June 09, 2016

India: A pound of flesh - The Akhlaque case is being used by the BJP for its own ends (Mukul Kesavan)

The Telegraph, June 9, 2016

A pound of flesh - The Akhlaque case is being used by the BJP for its own ends
Mukul Kesavan

Mohammad Akhlaque was lynched in late September last year. He was dragged out of his house and murdered by a mob allegedly because he had eaten beef.

After the lynching, the police sent the meat recovered from outside Akhlaque's house to a forensic laboratory for testing. While preliminary veterinary reports had suggested that the meat was mutton, the forensic lab, eight months after it was sent the sample, submitted a report a week ago, certifying that the meat was beef. The response of some Bharatiya Janata Party notables who represent Uttar Pradesh in the provincial legislative assembly and in Parliament has been instructive.

Sangeet Som, the member of legislative assembly from Sardhana, demanded that Akhlaque's family be sent to jail for cow slaughter and that the compensation they had been given by the UP government for the lynching be revoked. The BJP member of parliament from Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, echoed these demands and added another one: he asked that the 18 men who had been arrested for Akhlaque's murder be released. Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP's general secretary, backed the call for action against Akhlaque's family arguing that Muslims couldn't be privileged because they belonged to a minority community. Sanjeev Baliyan, who represents Muzaffarnagar in the Lok Sabha, and is also minister of state for agriculture and food processing, had a more ambitious proposal. He wanted a police probe into everyone who might have consumed the meat of the cow that had been killed to keep Akhlaque in beef. "A cow weighs nothing less than 150 kg and one person alone cannot consume it," he said to The Indian Express. "We should know who all consumed the meat."

At this point we need to remind ourselves that this chorus of demands for punishment is directed at a bereaved family whose principal breadwinner had been murdered less than a year ago. Why is there such unanimity, such vehemence on the need to punish them?

One clue lies in the antecedents of these men. Sangeet Som was one of the principal accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots that occurred in August-September 2013. He was arrested for uploading a clip that allegedly showed a Muslim mob murdering Hindus in Muzaffarnagar when in fact it was footage of violence in Pakistan. Som was among several BJP politicians who were central to the religious polarization that occurred in western UP as a consequence of the 2013 riots.

Like Som, Sanjeev Baliyan is an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots case. He was charged with violating prohibitory orders and promoting enmity between communities. It's worth noting that Baliyan was the only MP from western UP to have been made a minister in Narendra Modi's government apart from V.K. Singh. Yogi Adityanath is not just heir to the political legacy of that notable sectarian, Mahant Avaidyanath of Gorakhpur, he is, in his own right, the founder of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a right-wing group that has been involved in rioting in Mau and Gorakhpur.

So the response of these men to the forensic report and their hostility to Akhlaque's family can be read as a function of the extreme, borderline-violent, communal politics that has been their stock-in-trade. The success of the politics of Hindu consolidation, in which the Muzaffarnagar riots played such an important part and which led to the BJP's triumph in UP in 2014, created an electoral script in which these men have designated roles. It is unsurprising that Kailash Vijayvargiya, a man hand-picked to be the BJP's national general secretary by Amit Shah, the author of this script, went to the extent of arguing that not to punish Akhlaque's relatives would amount to privileging them as members of a religious minority.

But despite this background, their statements still ought to have the power to shock. Think of the gratuitous vindictiveness behind Som's demand that the compensation the family was given for the lynching of Akhlaque ought to be revoked. What does compensation for mob violence and murder have to do with the (alleged) consumption of beef? Or take Adityanath's call for the men arrested for Akhlaque's murder to be released; even if Akhlaque had eaten beef, is it not obscene that an elected member of parliament thinks that beef-eating is an extenuating circumstance for a lynching?

Of all these statements, Sanjeev Baliyan's is the most revealing. For one, Baliyan is more than just a member of parliament, he is a Central minister. For another, there's a peculiar power to his demand that the whole carcass of the cow (assuming for a moment that Akhlaque was eating beef) be accounted for. Before Baliyan became a real estate dealer and a politician, he used to be a veterinary surgeon. He knows how much the average cow weighs and he wants a probe to determine where every pound and every morsel of every pound went. This might seem a lunatic suggestion eight months after the event but it's mad only if you take it literally. It is metaphorically meant. It gestures at the invisible, illicit army of beef-eaters gnawing away at gau mata. Sanjeev Baliyan wants, so to speak, his pound of flesh... all three hundred pounds of it.

Too often we dismiss demands of the sort outlined above as overheated rhetoric. It is so hard to believe that an MLA, two members of parliament, a minister, would want to make political capital out of a tragedy as grotesque as Akhlaque's lynching, that we prefer to think of their statements as intemperate rather than wicked. We normalize these utterances by putting them down to the lurid idiom of desi politics.

This is a mistake. The reactions of responsible members of the BJP to the forensic report are calculated moves towards a political end. The most important elections between now and 2019 are the UP assembly elections of 2017. The politics of polarization worked magnificently for the BJP in 2014. Som, Adityanath, Vijayvargiya and Baliyan have put us on notice: the project of 'controlled polarization' is alive and well. There is a premeditation to this that is genuinely wicked and all of us, whether we support the Modi government or not, ought to be appalled by it. For those who believed Narendra Modi when he spoke of a politics of aspiration and inclusion, now is a good time to ask why cows outrank humans, pound for pound, in the rhetoric of the BJP.