One doesn’t often see a respected international media house asking a democratic republic’s prime minister to break his silence in an editorial. Even more rare is it to see this “silence” tagged with the adjective “shameful”. The New York Times did exactly that today, 4 August 2016. The editorial forewarns Mr. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, of the bleak future awaiting him and his political party if he “does not break his shameful silence on cow vigilantes, and reset his political compass on a course of economic opportunity, dignity and justice.”
Poignantly, the newspaper has done its homework. It has recounted a number of instances of vigilante violence against the country’s Dalits and Muslims. It has also documented the very visible and vocal support these vigilantes are getting from elements entrenched in the regime. It quoted the President of the Bhartiya Janata Party, a right wing political party in power, as well as elected members of the country’s legislative bodies.
As a result, the newspaper cannot be faulted by say anti or post-colonial victimhood pretensions, racism, or even the time tested patriotic “don’t interfere in our country’s internal affairs” ruse.
The government of India has in the past claimed caste issues as an “internal matter of India”. It did that, for instance, when it opposed demands to make caste based discrimination an aspect of racial discrimination at the Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, 2001 and also in its failed opposition to Britain’s decision of including caste based discrimination as aspect of racism in its Equality Act, 2010.
It has repeatedly asserted that the Indian State was making all attempts to put an end to caste-based discrimination. This, ironically, goes against its own glorious legacy of struggle against apartheid in South Africa. One can simply ask, as was asked earlier too: “If caste issues are an internal matter of India, would not apartheid be an internal issue of the governments of apartheid-era South Africa?
Vigilante violence is essentially lawless, and any government supporting it either by commission or omission cannot claim to be a government abiding by the rule of law and thus immune to the international community’s scrutiny in its internal matters. Sadly, the incumbent government of India has supported such violence since it came to power in May 2014. Instead of strengthening police and justice institutions, it has been accused, often convincingly, of trying to align law enforcement with vigilantes affiliated with regressive politics.
India has witnessed numerous cases of cow vigilantes attacking those they suspect of smuggling cows, with the law enforcement agencies choosing to look away. The police have mostly remained a silent spectator to such attacks/beatings/lynchings and have then booked the victims, not the tormentors, under the animal cruelty act.
Ironically, it would be difficult to fault them for what India has become today: It is an India where the remarks of Bihar M.P. Rajesh Ranjan, alias Pappu Yadav, were expunged from the records of Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, for privileging the life of a human over that of a cow, and thus offending sensibilities of a few fellow parliamentarians!
Yes, you have read right. The Parliament of India found the statement privileging life of a human over that of a cow being unparliamentarily and expunged it!
Now, the recurrent and increasingly violent cow vigilante attacks on Dalits and Muslims should have put the government in a fire-fighting mode and restore the law and order, at least. Its tacit support to the lawless crowds, on the other hand, has sent a different message altogether: any group capable of indulging in violence can get whatever it wants. The country has seen the gory consequences of the message ever since: the violence that rocked Gujarat when the Patels, a caste community, demanded reservation; when Haryana burned for days over a similar demand by the Jat community; and when in Andhra Pradesh the Kapus came to the streets.
This time, however, the stakes have gone up; is not merely the vigilantes who are on the streets. The victims, dejected with the State’s failure in protecting them, and convinced of its tacit support to perpetrators, are on the streets too. Gujarat has been on the boil, as Dalits are on the streets seeking justice. Had they turned violent like the vigilantes, it would have resulted in mayhem.
Alas, it is not about Gujarat alone. Both the attacks and anger against these attacks are at a tipping point, at the very least in the states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. This is almost half of India in terms of population. With Gujarat alone having caused so much consternation, the message is on the wall.
It is high time for the government of India, and its Prime Minister, to take heed of the advice, act against cow vigilantes, and invest in providing economic opportunity, dignity, and justice. It must also remember that just reigning in the vigilantes will not suffice; disbanding them altogether is the only way ahead.
Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong