Originally Published 2015-10-05 08:54:24 Published on Oct 05, 2015
Mohammad Akhlaq's horrific killing in Dadri, in western Uttar Pradesh, just outside Delhi, is an act of infamy. Whatever the circumstances or the alleged provocation, it ceases to matter when a person is done to death with such barbarism.
Murder is murder
Mohammad Akhlaq's horrific killing in Dadri, in western Uttar Pradesh, just outside Delhi, is an act of infamy. Whatever the circumstances or the alleged provocation, it ceases to matter when a person is done to death with such barbarism.

Politicians and commentators have been quick to use the unfortunate episode to make their points. Some have blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly - though how he is responsible is difficult to figure out. Others have suggested that extreme (if overdone) laws against beef possession and consumption in states such as Haryana have created an all-India atmosphere that is responsible for the incident in Dadri. Frankly, it is possible to pick fault with the laws and still conclude that this connection is specious.

From within the ruling party, there have been a few voices that have been plain objectionable, ridiculous and ill-timed in claiming permanent victimhood for Hindu sentiment and instead seeing a media/intelligentsia that doesn't treat all crime (or all victims of crime) equally as the villain.

No doubt every stakeholder taking a position is doing so with an eye on a constituency. Yet, in the end all that matters is that a man, whatever his background, whatever his so-called misdemeanour, has been murdered by a lynch mob. When such an incident occurs, all other argument must stop. Murder is murder, there cannot be any "ifs" and "buts".

Stepping back from the emotions of the moment, it is worth assessing the history of violence between Hindus and Muslims, particularly in the period after the Jabalpur riots of 1961. The Jabalpur riots are considered the first major religious conflagration in Independent India, following the turbulence of Partition. From the late 1960s to the 1990s, India saw a regular and disturbing pattern of Hindu-Muslim violence, particularly in industrial towns and in "mixed population" locations around institutions such as textile mills.

The riots of 1992-93, following the demolition in Ayodhya, were the final chapter of this unhappy period. Yes, there was Gujarat 2002 as well, but in its technique, in its mobilisation and in its set of grievances it was, frankly, anachronistic - past its time, a riot belonging more to the 1990s genre and, if one may put it thus, a 20th century riot in 21st century India.

Why was that so? Was it because Indians had transformed themselves in a generation and that prejudice had vanished? Obviously that was not the case. However, in the intervening years India had changed, the socio-economic conditions that enabled - perhaps approbated would be a better word - several days or weeks of violence at a time, and the resultant disruption, gradually ceased to exist, with the opening up of the economy to global currents and competition.

In parallel, communication technology, particularly television and later the Internet, made a riot, even something that could be dismissed as a minor infraction in an earlier age, into a major event in real-time. Its impact was not limited to India. As the country's economy and social churning became an international story, so did its troubling features. One cannot expect that only good news about India will go viral. Technology is agnostic and the global media factory is an equal opportunity user or abuser (depending on individual perspective).

In the period since 2002, this cocktail of social, economic and technological forces has got only stronger. It makes day-to-day governance a minefield. It also increases the political cost of a riot (or any egregious act of a comparable nature that is seen to have a degree of political sanction). That is why those who argue that Akhlaq's killing is "nothing new" and "not unprecedented" and "there is a context" of the meat export industry, cattle rustling and suspicions of cow slaughter in western Uttar Pradesh miss the wood for the trees. Today, the tolerance for one killing is far lower than for a dozen such tragedies 25 years ago.

Lest that be seen as an argument limited to Hindu-Muslim issues and to the Samajwadi Party (which governs Uttar Pradesh) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, let us take a secular example, "secular" here being used in the purist, dictionary sense of the term. In 2011, the United Progressive Alliance government's mishandling of the Anna Hazare anti-corruption protests followed a very similar failure to appreciate changing political mores and modes of communication and mobilisation. In 1971 or 1981 (random dates, plucked out of the air) protests of such nature would have been easier to "handle". In 2011, an outdated and ham-handed reaction crippled the government.

It can be said, and correctly, that the Anna Hazare movement and the horror of Dadri are not comparable. Yet, if an analogy is to be drawn it is in immediate political responses, in that shade of equivocation, and in the risk that the narrative will slip away in a direction that the government (or at least the leadership of the government) would not want.

In a year-and-a-half, the Prime Minister has been broadly on message and has not put a foot wrong. He has focused on the economy and developmental programmes, and left divisive issues largely untouched. Having said that, that has not been the case with all his political colleagues. Some of them have interpreted the mandate of 2014 - and of subsequent state elections - disproportionately in cultural and religious terms, more than in the popular aspiration for a better life.

Some of them have chosen to interpret the mandate in those terms, for being newcomers to the BJP they believe this is the route to in-house stardom. Some are ministers who are otherwise idle and at sixes and sevens with their jobs. A few, regrettably, have just not moved on from the early 1990s and would prefer to remain permanently aggrieved than to grapple with the complexities of policy and to govern.

To be sure, the BJP's adversaries, and the vast coalition of interests in Delhi that desperately wants the Modi era to end in a fiasco, have exaggerated and amplified the party's missteps and mistakes, skilfully stitching together a patchwork of truth, semi-truth, half-truth and disinformation. Having said that, were they expected to do otherwise? The failure to anticipate and counter what was always likely to be a tough environment has been astounding. In that sense, it is distressing that the party has learnt nothing from the experience of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: Asian Age, October 3, 2015

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