Whatever its meaning in standard English, in India the word ‘Secularism’ means freedom to profess and practice the rites of any religion without harassment as guaranteed by the national constitution. Unfortunately, this freedom is being violated by communal parties. Columnist Kavita Krishnan, herself a Hindu, has called the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq the “murder of India’s secularism”.
The mob in New Delhi suburb of Dadri wanted Muslim blood, and whether the victim had eaten beef or mutton, or violated the codes of the Hindu-Rashtra-to-be, mattered little. Far away from the photo ops and boasts of Digital India, democratic India was lynched to death. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his visit to Ireland, chose to take a dig at secularism in India. While a bare hour away from the Indian capital city, New Delhi, a Muslim man was bashed to death with bricks by a mob over a rumour that he had eaten beef. The mob had been instigated by a priest who declared from a temple that the man, 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq, had eaten beef and thereby hurt Hindu sentiments. To avenge the rumoured death of a cow, a human being was done to death.
What is bizarre is the fact that in the eyes of the anti-secular discourse in India - a discourse of leaders of the ruling BJP, the Sangh Parivar of assorted Hindu groups, and some sections of the media - it is the victim who is the accused. For instance, a headline in the Hindi daily “Amar Ujala” described the incident thus: "Man accused of killing an animal dies, followed by a ruckus"
Look at the way this line uses the word "killing" for the purported cow, while describing the murder by a lynch mob as a "death". And the way outrage and anger at the lynching is trivialised by the use of the Hindi word "bawaal", which conveys an unseemly ruckus. A former MLA of India's ruling party BJP has similarly declared that those arrested for the killing of the Muslim man are "innocent kids" who got "excited" by the grave crime of eating beef.
However, those who have conscience, visited the family of the victim in the Noida hospital where the victim's son Danish who was lucky to survive the lynching, is recovering.
Akhlaq was an ironsmith who fashioned agricultural implements. He had managed to educate his children. His eldest son is in the Air Force as ground staff, and 21-year-old Danish was also studying to get into the Air Force like his brother. Their sister was witness to the terror of a mob breaking down their door, beating her grandmother, mother and herself before dragging off Akhlaq and Danish. She ran from one neighbour to another begging for help, but none came forward. In vain she insisted that the meat in their fridge was mutton not beef. The mob wanted blood, Muslim blood, and the minor detail of whether he'd eaten beef or mutton did not matter to them.
Some members of the mob have been arrested. But the real leaders of the lynch mob don't live in Dadri alone. For the past couple of months, BJP-ruled states have gone on a rampage, banning meat during a Jain festival. Bans on beef have been longer lasting, in several BJP-ruled states. Modi himself, in his speeches during the parliamentary polls, referred to the meat industry as a "pink revolution", implying that Muslims were murdering cattle, especially cows. BJP and RSS leaders have made the phrase "gow hatya" or cow murder popular, instead of cow slaughter.
Ever since the Muzaffarnagar communal violence that paved Modi's path to power, western UP has been a seething cauldron of prejudice and hatred against Muslims, kept on a slow fire and brought to a boil now and then by the Sangh Parivar. In 2002, five Dalits were lynched to death in Jhajjar, Haryana, by a frenzied mob. Since Muzaffarnagar, ironically, the Sangh Parivar has tried to mobilise Dalits too on an anti-Muslim plank, willing them to forget that the RSS has been as violent to the Dalits as it has been to Muslims and women.
In the vocabulary of the BJP and RSS, simple human actions of eating and loving are transformed into crimes. Eating beef or even non-vegetarian food (two-thirds of India is non-vegetarian and many communities and regions in India relish beef) is called murder, while love can be called rape or jihad if a Hindu woman has married a Muslim man. The lynchings, murders or kidnappings they claim are to avenge the cow or the Hindu woman who has married a Muslim man.
It is this toxic politics that killed Mohammad Akhlaq – politics that declare India to be a Hindu nation and brands every Muslim as a terrorist. Less than a week before the killing of Akhlaq, a Muslim man in Kanpur was lynched to death because of being an alleged "Pakistani terrorist". In both Kanpur and Dadri, what were the police doing while a mob gathered and beat them to death? These episodes also underline the hollowness and cynicism of what passes for dominant "secular" politics in India. UP is ruled by the SP or Samajwadi Party, which justifies every bid for power in the name of being a secular alternative to the BJP. But the SP government allowed Muslims to be massacred and made homeless in Muzaffarnagar and then callously evicted the victims from refugee camps. The same government does not bat an eye when two Muslims are killed by communal mobs in one week in UP. Can such a party and a government really be called secular?
In 1937, in the USA, Abel Meeropol wrote a powerful poem against the serial lynching of black men who would be killed – often on the pretext of raping a white woman – and hung from trees. Here are a few stanzas:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The spate of killings of black youth in the USA today reminds us that the lynchings continue, with the difference that it's now the police who do the killing. These killings, as those lynchings, are all justified on flimsy pretexts and vague suspicions that claim the victim was in some way threatening to society.
Will India wake up to at least recognise the strange and bitter fruit of Muslim men - tortured or killed in police custody as "terrorists", publicly stripped or humiliated by a mob for marrying a Hindu woman, or lynched for "eating beef, and hanged to death by the State on thin evidence to avenge the "collective conscience of the nation" – a phrase ironically coined by the Supreme Court to disguise a lynching?
US citizens who hit the streets in thousands to declare that Black Lives Matter have done much to redeem their country and fight racism. Will Indian citizens say no to lynch mobs and declare that Muslim Lives Matter?