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How “Cow Vigilantes” Launched India’s Lynching Epidemic

Narendra Modi is presiding over a new, bloody politics surrounding the consumption of beef—one that could destroy the soul of Indian democracy.

Arun Sankar/Getty Images

India has been beset by a wave of gruesome lynchings. And at the epicenter of the country’s violent upheaval is the indolent cow. Emboldened by an ascendant Hindu nationalist movement, coupled with a controversial government ban on cattle slaughter, so-called cow-vigilante groups have been carrying out a ruthless form of mob justice, summarily executing those suspected of killing, trading, or consuming beef. India’s embattled minorities, particularly Muslims, have borne the brunt of the violence, confirming the worst suspicions about what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindu chauvinism would unleash on the country.

The atrocities have steadily been mounting. In September 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq was hanged over rumors that he killed a cow and refrigerated its meat. A month later, 16-year-old Zahid Rasool Bhaat was slain by vigilante groups. In March of this year, suspected cattle traders Muhammed Majloom and Azad Khan were lynched. In April, 55-year old dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was accused of smuggling cows and was brutally beaten to death. In May, traders were assaulted for alleged beef storage, and Abu Hanifa and Riazuddin Ali were killed for purportedly stealing cattle. In June, Ainul Ansari was attacked on suspicion of transporting beef, while 15-year-old Junaid Khan was stabbed to death by a mob after being branded a beef eater.

Since September of last year, there have been more than a dozen lynchings across the country. Modi, who was feted by Donald Trump at the White House in June, has been ominously quiet on the issue.

Two cases in particular—of Pehlu Khan and Junaid Khan—offer the starkest evidence to date that an indelible rot is growing in the Indian Republic. Pehlu Khan’s death at the hands of cow vigilantes in Rajasthan occurred with the complicity of the crowd, who collectively bayed for his execution. It was also captured on camera, and subsequently watched by millions on social media. Just as chilling was the muted response that followed, as Aatish Taseer argued in a column for The New York Times:

Like all forms of theater, a lynching depends on what is left unsaid; it creates a mood, an atmosphere. The silence that settles in after the euphoric act of violence, which all have witnessed, tells a minority group that it has been forsaken. It is this element of a suggestive and creeping threat, in which the state apparatus and a silent majority are complicit, that has the power to demoralize a community as much as the physical acts of violence.

In the case of Junaid Khan, police were unable to produce a witness for the grim spectacle of his stabbing death, despite the fact that some 200 people had been assembled on the railway platform in Haryana where the killing took place. This kind of “unseeing” has become common—as Aarti Sethi writes, lynchings are a “social non-event in contemporary India.” This is an extreme form of alienation, in which Hindus have chosen to disregard the dead body of a Muslim child. In doing so, they symbolically withdrew Junaid’s membership from the socio-political order.

The country’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the stewardship of Modi and his openly Hindutva (“Hindu-first”) platform, have done little to stem the rise in communal tensions. They have not denounced this barbarism with conviction, only paying reluctant lip service in the face of incessant public pressure.

In fact, much of the hysteria over the cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, was shrewdly engineered. During Modi’s election campaign in 2014, he railed against a “pink revolution,” a euphemism for India’s $5 billion-a-year meat export industry (the color pink is a reference to the color of beef), which was flourishing under Congress Party rule. The industry is concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, providing direct or indirect employment to around 2.5 million people. The sector is dominated by Muslims but also provides work to low-caste Hindus, which means the surge in cow protectionism has had a disproportionate impact on those communities.

“Do you want to support people who want to bring about a Pink Revolution?” Modi bellowed on the campaign trail.

It should come as no surprise that, in the three years since the BJP took the reins of power, India has witnessed a growing climate of intolerance against minorities. Whipping up communal strife is a necessary part of the Hindu nationalist playbook. But the roots of the current crisis, in which the life of a cow is considered more sacred than that of a teenaged boy, go much deeper than Modi, reaching into the fundamental battle for modern India’s soul, between illiberal Hindutva forces and a pluralistic tradition that has rarely looked so vulnerable.

This is why Modi’s adherents have constructed a grand monolithic narrative to justify their actions, one that proclaims cultural continuity of tradition and that pivots upon a retrograde Brahmanical core. The complex history of the priestly caste is papered over with strident assertions of Brahmanical purity, of which vegetarianism and the sanctity of the cow are indispensable components.

Under this worldview, the golden age of Hindu rule in the Vedic period, subsequently sullied by foreign pollutants—the British, yes, but the rapacious Muslim in particular—is to be channeled into twenty-first-century renewal, piloted by an arbitrary set of “Hindu values.” And foremost among these is the inviolability of the cow.

However, this schema suffers from a significant flaw: A pristine and contiguous Hindu civilization in which the cow’s sanctity was upheld is disputed by the historical record. It is little more than embellished mythmaking. Much like other appeals to a bygone era of civilizational supremacy and homogeneity, it is thoroughly a product of modernity. The concept of a “Hindu” India was largely shaped by nineteenth-century European Indologists, and it gained traction, along with competing nationalist ideologies like Mahatma Gandhi’s, in response to British colonialism.

The BJP, as well as its ideological parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, peddle a version of nationalism that prioritizes exclusivity, in which Indians are rigidly defined by ethnicity and religion. The trope of the cow is thus a convenient instrument, measuring the allegiance to the nation along gastronomical—and thereby spiritual—lines. Non-Hindus are deemed a surplus population, and violence against them is sanctioned in an attempt to cleanse the true body politic.

We have seen versions of this story play out across the world, in response to the failures of technocratic elites and the supposed champions of pluralistic democracy. In India’s case, the Congress Party became mired in corruption scandals, paving the way for Modi and the BJP to present themselves as pragmatic reformers. And indeed, that is how Modi is generally conveyed in the international press, with a focus on his attempts to overhaul India’s sclerotic tax system and to root out endemic corruption.

But the crucial ingredient is the way Modi has tapped into the nostalgic impulse. Svetlana Boym, a Russian-American philologist, has described this as the “historical emotion” of modernity, and argued that attempts to create a “phantom homeland” through ahistorical restoration would only breed monstrous consequences. As she writes in The Future of Nostalgia, it is a “restorative nostalgia” that “is at the core of recent national and religious revivals. It knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy.”

And so we inhabit a landscape where MAGA caps, Little England, the Hindu Rashtra, and the Islamic Caliphate have arrested the imagination of millions. These are all overtures to an Edenic past, promising an order that preserves tradition by purifying society of contagion.

Modi’s two central agendas—economic development and Hindu cultural revival— compete with one another for headlines. Yet his commitment to pandering to the far right has never truly been in question. The creation of communal discord crystallizes the BJP’s ambition to alter history and hegemonize “Indian values” as exclusively Hindu values. The party has eagerly deployed Hindu symbols and myths to convert nostalgia into electoral support. So far this approach has been extremely successful: Close to half of Indians now dwell in BJP-controlled states, devoid of an effective opposition.

Modi rode to power on a reformist platform, but it has been overshadowed by his nationalist pageantry. There is a real danger that his party will accelerate social tensions to maintain legitimacy, as it concentrates its energies on achieving political and ideological dominance rather than addressing the country’s many economic and social problems. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of partition, the soul of the Indian Republic is teetering on a moral precipice, as the state and street fuse together to breed a vigilante nation.