Saturday, October 19, 2002

Holy cow, holy war

By Swami Agnivesh and Valson Thampu

The lynching of five Dalits Virender, Dayanand, Kailash, Raju Gupta and Tota Ram in Jhajjar in Haryana, reportedly by a frenzied mob, for skinning a dead cow, is yet another pointer to the criminality that marks mob behaviour, thanks to the communal manipulation of mass religiosity by those who wish to thrive by it. The brutal massacre of five citizens is bad enough. What is absolutely shocking is the fact that they were hijacked from police custody and lynched. It raises a host of questions that cry out for answers.

The disturbing trend, however, is that the truth about events coloured by communalism can never be known.

There are at least three aspects to this gruesome event that must engage our attention. The first is the sickness of religion it portends. The sanctity that the cow enjoys in Hindu sentiments is well-established. Even Babar in his memoirs laid special emphasis on respecting it.

The cow has both ritualistic and symbolic implications for Hindus. Ritualistically, it is entwined with the intuition of the divine, especially at the meeting point between the physical and the metaphysical. Symbolically, the cow points to the sanctity of the non-human part of creation, without which human beings tend to vandalise the rest of creation, as in materialistic cultures. A commitment to develop a caring attitude towards creation as a whole is hence integral in the reverence for the cow.

That caring attitude must be evident in caring for cows in India. The disturbing truth is that a 5,000-strong mob, allegedly led by VHP leaders, could collect at the drop of a hat to lynch those who skinned a dead cow. But it is doubtful if there would be even five among them willing to take care of living cows that desperately need care and protection. It is a sign of religious sickness that the eagerness to kill and destroy in the name of religion far outweighs the willingness to live up to its positive ideals.

We do not know how the cow in the present episode died; whether someone other than the five victims killed it or whether it died of starvation, a street accident, old age or sickness. It is almost certain that no one among the murderous mob asked these questions. Nor would it have occurred to them that being a friend of cows involves much more than being enemies of the enemies of cows.

What this event points to is a problem endemic in religion: the negative definition of religious sentiments. Even those who condemn others for their atheism or irreligious attitude could actually be living a life completely devoid of the ethical and spiritual core of their religious tradition.

The plight of the cows that are seen roaming our streets, thousands of them feasting mostly on plastic bags and dying with extreme pain after consuming these synthetic and deadly delicacies, should intensely distrub a devout Hindu than the sight of someone skinning a dead cow. But who cares?

The second major issue this event raises is the increasing legitimisation of organised crime camouflaged in communal sentiments. It is now a matter of settled public perception that the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes will enjoy immunity if they parade themselves in communal costumes. This has been so for a long time. Sadly, we do not have a respectable track record of dealing with communal atrocities according to the law of the land.

The additional note to this symphony of institutionalised mayhem is the trend among politicians and law-enforcing agencies to use the excuse of mob frenzy to justify lawlessness and the clear dereliction of duty on the part of the State in such situations. Atal Bihari Vajpayees excuse in Parliament for the destruction of Babri masjid is a case in point. He explained it away as an eruption of irresistible public sentiments, as though mob frenzy is a talisman that shifts crime to the zone of legitimacy.

What is beyond any dispute is that no civilised society can afford to entertain such notions and excuses. Public statements like these, from the highest functionaries of the Indian State, complement the communal bias that is created by vested interests and subvert the rule of law. Going by the ghastly Haryana event, even the police now seem to have no qualms in excusing their culpable inaction on the alibi of irresistible mob frenzy. That was also heard, with distressing regularity, after the post-Godhra State-sponsored genocide in Gujarat.

The seed for this may well be hidden in a gross misunderstanding and abuse of the provisions in Article 25(1) of the Constitution, which reads: Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this part... There can be no doubt about the foresight and fairness of the intention behind these words in a multi-religious democracy. But events in recent times speak aloud of the extent to which the conditionality of public order can be communally misused against those who are powerless.

Those who can mobilise and incite the masses can subvert the life and liberty of others by contriving threats to public order. The creation of public disorder then becomes a convincing proof that the activity involved whether it is propagating ones faith or skinning a dead cow is illegitimate. What is grossly overlooked in this process is the duty of the secular State to maintain law and order and to defend the rights of all citizens equally, and at any cost.

We had a taste of this reality recently. The peace and communal harmony yatra we were organising was banned in Ayodhya on the pretext that it would disturb the law and order situation there, whereas those who enjoy political clout under the present regime in Delhi and openly preach vitriolic communal violence enjoy full freedom of movement and speech.

The third issue here is that of the wilful collapse or paralysis of the State. Increasingly, the readiness of the State to invoke legal provisions against those who spread communal hate and disturb peace and harmony is being dictated by the clout of the offenders. People like Bal Thackeray, Abdullah Bukhari, Ashok Singhal, Praveen Togadia, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Narendra Modi simply dont care for linguistic or social inhibitions. They can make the most inflammatory statements, defy the rule of law, and rest assured of their immunity from all consequences. The political culture of this country is taking a tragic turn by which the mettle of ones leadership is proved by defying the rule of law publicly.

This is where Tehelkas exposure is a turning point. It proves that it is those who violate the law who are glorified; those who expose their corruption are hounded.

The lynching of the five Dalit youths in Haryana is not, thus, a local event. It is a symbolic pointer to the degeneration that is overtaking the country. This descent to de facto anarchy must be arrested forthwith. Allowing the law to take its course and bringing the criminals, irrespective of their clout, colour or creed, to justice is the first step towards national regeneration. If we fail to do this, then the nation is doomed.

Source: Hindustan Times, October 19, 2002


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