Meat and Murder

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Some days ago, in a nondescript village named Dadri in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, a mob dragged a blacksmith named Mohammed Akhlaq out of his home and bludgeoned him to death. They also beat his son, leaving him with severe head injuries and possibly brain damage. The “provocation” was a rumor that a cow had been killed in the village for its meat, and the Akhlaqs – one of only two Muslim families in Dadri – has some meat in their freezer. The mob included multiple BJP men and their relatives. Some have been arrested, although trial and conviction are another matter; various high-ups in the party are already clamoring for their release. The meat in the freezer was sent off to a lab to determine if it was in fact beef; the lab has gone mysteriously silent about its findings. Because the incident was both shocking and commonplace (another lynching has already occurred), it is far from over.

The commonplace character of what happened in Dadri should be readily apparent to those familiar with the politics of lynching in modern India. It has all the usual ingredients: not just religious identity, but caste, class, gender, and the complicity of the state. It’s a Thakur village, the locals sullenly told journalists, as if that explained the murder, and indeed, it provides a part of the explanation. Lynching, along with rape, is an established mechanism of the maintenance of upper-caste dominance in the rural north. It was in a Thakur village, Behmai, that Phoolan Devi was famously gang-raped and paraded naked. In Dadri, as in Behmai, it was a male crowd; such violence is a normative performance of masculine dominance and a reminder that public space in northern India is pathologically homosocial. The perpetrators seem to have come from the demographic that straddles the village and the city in a country that is economically liberalized but ideologically illiberal: cell-phone-toting goons, not poor but viscerally hostile both to the cosmopolitan elite and to the marginal. Typically, the police come from the same classes and show the same inclinations. Days after the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq, a video emerged of a Dalit family in Dankaur (on the outskirts of Delhi), naked before a milling crowd of cops and onlookers. The family had wanted to report a theft; the police had refused to file a report. Dalit activists claimed the family was stripped and beaten by the police for complaining too much; the police insisted the family had stripped in a voluntary act of protest. The Dadri and Dankaur incidents are "old" phenomena, rooted in patterns of dominance and vulnerability, uppity-ness and punishment, that have marked the informal exercise of power in India for decades.These things happen, as Jyoti Basu once said.

Pointing out that “oldness” has, in fact, been the response of the government and its defenders, confronted with the backlash from liberal intellectuals. Most prominently, forty-odd writers, Sahitya Akademi prize-winners, have returned their awards in protest against the Akademi’s silence in the face of violence and repression, leading the BJP Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma – whose views on culture are disturbingly reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels – to retort that the protesters expressed no comparable outrage when “these things” happened in the past. Sharma and his ilk have a point, in the sense that Indian liberals have generally treated egregious violations of the rights of minorities as an aberration, albeit a chronic problem, within a nationhood they embraced.

But what the defenders of the regime refuse to acknowledge is that the current situation is also substantially new. The lynching of Akhlaq is one piece of a larger crisis of Indian nationhood, marked by, among other things, the BJP’s energetic efforts to police meat-eating, the murder of the “rationalist” writer M.M. Kalburgi, the banning of Pakistani musicians from Mumbai, the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from Garba celebrations in Gujarat, and a pattern of silence and vitriol from the government in which the prime minister maintains an icy silence while his underlings and affiliates spew hate (and eventually claim they were misquoted). Indeed, it was Kalburgi’s murder, not Akhlaq’s, that precipitated the current protests; the death of a liberal Hindu and Sahitya Akademi member has miraculously enfolded the death of a Muslim villager. Similarly, the Shiv Sena’s assault on the journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni – a former BJP man who had refused to back down from promoting a book by a former Pakistani minister – has enfolded and highlighted the relentless drip-drip of hate-crimes against Muslims. Now that Hindutva has reached the stage of devouring its own, its other depredations touch the lives of those who never had occasion to doubt their place in the nation. That package of problems is more or less unprecedented in India, although not in Bangladesh or even Pakistan. And it is that proximity – the realization that India, with its smugness about democratic traditions and constitutional liberties, is now unmistakably like Bangladesh or Pakistan – that is at the heart of the outrage. The yeh daag daag ujaala moment, which came early to Pakistan, is finally, undeniably, India's moment also.

What appears to be a quixotic and hypocritical protest, targeting a literary association for the failings of the state, is thus increasingly coherent and meaningful. It is not really aimed at the Sahitya Akademi or even its feckless leadership. Everybody – including the government – understands that it is aimed at the state. This is why the police have already begun visiting the protesting writers, asking questions about conspiracies that might have a bearing on “security,” and harassing journalists who publicize the politics of beef. It is not limited to the state either. Rather, it recognizes that the state is functioning in a mutually sustaining but deniable and sometimes conflicted partnership with an assortment of reactionary forces, including a section of civil society. It is, in that sense, an unprecedented rebellion against a dispensation that is diffused through Indian society, and the discovery of a “voice” that had been all but lost after the BJP’s victory in the last general election.

The protests are unprecedented because the dispensation itself has no apparent precedent. Indian nationalism has had a powerful reformist element from the outset. From Ram Mohun Roy through Vidyasagar and Vivekananda to Rabindranath, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, to be Indian was to see moral reevaluation and social reform – sometimes articulated along the lines of the Enlightenment and sometimes in more innovative idioms, but always in terms of an incomplete structure of social justice – as desirable. This provided a way of answering the most basic questions of anti-colonial nationalism in a newly imagined  polity – “Who is Indian?” and “What is independence for?” – in ways that were not narrowly ethnic or self-defeating, and it underlay Indian secularism and cosmopolitanism. It was a minority position, and few “reformists” actually married widows, forgot their caste, or told their daughters that careers mattered more than marrying "a suitable boy." Nevertheless, the premise that nationhood must be transformational outlasted the colonial specter that had long made reformism suspect. It informed the ability of Calcutta-born Bengali-speakers to feel at home in Kerala, Rajasthan and Delhi, the writing of the Indian Constitution, the phenomenon of Nehruvian optimism, and respectable public discourse well beyond Nehru. It may have been inconsistent and internally conflicted, but it was real, the outcome of generations of political and intellectual labor.

The major premises of the new dispensation, on the other hand, deny that reform and social justice are existential concerns of nationhood. One is the Savarkarite formulation that Indianness is ethnic even when it is transregional: when Hindu identity is complete, so is Indianness. Another is the older idea that reformism is “western” and antithetical to a stable national essence. The third, which particularly suffuses the BJP’s urban, NRI and middle-class supporters, is that they are already reformed and introspection and change are both unnecessary and offensive. The rhetoric of people like Mahesh Sharma and Narendra Modi encapsulates all three premises. Taken together, they amount to a violently exclusionary and majoritarian posture of citizenship.

The triumph of that posture cannot be blamed entirely on the Modi government. It has been nearly thirty years since India did away with jus soli, which automatically conferred citizenship upon those born on Indian soil. The new doctrine of inherited citizenship and naturalization at the discretion of the state brought India in line with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (which also discarded birthright citizenship) and other European countries with strong ethnic anxieties, seeking to keep the pitribhumi safe from Bangladeshi migrants, Pakistani infiltrators and overstaying hippies. (Pakistan, it is worth noting, still has jus soli, as a residue of its foundational ideology and English common law.) The Indian intelligentsia accepted it, barely noticing either the amendment of the law or its ideological implications. In doing so, it displayed the timid, shallow, backsliding liberalism of a class that not only lacked confidence, but felt guilty about its place in the national vanguard.  Because it remained unconvinced by what it might say in protest, the right to free expression remained compromised and muted for all but those who had recourse to the brute force of majorities and mobs. I am reminded of another writerly spat: Sunil Gangopadhyay refusing to defend Taslima Nasreen, saying “We are not ready for that kind of freedom of speech.” By that fearful logic, “we” are ready for neither independence nor universal suffrage. It is precisely this complicity in repression that set the stage for the predicament of the present time, when membership in the national community is literally a matter of flesh and blood.

In this citizenship of pure and impure DNA, what you eat is intertwined with where you belong, and anything can happen to the impure of mouth and mind. The Chief Minister of Haryana can resort to dietary intimidation, blacksmiths and intellectuals can be murdered, Northeastern women can be sexually victimized in the national capital because they are whores anyway, and Muslim journalists who criticize the dispensation can be abused in the filthiest terms on online forums. Naseeruddin Shah, the most acclaimed actor India has produced, can find himself under attack for the mildest praise of Pakistan, and must respond that he is a patriot who has never been aware of being Muslim. Shah's response is a nicety of secular-Indian speech, but it is nevertheless true that there were contexts in which Indians could forget their “communities.” Now those contexts have shrunk dramatically not just for “minorities” and the “sickular,” but also for insufficiently pure insiders, as L.K. Advani discovered a few years ago when he was nearly drummed out of the BJP for praising Jinnah, and a blackened Kulkarni (Advani’s erstwhile adviser) discovered last week. But this collapsing of the lines between the safe majority and unsafe minorities has made it possible to connect the dots between dead blacksmiths and dead rationalists, naked Dalit women charged with public indecency and middle-class girls assaulted by the Shri Ram Sene for going to a nightclub, embattled thespians of "a certain community" and the embattled liberal arts, the silence of writers and artists clinging to their awards and the silence of the prime minister.

The web of lines connecting the dots holds up the little rebellion of artists and intellectuals. Indians who greeted the election results of 2014 with a phlegmatic refusal to catastrophize, choosing to give the pragmatists and moderates in the dispensation the benefit of the doubt, are less sanguine now; indeed, few would have foreseen how bad things would get, and how quickly. “We” are now one step away from a situation in which boycott, divestment and international isolation would be not only justified but an ethical imperative. It might be said, borrowing a phrase from Zionist discourse, that such a move would “delegitimize” India. But by falling back on an ethnic-majoritarian raison d’etre, the Indian nation-state has come very close to delegitimizing itself. It is only fitting that this week, the Indian president was in Tel Aviv, telling his hosts that India and Israel are separated twins, united by their love of democracy and diversity. And by increasingly valid questions about legitimacy, he might have added.

For “patriots,” a conventional measure of the legitimacy of the nation is the question, “Would you fight for it?” That is no longer a simple question in the Indian case, because what would the patriot be fighting for? An expansive circle of justice, or the squalid vulgarity of the ethnic group? Mohammed Akhlaq had a son in the Indian Air Force, and another who looked forward to joining. Naseeruddin Shah's brother was a general in the Indian Army. When that is not enough to guarantee inclusion in the nation, the nation-state has become indefensible.

October 17, 2015