Of all the social fault lines caused by cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding food in India, none cut deeper than beef and beef-eating. Religious revivalism and political mobilization have exacerbated longstanding taboos on cow meat in many Hindu communities in modern India. Cow slaughter has long been illegal in most of the country—just this summer, new rules banning the sale of cattle for slaughter threw local meat and tannery industries, staffed and run in significant numbers by Muslims and people of marginalized castes, into disarray. So extreme was this proposal that India’s Supreme Court stayed the ban in mid-July.
These days, the specter of mob violence sparked by accusations that the victims slaughtered or smuggled cows or ate beef haunts India with morbid regularity. News of these killings usually proliferates through amateur videos, often filmed by members of the mob themselves. The phenomenon confirms, and perhaps even exceeds, the fears expressed by many critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist agenda, which they say is grounded not in bold economic reform, but in polarizing social conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
The pretext for this new wave of lynching extends beyond immediate accusations of beef-eating and other, more typical accusations, such as kidnapping and theft. If caste is the original sin of Indian society, Hindu-Muslim conflict, or “communalism,” as religious strife is called here, has had a distinctly modern character since the rise of Hindutva, the muscular, sentimental ideology of “Hindu-ness” that animates the BJP’s politics. Among other things, it normalizes a certain cultural-nationalist worldview which recasts the historic, 300-year rule of the Mughals (whose empire at one point stretched from Burma to Afghanistan and produced, among other things, the Taj Mahal and the Urdu language) as a form of Muslim settler-colonialism that oppressed Hindus.
This is a worldview in which the Partition of India in 1947 was part blessing, part treachery, a problem compounded by the fact that millions of Muslims in places such as Uttar Pradesh chose not to participate in the population exchange, taking their chances on the pluralist promises of independent India instead. Over the 70 years of the Indian republic’s existence, the right-wing organizations that see India’s Hindu-majority population as historical victims have opposed the country’s broad tendency towards social accommodation with vigorous, often-violent protest. Some of these organizations also gave birth to the BJP, which is why they are now as close to the seat of power as they have ever been.
In his masterful campaign in 2014, Modi’s focus on economic reforms impressed many who saw him as eschewing the brash majoritarian rhetoric that marked his years as a powerful regional leader. Free of the corruption scandals that wracked the Manmohan Singh government, Modi promised, India would march into an era of bold labor reforms, attract more foreign investment than ever, and ease regulatory chokeholds on business. There would be “minimum government,” he vowed, setting the hearts of entrepreneurs big and small aflutter, but “maximum governance.”