The buck stops with Modi

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Vegetarianism is unavoidable for the purity of thoughts and actions. It is a kind of purity of means. You reap what you sow… we have to listen to and understand the pain of speechless animals being taken to the slaughterhouse.

Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, said on 2 October 2003 at a public function to commemorate the 135th birth anniversary of MK Gandhi in Porbandar.


We Hindus consider cows as our mothers and sacred, too. Muslims have killed a cow. Now is the time to wake up and take revenge for this cruel deed of the Muslims by beating them to death. To kill the demons in the guise of the Muslims who perform such cruel deeds to behead a sacred cow, that is our real religion and our sacred duty.

Pamphlet published by Hindu Yuvak Mandal, a Hindutva group


Don’t get confused: this pamphlet is not from Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, where a mob of militant Hindus lynched a 50-year old Muslim man on 28 September for allegedly stealing and killing a cow, and eating beef. This pamphlet is older and is in Gujarati, dating back to 1985 when Ahmedabad was in the grip of communal violence. It was widely distributed by Sangh Parivar activists in the days leading up to the riots that year.

The pamphlet helped to spread a rumour that Muslims had beheaded “Jasola”, a cow owned by the Saryudasji temple, left its bleeding head at the temple gate and written with its blood that “Hindus are kafirs and pigs”. Historian Ornit Shani says this rumour played a crucial role in changing the trajectory of the 1985 riots, which had started with the upper castes, furious at the upward mobility of Dalits who had benefited from reservation, targeting them. Rumours around Jasola were used by Hindutva activists to mobilise politically assertive Dalits (who, in fact, shared similar class position and dietary practices with Muslims) as footsoldiers to unleash violence against Muslims.

So, does that explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot really speak out against the Dadri lynching? “Rumour, especially rumours related to cow slaughter, is historically a powerful tool used by the RSS to create the false image of a Muslim enemy who is marauding ‘Mother India’. Modi has conveniently employed ‘meat and cow politics’ to build his image of Hindu Hridaya Samrat,” points out historian KN Panikkar.

Now, cut to Modi’s Porbander speech. As social anthropologist Parvis Ghassem- Fachandi notes in his ethnographic work titled Pogrom in Gujarat, Modi (who was under attack then from several quarters for allegedly engineering, or at least abetting, the pogrom by invoking Newton’s third law of motion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction) went on to distinguish between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food in a shrewd manner in this speech.

“According to the ancient Vedic texts of India, there is ‘fire’ (Agni) in the stomach (Kund)… if a vegetable or fruit or food grain is put in fire, then that fire and its container is called a Yagya Kund (vessel for sacrificial fire), but if dead flesh is put in fire, then that fire becomes the fire of a ‘shamshaan bhoomi’ or the fire of the funeral pyre. The fire of Yagya (sacrifice) gives life, energy, strength and piety, while the fire of the ‘shamshaan’ consumes and converts dirt to dirt and ashes to ashes,” Modi said.

Ghassem-Fachandi argues that the “distinction Modi drew between ‘Yagna’ and ‘shamshaan’, sacrifice offering life and consumption signifying death, is analogous to that between eating vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, as well as to that between Hindu and Muslim”. “Those who consume vegetables make a sacrifice by renouncing meat and thus attain life. Those who eat flesh, however, convert themselves into a funeral pyre. They become the death that they have ingested,” he writes. This scheme of thought allows people who eat non-vegetarian food to be presented as alien to Hindu, and therefore Indian, culture.

Soon after he took charge as acting chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, Modi polarised the state along communal lines by giving polemical speeches on allegedly Muslim-owned illegal slaughterhouses that “steal and kill gau mata”. Sagar Rabari, a Gujarat-based human rights activist, recalls that the Modi regime worked in tandem with private cow and animal rights organisations (mostly NGOs) and other militant cow protection outfits affiliated to the Sangh Parivar. Modi initiated police action against Muslim-owned slaughterhouses that were allegedly killing cows and the vernacular media hyped it with sensational headlines and lies and half-truths presented as news.

Looking at the content of the propaganda literature brought out by these organisations, it becomes clear that they were interested more in killing “beef-eating Muslims” than in protecting the cow. Their campaigns always invoked Gujarat’s rich tradition of Ahimsa and contrasted it with the violent, cow-killing, beef-eating Muslim. The violent eating habits of the Muslim, the campaign insinuated, were also reflected in his carnal inclinations and practices. Muslim male sexuality was presented as dangerously aggressive and predatory (Tamasik). To add to the fear factor, it was propagated that these men were especially after vegetarian (Sattvik) upper-caste Hindu/Jain women. The campaigns managed to turn this into something akin to common sense for a substantial section of the Hindu population.

Many studies of the 2002 pogrom suggest that fear of “non-vegetarian Muslim sexuality” drove many Hindu men to unleash brutal forms of sexual violence on Muslim women. Yet, Modi saw no contradiction in announcing plans to promote “Ahimsa tourism” in Gujarat soon after he allegedly justified this “post- Godhra” violence.

“Ahimsa” and the myth of the holy cow were indeed key to Modi consolidating his political position in Gujarat, and proved useful even in his march to Delhi. In 2012, he invoked cow protection at a meeting of the Jain International Trade Organisation and repeated it at a programme to commemorate the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap the same year. Two years later, he said the same thing at a programme convened by Baba Ramdev in Delhi. It was a refrain in Modi’s Lok Sabha election campaign in Nawada, Bihar and Ghaziabad, UP.

Modi cleverly played with the image of Sri Krishna’s relationship with the cow to attack Yadav leaders Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav for their closeness to the UPA that was allegedly unleashing the “pink revolution”. Images of Muslim butchers stealing mother cow were also widely propagated.

Despite all the propaganda, once in power Modi did not disturb India’s thriving buffalo exports. In fact, the first year of the new regime saw a growth in exports. Meanwhile, his coterie took extra care to create an aura around his vegetarian food habits and carefully created an image of the “non-vegetarian other”, the “Mlecchas” in Hindu India.

Scientific historiography has proved that cow is not a holy animal as claimed by the champions of Hindutva. Pathbreaking research by DN Jha establishes that there was rampant killing of cattle and eating of beef among upper-caste Hindus in the Vedic and late Vedic times, a historical period eulogised by the Sangh Parivar.

Stereotyping of Muslims and other beef-eaters, including Dalits and Adivasis, is organically connected to Hindutva and integral to its dream project of a Hindu Rashtra. That is why it seems beyond Hindu Hriday Samrat Narendra Modi, a past master of Hindutva politics, to say a genuine sorry to Mohammad Akhlaq’s family.

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