Modi’s Sacred Cows

India's prime minister has spoken out against the killing of cows. Why hasn't he spoken out against the killing of Muslims?


In Narendra Modi’s India, is a cow’s life worth more than a Muslim’s? Sadly, the answer seems to be yes.

In late September, a Hindu mob in the northern Indian town of Dadri killed Muhammad Akhlaq, a 50-year-old Indian Muslim, for allegedly consuming and storing beef. In August 2014, Hindu extremists killed a Muslim man in North India after police charged him with the crime of slaughtering a cow. And in March 2015, a news video showing a Muslim man tied with a noose, beaten, and forced to praise the Hindu deity Ram went viral. The man’s crime? Buying and selling cows.

Of the aforementioned attacks, the attack on Akhlaq was the most galling. Union Minister Mahesh Sharma, one of the few top officials in Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to comment on Akhlaq’s killing, described it as an “unfortunate accident.” But it was murder. A mob, made up in part by members of an organization called Save the Cow, rushed toward Akhlaq’s home, smashed his skull with his wife’s sewing machine, and dragged his corpse outside. Interviewed after the attack, few of the men showed remorse. “We are more attached to the cow than our own children,” Inder Nagar, a Save the Cow member and the local state secretary of the BJP youth wing, told the New York Times.

Hindus regard the cow as an object of reverence and many see its consumption as an abomination. After Akhlaq’s murder, BJP legislator Raja Singh tweeted the sections from the Hindu text the Vedas that mandates killing people who slaughter cows. In many Indian states, including Akhlaq’s Uttar Pradesh, slaughtering a cow is illegal (though large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and others flout this law). In recent speeches, Modi has condemned the “widespread murder of our cows.” But since taking office as prime minister in May 2014, he has never directly condemned the killing of Muslims.

Modi’s political allegiance is clear. He spent decades with the RSS, or the National Volunteer Organization, a major Hindu chauvinist movement that admires fascism and seeks to transform India — a nation of 1.25 billion people that is roughly 14 percent Muslim — into a Hindu polity. And the BJP, which Modi has been a part of since 1985, is the political arm of a network of Hindutva, or Hindu fundamentalist, groups that want India to be a Hindu state.

In the months leading up to the May 2014 election that swept Modi to power, some pundits in India and abroad imagined that the country was poised to elect Modi 2.0: a center-right pragmatist who would prioritize economics above ideology and lead India to a united, secular future. Some in the United States described Modi as India’s Ronald Reagan. Others fashioned him as a libertarian railing against “red tape-ism” and governmental overregulation and inefficiency. Strikingly, even Bollywood star Mallika Sherawat jumped on the Modi train — whose influential passengers were mostly business tycoons and Hindutva activists — and described Modi as “smart, progressive, and often misunderstood.”

Believing that Modi would become a pragmatist once elected, however, proved to be a devastatingly huge mistake. In his first post-election speech in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament, Modi railed against the “1,200 years of slave mentality” afflicting India: a reference not only to the 200 years of British rule, but the 1,000 years of Muslim rule that predated it. Since he has taken office, incidents of communal violence — violence perpetrated across caste, ethnic, or religious lines — have been increasing. According to Indian government statistics, communal violence in India rose 30 percent in the first six months of 2015 from the same period last year, and of the 51 people killed during that period, 31 were Muslims.

Perhaps people should have known better. In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, Modi and the BJP incited anti-Muslim hysteria among Hindus. The BJP’s aim, as it had been in previous elections, was to break voting patterns based on caste, class, and traditional party loyalties and unite the Hindu vote. Most notable was the BJP’s campaign in the district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. In August 2013, more than 60 Muslims were killed and 50,000 made homeless in riots incited by BJP leaders, including Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah. Afterward, at a BJP campaign rally that featured Modi on the stage, an unknown speaker described the violence as “a fight between the Hindu religion and villainous Muslims.”

Most glaringly, Modi has never apologized for the 2002 Gujarat riots — a three-day outbreak of violence in which a mob slaughtered roughly 1,000 people, most of whom were Muslim. The riots, which occurred during the first year of Modi’s 13-year stint as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, were among the worst ethnic violence India had seen in decades. Although a 2012 judicial inquiry cleared Modi of wrongdoing during the riots, the fact remains that his attitude toward the event was depressingly defiant. Months after the riots, Modi mockingly described camps for Muslims displaced by the violence as “child-producing centers.” In subsequent interviews, he compared dead Muslims to a puppy run over by a car and said his greatest mistake at that time was media mismanagement. Yet Modi has been unwilling to address his moral culpability with journalists. In a 2007 interview, the respected Indian broadcast journalist Karan Thapar asked Modi why he hadn’t expressed regret for the Gujarat killings. Modi’s response? He walked out of the studio.

Modi’s attitude, along with his tacit approval of violence against Muslims, has emboldened his Hindutva allies. Over the last year, Hindu nationalists have renewed a campaign to ban religious conversions — while at the same time seeking to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Their justification? Hindutva extremists see all Indians as originally Hindu. Therefore, they believe conversion to Hinduism should be exempt from a ban because it is ghar wapsi, a homecoming. And Modi seems to agree with them: In a 2008 interview, he said, “If you return to your old home [i.e., Hinduism], it’s not conversion.”

That said, Modi has not completely refrained from condemning the attacks on India’s Muslims. A month after U.S. President Barack Obama’s January public (though subtle) chiding of Modi’s failure to speak out against religious intolerance, Modi gave a speech pledging to preserve the “complete freedom of faith” in India. Responding to a spate of early 2015 attacks on churches, Modi disingenuously called on both the “majority” religion and “minority” religions to stop inciting hatred. Communal violence seemed to drop until the summer — when Modi allies like yoga guru and business mogul Baba Ramdev loudly called for Muslim population control. And on Sept. 27, a day before Akhlaq’s murder, an Indian Muslim man was lynched after being falsely accused of terrorism.

Many Indians are pained that Modi hasn’t condemned Akhlaq’s murder. But does Modi sympathize more with Akhlaq’s murderers? In 2003, he said the “main strength” of Gujarat is its vegetarianism — a nod to high-caste Hindus, who are mostly vegetarian. The meat eaters, he slyly told a journalist, “have a different temperament.” And though beef is a cheap and needed source of protein for the (especially Muslim) poor, Modi’s government is considering instituting a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.

The message is clear: In Modi’s India, the life of a cow has greater value than that of a Muslim.

Image credit: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images

Arif Rafiq is the president of Vizier Consulting. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola