October 19, 2015

Mukul Kesavan: Head up and howling - The Dadri Derangement Syndrome

The Telegraph, October 19, 2015

Head up and howling - The Dadri Derangement Syndrome
by Mukul Kesavan

The death of Mohammad Akhlaque has provoked an epidemic of self-disclosure from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Like a truth serum, the news of the lynching seems to have given the parivar's members permission to publicly affirm their deepest beliefs, to be truly themselves.

It has been suggested that the BJP's willingness to double-down on the lynching in particular and cow-slaughter in general, is born of electoral calculation: its understanding that Dadri, far from being bad publicity, is an opportunity to consolidate a substantial Hindu constituency. This is certainly part of the explanation; see for example Sushil Modi's statement in the aftermath of the lynching that the Bihar election was "a fight between those who eat beef and those who are against cow slaughter". This, by the way, from an allegedly 'moderate' leader of the BJP.

But striking while the iron is hot isn't the whole explanation. There's more to the BJP's Dadri Derangement Syndrome than opportunism. The real significance of Mohammad Akhlaque's murder is how directly it spoke to something visceral in the majoritarian Right.

Let's pick up the story from just after Narendra Modi's speech in Nawada where he gestured at togetherness without naming Dadri or criticizing the ghouls in his party who had ranged themselves alongside the mob after the lynching. If the BJP was a normal right-of-centre party, Modi's feint would have been its cue to distance itself from Dadri by keeping mum about it.

But the BJP isn't that sort of party. So, in quick succession the BJP chief minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP MP from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj, and the RSS's official mouth piece, Panchajanya, returned, like moths to a flame, to the lynching of Akhlaque and the killing of cows. (One of the instructive sidelights of this affair has been the ideological lead the RSS has taken in this matter and the discipline with which men like Tarun Vijay, Manohar Lal Khattar, Sushil Modi and Mahesh Sharma have defaulted to their RSS identities.)

Khattar's interview was startling in its candour and its confusions. It's important to remember that Khattar aired his views in a public interview that he knew was being filmed; this wasn't a sting or an ambush. In the course of the conversation Khattar set out the terms on which Muslims could remain Muslim in India: they would have to stop eating beef. The scandal over this remark obscured the most interesting exchange in the interview which occurred before the notorious comment.

Khattar was asked what he thought of the Dadri lynching. In reply, he reprised the standard BJP euphemism: it was, he said, the outcome of a simple misunderstanding. This was a variation on Mahesh Sharma's position that the lynching was an "accident". What Khattar said next was remarkable. He said it shouldn't have happened and followed this up with " dono taraf se nahin hona chahiye tha": "it" shouldn't have happened from both sides.

Puzzled by this even-handedness, the interviewer asked how there could be two sides to a lynching. Khattar explained that the reason the responsibility for the lynching was shared was because there shouldn't have been loose talk about beef: "Gau maas ke prati halki tippanni nahin honi chahiye thi". This was a peculiar response: nobody, not even the BJP, had alleged that the murdered man had said anything about cow slaughter. He was lynched anyway. On the face of it, there was no equivalence, no second side that shared responsibility with the mob for the murder.

But I suspect that for the chief minister this was a literal-minded objection because he wasn't addressing the lynched man; he was, I think, making a metaphysical point. In Khattar's mind the world is divided into two camps: those who protect the cow and those who kill it. The flippant discourse - halki tippanni - of the enemy about cow slaughter poisoned the air and was as responsible for killing Akhlaque as the men who beat him to death with bricks. In this view of the world, Akhlaque was collateral damage in the necessary battle being constantly waged against cow-killers.

The Indian Express reported that the cover story of the latest issue of Panchajanya (the RSS's house magazine) returned to the Dadri lynching and the theme of cow slaughter. Vinay Krishna Chaturvedi, the author of the article, wanted, like Khattar, to highlight the other side of the story allegedly ignored by the writers returning their awards in protest against the lynching. According to Chaturvedi, these writers were wilfully blind to Akhlaque's participation in cow-slaughter: " Aapko Akhlaq dwara ki gayi gau-hatya nahin dikhayi di." Now, we know that Akhlaque hadn't killed a cow, and the meat taken from his refrigerator was forensically tested and shown to be mutton. There can be just two reasons why Panchajanya chose to carry this falsehood: either anything goes in the service of propaganda or Akhlaque, guilty of being Muslim, must have been complicit, metaphysically if not literally, in cow-killing.

I think it is a little of both. It's a measure of the RSS's enthusiasm for this controversy that in the wake of a lynching its mouthpiece should publish an essay citing canonical authority for killing anyone who kills a cow. The Vedas, Chaturvedi writes, lay down that the sinner who kills a cow should himself be killed. It's instructive how seamlessly canonical texts and real-world lynchings are knit together in the hive mind of the sangh parivar.

The day after a second Muslim was lynched, this time in Himachal Pradesh, on the suspicion that he was engaged in cattle smuggling, Sakshi Maharaj, the BJP MP from Unnao, demanded capital punishment for cow-slaughter. Given that two men had already been murdered on the suspicion of killing or conspiring to kill cows, it is reasonable to wonder at the sort of political sensibility that would want to take this particular tide in the affairs of men at its flood. But it would be a mistake to read it cynically.

Remember, the BJP had no administrative responsibility for the Dadri lynching. Its members - foot soldiers, legislators, ministers, chief ministers and ideologues - chose to take sides, to invent alibis for the mob, to spin baseless stories about cow-slaughter, to blame the victim and his family for his lynching. These weren't just lies; they were also confessional truths. There was something about the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq that had the same effect on the sangh parivar that sodium pentothal is meant to have on the unfortunates who are administered it: it provoked an ecstasy of truth-telling. It showed us, clearly and unguardedly, the Hindutvavadi Right in hunting mode, head up and howling.