October 14, 2015

Secularism and sacred cows - India’s secular identity may be under threat (M Serajul Islam)

Dhaka Tribune, 14 October 2015

Secularism and sacred cows
M Serajul Islam

India’s secular identity may be under threat

India’s claim as a secular nation is being flushed down the drain by the raging controversy in the country, with the cow raising serious doubts to whether its tall claim for which it seeks and earns respect in the West is genuine anymore.

A 50-year-old Muslim, Mohammad Akhlaq, was dragged out of his house in Dadri, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists belonging to the Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangha (RSS) on the suspicion he had eaten beef and had beef stored in his house, and lynched.

Suffice to say, the murder has become a national and an international issue and has exposed the Hindu fundamentalist credentials of the BJP, raising serious questions about India’s faith in secularism.

The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq was not a bolt out of the blue. True, Narendra Modi led the BJP to a historic victory in elections last year on issues of business, investment, and economic development. That made him the hero of India’s powerful corporate world and a middle class that expected him to take India into the centre of the world as an economic power.

That also made him welcome to the US and its allies that believed that accepting a business-friendly Indian prime minister would also open for them fabulous economic, trade, and investment prospects in the 1 billion plus Indian market. Narendra Modi’s past was forgotten, and from a pariah status for his alleged involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which, under his watch as chief minister, 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered, he became the favourite of the US and the West.

What was conveniently forgotten was also the true nature of the BJP as a political party and the core base of its support. While India’s corporate world and the West were swept off their feet by Narendra Modi’s great achievements in turning Gujarat into a showcase of economic development, they had no real role in carrying the BJP over the winning line in the May 2014 elections by humiliating Congress for its worst performance ever.

The BJP was installed in power with a huge mandate on the back of the RSS, the organisation that leads the very large Hindu fundamentalist base of India, and with which it is deeply linked. The US and the West were either unaware or had no clue of the power of the RSS and Hindu fundamentalism in India, and failed to focus on the BJP as a Hindu fundamentalist party.

This very large Hindu fundamentalist base has been weakening India’s secular foundations slowly since the British left. Nevertheless, the British, while they ruled, established the institutions and traditions to sustain secularism and, with it, democracy. Thus, the British left India in the hands of statesmen like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who stood against the pressure of Hindu fundamentalism upon Indian secularism.

Those leaders have long since become history, but the traditions and institutions they had set and established kept the fight for secularism against the rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism. That fight weakened as politics gradually embraced Hindu fundamentalism and only the civil society was left to defend secularism. Nevertheless, some are still keeping the fight going, like Arundhati Roy, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize.

She had exposed Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat 2002 riots that everybody knew before the elections last year. She had also exposed the BJP’s links with the RSS and the organisation’s nakedly and blatant anti-Muslim and openly fascist roots and credentials.

Arundhati Roy also wrote and spoke in public about the second RSS chief guru Sadashiv Golwalkar and his book We or Our Nationhood Defined, in which he openly idolised Hitler and Mussolini. In that book, the RSS chief claimed India as the land of the Hindus that was spoiled by Muslims, who he called “traitors” who should be allowed to live in India as “idiots” by total subservience to the Hindus.

Unfortunately, the Indian civil society’s influence to continue the fight against Hindu fundamentalism has been fading for quite some time. This was palpably evident by their feeble opposition to the on-going controversy over the cow slaughter and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq. Since the BJP assumed power, the RSS have left no one in doubt that political power has come to their hands. The BJP leaders have publicly placated their views and now openly taken up the RSS-led demand to ban cow slaughter that is now banned in 24 of the 29 states nationally.

The Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh is playing the public role on RSS’s behalf for a national ban on cow slaughter. Bangladesh found itself caught in the RSS move that equated killing a cow to raping a girl, and demanded an end to the two million Indian cattle heads that are sold in Bangladesh annually in an illegal trade going on for the past four decades about which New Delhi is aware but to which it looks the other way.

In recent times, with the barbed wire fence built by India on its side of the international boundary over the entirety of 4,142km-long Bangladesh-India border, human or cattle can now enter Bangladesh illegally only if the Border Security Force (BSF) that controls the fence allowed it. While New Delhi played politics with the cow to placate the powerful RSS, it did not instruct the BSF to ensure that no cattle passed into Bangladesh. The reason why it did not do so is a crude mixture of politics and economics, because the illegal cattle trade is $600m-a-year business for India. Further, it saves India both huge amounts of money and a headache for disposing two million heads of cattle.

The beef is relished everywhere. Would the BJP government influenced by RSS now declare the rest of the world as rapists? In debates in India, many Indian Hindus, and some very influential ones have openly admitted that they relish beef and so do hundreds of millions of non-Muslims in the country who do not see the cow as sacred.

The sentiment of the majority of Indian Hindus for the sanctity of the cow is genuine. That being so, nevertheless, also brings India face-to-face with a new reality: The sentiments over the cow arise from deep-rooted beliefs in Hinduism and thus religion. Therefore, it should be left to the individuals to deal with it if India would like to claim to be a secular nation, but that is not the case because ministers and political leaders have made it a national political issue.

Therefore, Mohammad Akhlaq’s slaughter, the BJP’s support for Hindu fundamentalism in the cow slaughter row, and the feeble response of India’s once vibrant secular forces in India to the horrific and communal crime, have clearly undermined and weakened Indian secularism. Politics make strange bedfellows because Congress, whose claim as a secular political party have never hitherto been questioned, has also stated that it would support a national ban on cow slaughter!

If the ban of cow slaughter becomes national, India’s claim as a secular country would be in serious doubt, if not altogether demolished.

M Serajul Islam is a retired career ambassador.