John Elliott: Hindu Hard-Liners in India Threaten Meat Eaters

Women worship a cow, an animal held sacred by Hindu beliefs, to seek blessing for their male child during Bach Baras festival in Ajmer, India, on August 29, 2016. John Elliott writes that gangs of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) have become vigilante enforcers, backed by frequently vicious policing. There were indiscriminate raids and attacks on shops selling lamb and on kebab restaurants, and at least one Kentucky Fried Chicken shop had to close. Himanshu Sharma/reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Municipal elections in Delhi later this month have become politically significant for Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party at a time when its political opponents and critics are gradually resigning themselves to maybe as much as a decade of increasing Hindu nationalism in India's social and political life.

The BJP is launching an intense vote-winning campaign to ensure it defeats the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that embarrassed it by winning a crushing victory in Delhi state polls just after the BJP had won the 2014 general election.

Following the BJP's landslide state assembly win in Uttar Pradesh last month, this is the next step for Modi and his strong Hindu nationalist henchman, Amit Shah, in their drive gradually to dominate the Indian political scene by the 2019 general election.

As has been seen since the Uttar Pradesh victory, Hinduisation can involve varying degrees of surges in extreme nationalist authoritarian policies. So far, these have included bans on sacred cow slaughter and police crackdowns both on slaughterhouses (mostly run by Muslims), and on the freedom for young men and women to socialize in public—backed sometimes by genuine Hindu nationalist hard-liners, but also by vigilante enforcement gangs that cause communal unrest and extort bribes from those they attack.

The flip side is that Uttar Pradesh at last seems to have a government, albeit with a firebrand Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister, that is determined to restore law and order to a seriously lawless state and also to push ahead with development. That is in stark contrast to the last 15 years of rule by two state-level regional parties.

Related: In India, intolerance undermines Modi's reforms

More widely, these developments stem from the legacy of the fading Gandhi dynasty-dominated Congress Party that in 2014 bequeathed, after 10 years in power, a country urgently needing clean, efficient and development-oriented government.

As the Modi years unfold, he is now into the second half of his five year term in office, it is clear that the price that India will have to pay for stronger government is growing and often intolerant Hindu nationalism, which horrifies India's liberals and strikes fear among Muslims and some other minorities, notably Christians.

Delhi Election

The five-yearly elections to the notoriously corrupt Delhi Municipal Corporation are rarely significant beyond the city. The BJP is currently in power, so it is not chasing a new victory, but it is determined to defeat its main competitor, the AAP led by Arvind Kejriwal, who is Delhi's chief minister and whose small party grew out of an earlier anti-corruption movement.

Modi's government has hounded the Kejriwal state administration since 2014, frequently undermining and disrupting its limited constitutional authority in Delhi's multi-tiered government structure. The municipal election on April 23 will be a test of Modi's and Shah's ability to use the BJP's organizational and financial clout to swing poor voters back from the AAP that they supported in 2014.

The BJP's triumphant and unexpected appointment on March 19 of Adityanath, a long-standing MP and Hindu monk who always dresses in saffron priest's robes, as the Uttar Pradesh's chief minister indicated that Modi is apparently content to give way sometimes to Hindu hard-liners providing the development of a strong India remains his government's top priority.

Related: Modi picks hard-line Hindu priest to govern Uttar Pradesh

That balance seemed to have been upset in Adityanath's early days, when enforcement of an existing law (which varies in different states) banning cow slaughter led to raids on slaughterhouses and also on sales of buffalo beef that is legitimately and widely eaten and exported.

Gangs of gau rakshaks (cow protectors) became vigilante enforcers, backed by frequently vicious policing. There were indiscriminate raids and attacks on shops selling lamb and on kebab restaurants—at least one Kentucky Fried Chicken shop had to close in Delhi's Uttar Pradesh satellite city of Noida.

At the same time, the government clamped down on hordes of young men who had been pestering women on the streets to such an extent that many young women did not dare go out in the evenings. This action was necessary and had not been carried out by the previous state government but, again, it was done to excess by "anti-Romeo" squads with police harassing couples and even arresting single men who were doing no harm.

Slowly, the situation calmed down. Adityanath warned that excesses would not be allowed and that "only those who do not believe in the law ought to be worried". Harsh and sometimes violent threats and action have spread.

Ayodhya Temple

The highly controversial construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu demonstrators demolished a Muslim mosque in 1991, has become a live issue. Illustrating the extreme attitudes that the Uttar Pradesh victory and Adityanath appointment have generated, a BJP state assembly members in the southern city of Hyderabad is reported to have said of those who opposed the temple, "We have been waiting for years to behead such traitors."

The Uttar Pradesh clampdown on cow slaughter spread to five other BJP-ruled states, causing outbreaks of violence and potentially upsetting the supply of milk to the dairy industry because farmers' profits partly come from selling ageing cows to slaughterhouses. Officially, Uttar Pradesh and authorities were only closing illegal operations, but the campaign spread further and the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the umbrella organization above the BJP, has called for the cow slaughter to be outlawed nationally. The Supreme Court has asked the six states involved to report by early next month on controlling the vigilante squads.

Vijay Rupani, the chief minister of Modi's home state of Gujarat that goes to the polls at the end of the year, tweeted that the "cow symbolizes all other creatures" and that the state assembly had "passed a cow protection bill, among the most stringent in the country, making cow slaughter a lifetime punishable offense."

Speaking in the assembly, he said he wanted Gujarat to become a vegetarian state which, if taken literally, would mean people not eating buffalo, lamb, mutton (goat) or chicken nor, maybe, fish. The BJP chief minister of Chhattisgarh said people who killed cows "will be hanged."

India's commerce minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told parliament that critics should recognize that cow protection was "very much the spirit behind our freedom movement" before independence.

Recognising the buildup of pressure, and indicating problems facing Muslims in the coming years, the head of a prominent Muslim shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan, has said that Muslims (who only avoid pork) should stop eating beef "to honor the religious sentiments of our Hindu brethren".

Adityanath has tried in media interviews to present a moderate face – promising to the Times of India that he would tackle "corruption, lawlessness, casteism and the politics of appeasement". This indicates that the government would not discriminate between all castes and religions, though Muslims fear that will not happen in practice.

Farmers' Bad Loans Waived

In a gesture to poor farmers saddled with bad debts, he has also implemented a BJP election manifesto promise to write off 360 billion rupees (about $5.6 billion) bad loans owed by some 21.5 million small farmers.

Political parties frequently make such pledges to win votes, even those the stated can rarely afford the costs and the move smacks more of the Gandhi dynasty's Congress policies than Modi's approach. The Reserve Bank of India criticised the waiver, saying it would "undermine an honest credit culture" and increase the cost of borrowing for others.

Modi is trying to maintain a balanced image during the extreme actions and threats of some of his prominent supporters. Addressing a student gathering on March 27, he said: "In India, God is not different for Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. The truth is one, only different people may express it differently. We are such a country which does not believe in imposing our views on anyone."

Tell that, many people will say, to RSS and other extremists in Modi's Hindu-first and Hindu nationalist political firmament.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).