action, clearing the way with their canes for this most important visitor. Mahesh Sharma, India’s minister of culture, is preceded by a small aide in a purple shirt and followed by a large grey-suited bodyguard.
Sharma has come to “condole” the family of Mohammed Akhlaq, a 50-year-old labourer beaten to death by a mob in his small two-storey home in the centre of Bishara village, about an hour’s drive beyond the outskirts of Delhi, India’s capital, last Monday night.
The mob that killed him believed that Akhlaq and his family, who are Muslim, had eaten meat from a cow, an animal considered sacred by the 80% of the Indian population who follow the Hindu faith. Akhlaq and his son were dragged from their beds and beaten with bricks. The father died; the son is fighting for his life in hospital.
Sharma is the local member of parliament as well as a minister. “It was important for me to come. I am the democratic representative,” the 56-year-old former doctor told the Observer. Outside, a media scrum filled the courtyard of the Akhlaqs’ home.
Sharma’s visit is more important than a simple courtesy to his constituents. His Bharatiya Janata party, Hindu nationalists, stormed to power in a landslide victory in May 2014, unceremoniously dispatching Congress, which had ruled India for most of its 68 years as an independent country, to the political margins.
The BJP is led by Narendra Modi, whose appeal is based on his promise to bring economic development and opportunity without sacrificing India’s cultural identity. Exactly what this means has been fiercely debated since Modi’s victory.
Critics of the prime minister, who last month visited the US and received a warm welcome from President Barack Obama and Silicon Valley’s top executives, say that since Modi took power rightwing groups have felt empowered. They point to a series of incidents – including mass conversions, attacks on lorries transporting cows and acts of violence against members of India’s religious minorities – as evidence of a newly tense atmosphere. Political opponents allege, too, that there has been limited condemnation from senior officials. “The silence at the top ... is absolutely stunning,” Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress MP, told reporters following the murder in Bishara.
Sharma has been at the centre of the increasingly bitter debate. Like many senior members of the BJP government, including Modi, he has spent decades in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a conservative revivalist Hindu organisation that is a powerful political and cultural force.
In an interview last month, Sharma said India should be “cleansed” of “polluting” western influences so as to restore “Indian culture”.
The debate has also raised questions about the position of India’s many religious minorities. A suggestion by India’s foreign minister last year that the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu epic, be made the “national book” provoked an outcry from Muslims and Christians, 14% and 2.3% of the population of 1.35 billion respectively.

Sharma prompted anger when he said that APJ Abdul Kalam, the scientist who oversaw India’s nuclear programme, was a “great man and nationalist, despite being Muslim”, and that the Qur’an and the Bible were not “central to Indian culture”.
In Bishara on Friday, Sharma refused to discuss his recent statements and was keen to strike a more conciliatory note. “Our values are to live together under the law and in respect of the constitution,” he said. “This sad affair [the murder of Akhlaq] … happened in the heat of the moment. It was the result of a misunderstanding.”
The route from central Delhi to Bishara passes first over the heavily polluted Yamuna river, past a vast new temple and a metro station and on to a recently built expressway slicing through the city’s sprawl. Beyond the huge developments of half-built apartment buildings, the road narrows, ending in a zone of scruffy townships. Bishara, a huddle of hundred or so breeze-block cement and brick homes with intermittent electricity and patchy sanitation, lies among fields that stretch to the horizon.
The events that led to Mohammed Akhlaq’s death are fairly clear. Last weekend the remains of a calf were found outside Bishara. On Monday night someone used the village temple’s loudspeakers to broadcast the allegation that its meat had been eaten.
“I think someone saw a Muslim lady carrying meat in a bag. No one is sure. Anyway, about a thousand people heard the announcement and went to the home [of the Akhlaqs],” said Deerat Singh, whose two sons have been arrested for the attack. “They saw a trail of blood on the ground. Then 60 or 70 people entered the house and pulled him from his bed and beat him to death.”
In most of India, most of the time, killing cows is illegal, but possessing or eating beef is not. A sample of meat found in the Akhlaq’s home has been sent for forensic examination, said local magistrate Rajesh Kumar Yadav, the bureaucrat with responsibility for Bishara. “The investigation is going on. The police is there, covering all angles and dangers. Relations in the village are being normalised and everybody is doing a great effort for this,” said Yadav.
Yet deep tensions and fear remain. When Sharma gathered the villagers in the yard of the temple and called for communal harmony and mutual respect, the reaction was respectful but quietly hostile.
“We handed over our children to the police. But, minister sir, that does not mean you can play with our feelings. We know it was beef that was eaten,” said Jagdish Sisodia, a village elder.
Satish Singh, an activist with a Hindu spiritual foundation who had travelled from Delhi to “show solidarity”, said: “All Hindus are deploring this sad incident. Everyone agrees it should not have happened. But this is a very sensitive matter. For Hindus the murder of a man is not so sensitive as the murder of a cow. We treat the cow as our mother,” he said.
Muslim groups had also been drawn to the village. “If this heinous crime can be done in a democratic system, what is the meaning of democracy?,” asked Hilal Madni, a 39-year-old auditor who had travelled with 60 others from Delhi to “calm the terror in the minds” of the 27 Muslim families in Bishara.
Preceding Sharma by just minutes was Asaduddin Owaisi, a controversial Muslim politician from the south of India. “It is important to be here because of the overall atmosphere created against the Muslims in this country, whether it is allegations of slaughtering cows or being terrorists or we have too many children,” Owaisi said. “What happened in Bishara was not an accident. It was a religious murder.”
Sitting on a narrow, worn rope bed in a corner of the Akhlaqs’ home was Hanif, a brother of the dead man. Like Mohammed, he too was a labourer and described a life of working 14-hour days in often blinding heat for less than 200 rupees (£2) a day.
“All the labourers around here are Muslims. We have no land. We have been here for a hundred years or more but we haven’t had any trouble with our neighbours,” he said.
One reason was that no one ever complained. Bishara and surrounding villages are dominated by Hindus from the land-owning Thakur caste, in the middle range of the tenacious Indian social hierarchy. The Muslims worked their fields.
“Mohammed was a quiet man. Like most of us, he just worked and kept quiet. There are 60 Thakur villages round here, so they can pretty much do what they want and get away with it. Today it was my brother. Tomorrow it could be anyone,” Hanif said.