‘Kill the Beef-eaters!’
A climate of fear is building in India as anti-Muslim sentiment leads to murder. Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports.
No this is not a Tower of London joke from Medieval times.
Last week, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammed Akhlaq, was pulled out of his house and beaten to a pulp. He was murdered by a mob because a priest from a nearby temple made an announcement from the temple loudspeaker, alleging that Akhlaq was responsible for killing a missing calf. He’d eaten the calf, they insisted, and there was beef in the family fridge.
That was enough. Led and instigated by Hindutva extremists, the mob rushed to Akhlaq’s house as he was getting ready for bed. They broke down his front door, then dragged him outside and beat him mercilessly with pieces of furniture, sticks and stones. They hit him with such passion, with such hatred and venom, that the man was dead within the 15 minutes it took for his best friend, a Hindu, to phone the police and run desperately to his friend’s aid.
Since time immemorial Hindus and Muslims have lived in harmony. Most inter-religious battles, known here as communal riots, take place because they have been instigated by priests and politicians of both faiths. It’s pretty nauseating, really, how religious sentiments are manipulated with sickening regularity. A Hindu troublemaker throws a piece of pork into a mosque, defiling it. Or a Muslim throws beef into a temple, similarly outraging the sentiments of the believers. And all hell breaks loose. Mobs go on the rampage raping, killing, looting. All in the name of God.
Still, life has to go on. And communities have lived cheek by jowl, working together, celebrating marriages, births, and major festivals for centuries. As children, we welcomed every religious feast. Christians sent Christmas sweets to neighbours and looked forward to their treats and delicacies at Diwali, Durga Puja and Bakri Id. Everyone enjoyed the neighbours’ holidays.
Though I vividly remember riots in Calcutta in the 1960s, they were never so blatant as this open, poisonous stoking of hate, the announcements aired over microphones, to kill the beef-eaters. Perhaps because I lived in Communist West Bengal and riots were put down firmly and fast. In the North Bangalore area ruled by the rightwing Hindu nationalist party BJP, gangs of local Hindutva goons went around to restaurants and warned them of the consequences if they dared to serve beef. Local butchers’ shops were shut down and cold storages warned to stop selling beef ‘or else’.
The gangs and their goons are vicious, as Mohammed Akhlaq and his family discovered. The question on everyone’s lips is: how far will they be allowed to go, and for how long? Already people assume the guilty will go scot-free. Impunity is the norm for criminals with political patronage.
On the other hand we have a globe-trotting Prime Minister who assures the world that India is the destination to invest in, the world’s most cultured country to work in. Will German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s compatriots, who decide to work in India as urged by our Prime Minister during Merkel’s visit this week, be allowed their prime pieces of steak when they crave German cuisine in India? Or do we only butcher our own beef-eaters?
Nayantara Sahgal, India’s internationally famous author, has returned her prestigious literary prize, the Sahitya Akademi award. She announced in an interview that this was in protest against the growing politics of religious intolerance and the hate politics being played out by the Hindutva regime. Many writers and poets have added their voice to hers. Bollywood, however, is singularly silent. Some of our biggest film stars are Muslims. They too are probably terrified. Vulnerable in spite of their mega-star status. At any time, the tide can turn. This is how a climate of fear has been introduced. And of course, the Prime Minister has not said a word.