Catfights over cattle: Tasting India’s (in)tolerance

Last month, as the numbers of the Bihar election results poured in, television news channels began attributing the success of the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Yadav mahagatbandhan to many factors and reasons. The one that gained the most prominence was that the victory was a defeat of the Hindu right and a growing environment of intolerance in the country. In my humble opinion, that is too much of a simplification of the Indian polity and certainly of the Indian electoral politics.

In the run-up to the elections, various incidents of violence arising out of outdated ideas of what being an Indian means were reported from across the country. At no time in modern Indian history has cattle dominated discussion as much as in the last 18 months. From Mizoram to Dadri, beef was on everyone’s tongue, but ironically, not allowed on anyone’s plate. Until recently, that people in India ate beef was an accepted truth. When it came to this touchy subject, most people followed a policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. Recently, though, that has changed.

Any one person being killed for apparently consuming something surely cannot be palatable to anyone. And even some in the ruling party came out to condone the act (albeit it was a delayed reaction). But do this and other such incidents suddenly make India an intolerant nation? I am not so sure.

It can be said with a certain amount of certainty that since May 2014, some Hindu right groups have shown the ugly side of India. Whether news channel anchors or right-leaning individuals want to call them ‘fringe groups’ or by any other name is redundant. A lot of today’s discussion is dominated by the argument that such incidents are the workings of fringe groups and do not reflect the nature of a country or community.

Fair.

Now can we apply the same argument to Naga, Kuki, Bodo insurgents or Kashmiri militants? Can we simply call them fringe elements of Naga, Kuki, Bodo or Kashmiri communities? Why can’t ‘fringe groups’ of a majority who terrorize people also be called terrorists? Or is it a term over which ethnic and religious minorities alone have ownership? Can it also be denied that these ‘fringies’ have become emboldened enough to act with such impunity in the last 18 months?

My argument is simple: those who kill and terrorize other people are terrorists, regardless of their faith/ethnicity/sovereign aspirations. So let’s call them that – terrorists.

Now back to the Bihar elections.

Attributing the RJD-JD(U) victory as a rejection of fundamentalism is an oversimplification. In all fairness, that may well have been one reason, but any sound-minded individual must admit that an election is not won or lost on one agenda. Not in a vibrant democracy as ours. The BJP went into damage control mode soon after the elections and offered many reasons for its defeat. While all of those plus the ‘tolerance-intolerance’ issue surely played an important role, the best reason for the BJP’s defeat was offered by the party elders.

From Shatrughan Sinha to LK Advani, the old guard has said that consensus within the party was not taken to plan the election strategy. While I am not privy to the BJP’s meetings, surely such stalwarts making such statements has to be given some miniscule amount of credence, no?

But why speak about this now?

You see, the Bihar election and the reasons affecting its result are of the least interest to me; just in the same way that election results in the Northeast hold absolutely no interest to the rest of the country. The reason I write this is because I am a shallow and a hollow individual who feels it is time to write this because Aamir Khan is under attack for his comments on the issue. The perfect time to write about this would have been soon after Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi and his son were killed in Dadri. But I didn’t and I am sorry. But here we are.

So, was the actor or his wife, director Kiran Rao, right? Who knows? I am the least bit qualified to judge the merit/demerit of Mr Khan’s comments. But because I am a cynical and judgmental person, I am going to do it anyways.

In my very personal and humble opinion, I think the actor was wrong because the country was always filled with such intolerance. It is not a new phenomenon.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the retaliatory bomb blasts in present-day Mumbai were acts of intolerance. Fatwas issued against writers? Intolerance. Banning Valentine’s Day celebrations? Intolerance. In fact, our television and newspaper space has been filled with people who somehow seem to find themselves unable to take an intelligent stance on the issue: that extremist groups of all communities have always existed in this country and that doesn’t necessarily make India an intolerant country. But it doesn’t make it a tolerant one as well.

Detractors of Mr Khan’s statements (and others who find themselves in such situations) are often told that if India was not tolerant then they will not be able to make such statements in the first place. You see, herein lies the rump.

India is a democracy that guarantees its citizens the freedom of speech. It is enshrined in the Constitution of the nation. For me to be able to practice (or not practice) a faith or speak my mind freely is my birthright. It is not and should not be seen as something that the majority has chosen to bestow upon me that I should feel indebted and grateful for. While asserting my rights, I must say that it is incorrect to say that my views should be the be all and end all of every argument. I am not the alpha and the omega and this is where the beauty of our democracy lies.

Mr Khan may have been right or wrong or left in his statements. In fact, he was merely recalling a conversation with his wife and stating his opinion on an issue. Is he not entitled to his opinions? Surely he is, just as much as those who are criticizing him. So feel free. Voice your opinions. Just don’t tell anyone what’s for dinner.

PS: While the country was busy debating India’s tolerance levels, 26 November passed us by quietly. The day of the terrible Mumbai terror attacks. Although many people on Facebook (rightly) expressed their solidarity with the French, how many remembered the 167 victims of Mumbai?

Beef? Yes please!

Javed Khan approaches a table at his restaurant and lists out the various dishes available – curry, chaap (ribs), liver, bheja (brains), intestine and keema (minced). With a polite smile, he recommends the brain. Beef brain, that is.

After recent comments by India’s minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju and minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi on the issue of banning beef, the possible nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows has once again taken centrestage.

While the jury is still out on the interpretation of Rijiju’s statement, most people in his home state are not impressed by the idea of banning beef.

Khan, who has been running Khan Restaurant and Beef Hotel at Naharlagun here, said, “It would be impossible to enforce such a ban in the Northeast”. His restaurant is often frequented by MLAs and ministers of the state and is one of the several Muslim-run restaurants that are referred to simply as beef hotels. “Business is good,” Khan said.

Another Khan – Jakharudin – came to Arunachal soon after it was granted statehood in February 1987. Originally from Sitamarhi district in Bihar, he did odd jobs and operated a small shop until setting up Taj Hotel in Itanagar in 1998. While not exactly reminiscent of the famous monument in Agra, he has shifted its location twice and upgraded to a cleaner area since then.

Jakharudin claims that he is just about able to break even. “The cost of meat at Rs 180 per kilo is too high,” he said.

A young entrepreneur, Tage Laring, felt that the idea of banning the meat “defies logic”. He added: “It is the only meat that can be boiled in water with nothing but salt and still be delicious”.

There is, however, a division of opinion within Rijiju’s own party. Tame Phassang, the party’s national council member of Arunachal West parliamentary constituency, said he does not eat beef and that he “gave it up a long time ago, even before joining the party”. However, another party member, Komjum Riba, admitted that he eats beef and that his “food habits should not be a matter of concern for the party”.

There are others in the state who are wary of the idea of banning beef. Passang D. Sona, the Congress MLA from Mechukha in West Siang district, said the choice (to eat or not to eat beef) should be left to individuals and a ban questions India’s secular credentials. “Being a secular country, every religion’s practices, lifestyle and philosophy must be respected,” he said.

Referring to the ban on cow slaughter in Maharashtra, filmmaker and professor at Rajiv Gandhi University here, Moji Riba, said, “If there is a larger design to implement a nationwide ban, it needs to be looked at critically.”

He said, “The core idea of India is its diversity and these measures are a cruel irony.” Riba also felt that such a ban “denies” him of his “right to be different”.

A senior government official put it more poignantly: “Beef represents something bigger than just meat”.

This story came in the backdrop of the proposal made by the government to ban slaughter of cows and consumption of beef. Link to original story published in The Telegraph in June 2015: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1150604/jsp/northeast/story_23756.jsp#.VexZ2fmqqko