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Bestial drama

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018

Animal story: Devotees feed a cowon the banks of theGanga in Allahabad,after performing pujafor their ancestors   -  K_Murali Kumar

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

The cow takes centre stage once again, as the ruling party uses it as a strategy to polarise communities for electoral gains

Put it down as an irony of Indian politics. Every time a gentle, ruminant animal has wandered onto the political stage, she has triggered a storm of sectarian violence.

In November 1966, a syndicate of saffron-clad sadhus — now very mainstream, but then a fringe element — rampaged through the capital city, pillaging and burning all that came in the way. They were foiled in their goal of raiding India’s parliament building, but did serious havoc in all pathways leading there.

A Prime Minister new to the office flatly rebuffed the demand for a ban on cow slaughter, while a Union home minister gazed on indulgently at the violence. The residence of the ruling party president was set ablaze.

The government held firm and a home minister who had been asleep at the wheel resigned. Times were tough. India was coming out of successive years of drought and deprivation. Two Prime Ministers, more parents than politicians, had died within the space of less than two years. And a young woman was pitch-forked into the post by power-brokers, both as a compromise and as a convenient front for their rule by proxy.

In the months that followed, violence against the religious minority escalated. In June 1968, a working paper circulated by the union home ministry spoke rather ruefully of having missed all cues. Conflict had broken out with Pakistan in 1965 and there were fears of violence against religious minorities. There had indeed been sporadic incidents, but mostly unrelated to the war.

A sharp deterioration occurred the year after. In a state of alarm, the home ministry put down the number of ‘communal incidents’ as ‘relatively high’. The states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra ‘suffered from persistent tension’. And ‘another disturbing development’ through 1967 was the ‘extension of communal tension to Kashmir’.

In the months that followed, the holy cow faded away from centre stage, partly because the novice Prime Minister acquired sufficient smarts by 1969 to turf out the powerbrokers within her party and establish another claim to legitimacy, in slaying the demon of poverty.

Yet the demon proved more persistent than the recently awakened Prime Minister imagined. And in the desperation of her fight against a recalcitrant enemy, she was led to banish freedom itself, since the greater glory of the nation, which she alone embodied, would be a model to the world.

That variety of megalomania was banished in 1977. A government came to power with explicit claims to undo the damage to democracy, but soon afterwards had to cope with the return of the holy cow to the political arena.

In April 1979, a Gandhian with a great sense of self-righteousness, but little humour or subtlety, decided on starving himself in the cause of the cow. His suicidal intent set off a crisis of sufficient gravity to compel the Prime Minister at the time, newly reincarnated from an old power clique, to promise special attention to the animal.

And then began another cycle of violence. The annual report of the union home ministry for the year recorded sectarian affrays involving loss of life across the length and breadth of the country. Some of these were sparked by the cow, others by disputes over space. But proximate causes were immaterial since the contagion of violence seemed the manifestation of deep-seated pathologies.

The cow soon lost its status as a symbol around which sectarian mobilisation could be organised. In the mid-’80s, a new symbol presented itself in a piece of real estate in Ayodhya where a medieval mosque stood, allegedly in defilement of a revered god-king of Hindu mythology.

Back in the ’60s, debates on secularism were confined to a certain hand-wringing assertion of its essential goodness as a political value. An active critique began to take shape through the following years, which held that secularism in practice involved the denial of India’s primordial cultural identity.

More well-intended critiques spoke of the futility of isolating religion from the public space in India, when it was so critical to an individual’s sense of identity. Those seeking a retrieval of the principle argued that secularism did not mean equal respect for all faiths, since that would involve an absurd seesaw between competing denominational claims.

Secularism in this construction was about the enlightened separation between private and public spheres. In private life, the individual was free to observe any manner of faith, even practise the most outlandish observances as far as these did not involve active possibility of harm to others. In public life, he or she was to observe the civic proprieties which involved respect for every other citizen’s private space and beliefs.

The civic compact obviously cannot withstand its unilateral abrogation, especially by a majority community. It visibly sunders when a private space is invaded and the death penalty imposed for suspected violation of an imagined majority’s food taboo. And it completely shatters when the state — the power that is supposed to punish every usurpation of its monopoly of violence — defaults on its obligations and allows a culture of impunity to flourish.

The most salient, even sinister, aspect of the return of the holy cow to centre stage today, is that it is part of an evident strategy by the ruling party to polarise communities for electoral advantage. And the best that the Prime Minister has to offer after days of unconscionable silence is to leave the choice to the communities: that they either fight each other or combine their efforts to banish poverty.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla)

Published on October 16, 2015

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