India's Prime Minister Modi Stands By as Cow Vigilantes Terrorize India

Digvijay Nath Tiwari, commander of a Hindu nationalist vigilante group to protect cows, with animals he claimed to have saved from slaughter, in Agra, India, on August 8. Prem Shankar Jha writes that cow vigilantes take pride in their work and have taken to posting on the internet videos of the beatings they dished out. One beautifully shot clip shows young men clad in jeans and T-shirts beating barebacked, dirt-poor men and boys who are on their knees begging for mercy. Cathal McNaughton/reuters

This article first appeared in the Chatham House magazine The World Today.

There is something quixotic about a nation of 1.3 billion people being convulsed over the slaughter of overaged cows that would otherwise starve to death, or die horribly after eating plastic from a rubbish bin.

But there is nothing farcical about the absolute ban on the slaughter of cows imposed by Narendra Modi's Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in every state where it has captured power, and its surreptitious use of vigilante groups to enforce it.

Every veterinarian who has studied the Hindu attachment to the cow has railed against the ban for being cruel and perverse. India has more than 300 million cattle—a third of the world's bovine population—but only 3 percent of the globe's arable land.

The fodder it grows is sufficient for, at most, 60 percent of its livestock. About 140 million cattle are therefore chronically undernourished. As a result, a huge number of usually overaged cattle or male calves made redundant by the tractor are driven into the forests to starve to death.

The export of beef has provided an alternative. As a result, there are more than 3,500 slaughterhouses that export 2 million metric tons of "beef" a year, though most of this is officially classified as water buffalo. The trade provides more than 2 million jobs, mostly to Muslims and Hindu Dalits (the former Untouchables), a safety valve Modi's government is determined to close.

The apparent explanation for this perverse compassion is that India is a mainly Hindu country, and Hindus worship the cow. But that does not explain why another BJP-led coalition government, which ruled the country from 1998 till 2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, never raised the issue.

The answer is to be found in a quiet retrogression that has occurred within the Hindu nationalist movement, collectively called the Sangh Parivar, in the past decade.

Like other ideological movements that seek power democratically, the Sangh Parivar has been racked by a struggle between its parliamentary wing, the BJP and its organizational wing, headed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

In 1998-2004, the parliamentary wing was ascendant. Today, it is the RSS that is calling the shots.

Banning the slaughter of cows has been a major goal of the RSS since its inception in the 1920s. But until Modi became prime minister, it had failed to find a leader in the BJP who would make it a part of his national policy. This was because of the relentless pressure exerted by India's voting system, which forces parties to dilute their ideology and enter into coalitions.

The need to do this became apparent in 1991 when, after eight years of stoking Hindu sentiment over the need to replace a derelict mosque supposedly built over the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama with a temple, the BJP secured only 20.4 percent of the national vote and won only 120 out of 544 parliamentary seats.

Vajpayee and his deputy L.K. Advani therefore set out to secularize the BJP by inducting retired civil servants, army officers and politicians from other political parties. This strategy brought a BJP-led coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to power in 1998 and again after a snap election, in 1999.

On the pretext of having to accommodate its coalition partners, Vajpayee kept die-hard Hindu ideologues favored by the RSS out of the Cabinet. The latter did not take this lying down.

Within weeks of the formation of the government in 1998, they raised a hue and cry against conversions to Islam and Christianity and began a campaign to re-convert Muslims and others back to Hinduism.

Two RSS offshoots, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council, and the Bajrang Dal, the army of the monkey god Hanuman, began to attack Christian priests and nuns and vandalize churches, daring Vajpayee to take action against his own parent organization, the RSS.

Vajpayee criticized the lawlessness and even undertook a fast to force state governments to take stern action, but he fought shy of criticizing the RSS directly. The conflict came to a head when cadres of the Bajrang Dal set fire to the car in which an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons were sleeping, burning them alive.

Vajpayee took immediate action. Mass arrests followed, and within three years the main culprit was in prison for life, while his accomplices received lesser sentences.

Vajpayee called a conclave of the BJP's coalition partners and set up a National Coordination Committee as a counterweight to the RSS. This gave India one of its best governments since its independence. But the radical elements in the RSS never forgave Vajpayee for his "treachery."

They took their revenge when the NDA suffered a surprise defeat in 2004. As two of the BJP's coalition partners later conceded, its main cause was the 2002 communal carnage in Ahmedabad that Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, had been either unable, or unwilling, to prevent. But the RSS insisted that the cause was Vajpayee's betrayal of the "Hindutwa" ideology.

Nine years later, the party pushed aside Advani, who had succeeded Vajpayee, and chose Modi to lead them into the 2014 election. From then on, it has been the RSS that has set the agenda for the government.

Within days, local RSS cadres and self-styled holy men restarted campaigns to prevent interfaith marriages and the conversion of Hindus to Christianity and Islam, and to encourage the re-conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. None of these programs is peaceful: All are enforced by elements that no longer fear the law because they believe the police are on their side.

The campaign against cow slaughter is the most recent of these developments. The RSS turned the cow vigilantes loose during the run-up to the state assembly elections in Bihar in October and November 2015. It gave no central directive, just a quiet nod to do what came naturally.

The results were bizarre. In one Uttar Pradesh town adjoining Bihar, a bespectacled male RSS activist, covered from head to toe in a Muslim woman's burqa, was caught running away after he had thrown beef into a temple. In another large city, pork was thrown into two mosques and beef into two temples on the same day.

In hundreds, perhaps thousands, of towns and villages across northern India, groups of young men have begun to roam the streets and country roads looking for people transporting meat or live cattle or skinning the hides of cattle that have died of starvation. Their usual mode of operation is to stop lorries carrying livestock, accuse the owners of having slaughtered cattle, beat them up and then rob them.

The cow vigilantes take pride in their work and have taken to posting videos of the beatings they dished out on the internet. One beautifully shot clip shows young men clad in jeans and T-shirts beating barebacked, dirt-poor men and boys who are on their knees begging for mercy.

Until barely a month ago, all but a few of the cow vigilantes' victims were Muslims. Modi maintained a studied silence. He made an exception only when the murder of a Muslim plumber, Mohammad Akhlaq, by a mob led by the sons of the tourism minister's principal election agent in his constituency, only 40 kilometers from New Delhi, made national headlines. But he did so only after eight days of silence, at an election rally in distant Bihar.

Modi did not visit the family of the deceased, nor did he chide his minister for dismissing Akhlaq's death as an "accident"—that is, not a crime. Not surprisingly, in most of the publicized cases of vigilantism that have followed, the police have booked the victims for breaking the ban on beef and not the vigilantes. Akhlaq's family has not been spared either.

Modi broke his silence and condemned the cow vigilantes unequivocally only after the video of the vigilantes beating the poor men went viral on YouTube. He did so because the victims in it were not Muslims but Dalits, who make up a seventh of India's population, and because the incident had aroused a wave of anger in Gujarat, his home state.

"Criminals have turned cow protection into a business and have given this noble task a bad name," he said to a packed hall in Delhi a week later. Two days after that, he repeated his charge and said, "Shoot me if you must, but do not shoot my Dalit brothers." But in neither speech did he make any conciliatory gesture toward the principal victims of the vigilantes, the Muslims.

More recent remarks by him and his home minister, Rajnath Singh, show that he has begun to have second thoughts about the utility of cow vigilantism. Because instead of mobilizing Hindus behind the BJP, it is causing a consolidation of lower-caste Hindu and Muslim opinion against the government that could cost it dearly in two state assembly elections next year.

But his disapproval has come far too late to mend the tears the vigilantes have made in the country's social fabric. The genie of communalism is out of the bottle, and the country will have to live with it.

Prem Shankar Jha is a journalist and author of The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalization, Chaos and War.