No sooner did Narendra Modi return to India from the United States than did a controversial political issue resurface after a mob killing in Dadri in the state of Uttar Pradesh. 52-year-old Mohammed Akhlaq who lived in the Bisara village, was murdered by a mob on September 28th after being accused of slaughtering a cow for his Eid al-Adha feast. Akhlaq’s 22-year-old son Mohammed Danish was critically injured in the attack while Akhlaq’s mother, wife, and daughter were also injured at their home when the villagers broke in. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism and because the Akhlaq family are Muslim, it was assumed that the meat that they were storing after the Eid feast was beef. Goats are also sacrificed as part of the Eid tradition and in this case, the family claimed all along that the meat being stored was mutton and not beef as had been rumored. Either way, this attack brought to the forefront, the debate over cow slaughter and more importantly, the religious divide between India’s Hindus and Muslims.
Cow slaughter is banned in most states in India, including Uttar Pradesh and the issue has been politicized by Modi’s party, the BJP, and by Modi himself. Modi’s government has called for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter and the beef trade despite India being the world’s largest exporter of beef and its fifth biggest consumer. The beef trade is mostly run by India’s Muslims, which make up approximately 140 million of the 1.3 billion people in the country. In states run by BJP ministers, the laws against cow slaughter are stricter, including in Maharashtra where a nearly 20 year old Animal Preservation Bill only became law because the BJP took control of the state last year. Cow slaughter is banned in Modi’s home state and BJP stronghold, Gujarat.
This killing comes at a particularly sensitive time for Modi and the BJP as state elections are currently underway in Bihar and the BJP is hoping to take control of the state from Janata Dal and current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Modi is also still trying to convince foreign observers, as well as minorities within India, that the more extreme elements of the BJP that advocate Hindu nationalism will not supersede his message as Prime Minister for India to move forward as one. However, his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 as Chief Minister, will follow him around until he leaves office and his response to this most recent attack has left a lot to be desired.
His political opponents have used this event to as an opportunity to criticize the BJP and their divisive politics, with some being more successful than others. The party in charge of Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party, blamed the attack on the beef ban that divides Hindus and Muslims. The Congress party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that the killing was a result of the BJP’s rhetoric in advance of the elections in Bihar. The Congress party does not support a beef ban within India as part of their platform of secularism. The Chief Minister of Delhi (only 40 kilometers from Dadri), Arvind Kejriwal, representing the AAP and Rahul Gandhi, the Vice-President of the Congress Party (finished second to Modi in the 2014 elections), both visited the village to support the victims of the attack. While Union Minister Mahesh Sharma that represents Noida (in the same district as Dadri) and the BJP, visited the local Thakur leaders at the temple where the rumors were spread about Akhlaq and later said to the media that the attack was a misunderstanding and an accident. Another member of the BJP, Sangeet Som, who was charged with inciting riots in another city, Muzaffarnagar, close to Dadri in 2013, visited the village and vowed to help the accused attackers while calling Akhlaq’s family, cow-killers.
In Bihar, in the midst of month-long state elections, some party leaders had their say on the matter, as well. The chief of the RJD, Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose party is participating in an alliance with Janata Dal (Janata Parivar) to prevent the BJP and their National Democratic Alliance from taking control of Bihar, made controversial comments that Hindus also eat beef. Lalu’s audience seemed to be Yadavs and Muslims whom he fears will vote for the Samajwadi Party and MIM (Muslim Party) instead of the Janata Parivar alliance. He immediately had to backtrack from those comments after public criticism from the BJP and private criticism from Janata Parivar alliance partners, Janata Dal and the Congress Party. The current Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, for his part, said that the BJP were trying to polarize the electorate on the issue of beef consumption.
With all this rhetoric being thrown around in reaction to the killing and the issue of cow slaughter, two people’s voices were noticeably absent, President Pranab Mukherjee and Modi himself. That changed, ten days after the attack, when Mukherjee spoke on the 7th about India’s core civilizational values of diversity, tolerance, and plurality and Modi followed up on his comments a day later at an election rally in Nawada, Bihar. Modi reiterated Mukherjee’s points about tolerance and that India could not confront poverty if the Hindus and Muslims were confronting each other. Notably, though, Modi did not outrightly condemn the killing in Dadri and instead spoke in broad language. This is the catch-22 for Modi as his support is derived from a party that has strong elements of Hindu nationalism while he attempts to moderate the party’s message in order to improve India’s economic prospects and attract foreign investment in the country.
At some point, he is going to have to come to terms with the contradiction in his support for beef bans while at the same time encouraging India’s collective rise from poverty. Beef bans inherently harm the economic prospects for Muslims in India, while placing them at odds with the Hindu majority. By promoting divisive social issues, it may turn out the base of BJP support in larger numbers, but it serves to alienate all opposition groups that can harm implementation of his agenda across the country. The elections in Bihar may reflect whether his support has reached its apex or if these social issues are going to weaken him and the BJP in the long term. We will see by the end of November.