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In Indian politics, not even cows are sacred

Did the BJP offend their own Hindu constituents to spark a riot?

In Indian politics, not even cows are sacred
Christopher Joseph, Cochin

September 24, 2013

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There was a flare-up last week in Madhya Pradesh, and it was all about a cow. It may seem strange to outsiders, but cows are in fact a potent element in Indian politics, and have been for centuries.

The latest clash began last Thursday when a group of Hindus set fire to around 20 Muslim-owned houses and 10 shops in a village in the Harda district. The mob also pelted police with stones, injuring 12 people including police personnel. A two-night curfew was imposed, shots and teargas were fired to quell the rioting and more than 30 people were arrested. It was fortunate and even surprising that there were no fatalities.

The violence was sparked by the discovery of a dead cow, which is of course a sacred and much revered animal in Hindu belief. It was found dead on a Muslim landlord’s property. The enraged Hindus dragged it onto the main highway, demanding the arrest of people who killed the animal. Feelings quickly began to boil over.

The police have been cagey about the details, refusing to confirm whether the animal was actually killed and dumped or had simply fallen accidentally and died, as their words could easily be misiconstrued and cause repercussions in a state where the right wing Hindu party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – is in power.

In a similar incident in Indore last month a cow carcass was found outside a temple, causing another clash. 

Cows have been a lightning rod for such sectarian tensions since before the late 15th century, when the first European colonizers came to India. Some of the early Portuguese missionaries forced converts to eat beef, as a mark of abandonment of their Hindu religion. It was a policy that proved divisive and unpopular.

Then came colonial British rule. In 1857, in the first war of independence against the British, Hindu and Muslim "sepoys" of the British East India Company united in rebellion against the regime. And what was the trigger for that? The sepoys were being forced to use beef and pork fat to lubricate their masters’ firearms.

Historians have recorded how pieces of pork left in front of a mosque, or beef near a temple, have been enough to cause all-engulfing outbreaks of violence, killing hundreds. And as we have just seen, that legacy continues even now.

But there is an even more Machiavellian aspect to this. The latest clashes have prompted the Congress Party’s Ajay Singh, opposition leader in Madhya Pradesh, to claim that they were engineered by the BJP to stir up resentments that would aid its efforts to hold on to power for a third time in November’s coming state elections.

The BJP would then use that as a stepping stone to its higher goal of capturing power in New Delhi when the nation goes to vote next year. It has already named its most controversial leader, Narendra Modi, as its prime ministerial candidate.

Singh has intimated that the BJP is using a political tactic that has proved highly successful in India: set two religious communities against each other and appear before them as protector of the majority group, in order to secure that majority’s vote.

“It is now clear that the BJP will not spare even villages to spread the seed of communal hatred for winning the forthcoming poll," Singh told

His Congress Party colleague, Abdul Rahman Farooqui, spelt it out even more clearly when he said: "No sensible Muslim would kill a cow and place it publicly in a Muslim area, as he knows it will attract violent reactions from Hindus."

Have these two politicians concocted a far fetched conspiracy theory? Hardly. The BJP first came to political prominence in 1992 by this very method, fanning Hindu passions to raze the Babri mosque in northern India and build a temple in its place.

The mosque that the frenzied mob pulled down was erected by the Muslim invader, Baber, in 1527. BJP leaders described it as an insult to the Hindu people, as it was built after destroying a temple dedicated to their lord Ram in his birthplace, the town of Ayodhya. The destruction caused countrywide riots that killed at least 2,000 people.

That shows clearly and starkly that the BJP is by no means averse to using the collective hatred that festers between religious communities to reap political dividends.

When it comes to Indian politics, nothing is sacred. Not even cows.

Christopher Joseph is a journalist based in Kerala.

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