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Dadri Lynching: Time for a Mann Ki Baat, Mr Prime Minister!

October 03, 2015 13:02 IST

'Mohammad Akhlaq's death isn't only about a Muslim being killed out of sheer communal bigotry, but also the denial of the Constitutional guarantees of "due process" under Article 21 and the freedom of choice,' says Shehzad Poonawalla, who has moved the National Commission for Minorities over the murder.

Dadri is barely 60-odd kilometres, or about an hour's drive, away from national capital Delhi.

But when a person named Mohammad Akhlaq, 50, whose son is a part of the Indian Air Force, is lynched and killed on the basis of a cooked up rumour about beef consumption by a mob of over 100 people, high on pseudo-religious frenzy, the silence of those occupying the seat of power in Delhi makes us realise that physical distances, no matter how small, can hardly be traversed on the back of an empty slogan, even one as attractive as 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas.'

Not for a moment do I suggest that we should absolve the state government of Uttar Pradesh, whose claim to fame includes the branding of its supreme leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, as 'Maulana Mulayam'.

Ironically, it is Uttar Pradesh, governed by an allegedly 'secular' Samajwadi Party, that has seen the highest number of communal incidents, including the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that displaced thousands of Muslims and left over 60 dead.

Mulayam, much like the then PM candidate and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, never found time to visit these open relief camps, inhabited by riot victims, set up in the bitter, biting cold.

For the past one year, especially after the 2013 riots, attacks on the minorities, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, have been rampant. It is hard to believe that something much more sinister, a political match fixing of sorts that sees communal polarisation of the majority counter-balanced with the instilling of a sense of fear and victimhood in the minority, as the shortest route to electoral success, does not exist.

A recent inquiry report on the Muzaffarnagar riots pointed out the alleged role of the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party in the riots, adding credibility to this theory.

The lack of action by Modi against his own party members -- from Adityanath to Sakshi Maharaj when they spew communal venom -- his rewarding of riot accused ministers such as Sanjeev Baliyan and Sangeet Som with ministerial posts (in the case of the former) and upgraded security cover, gives credence to the old proverb, 'It takes two to tango.'

Two days before Akhlaq was lynched, another middle-aged Muslim was branded a 'Pakistani terrorist' in Kanpur and drowned in the Ganga. Arrests and investigations in both these cases had hardly been up to the mark, necessitating the intervention of the National Commission for Minorities by my complaint.

Only after strictures came about from the National Commission for Minorities, in response to my complaint, with the NCM chairman personally seeking a report from the district magistrate on the proceedings, has the system begun to react. And to the collective disgust of all right-minded Indians, the first reaction of this system betrays no sense of fairness or seriousness.

The police have said they have sent samples of meat taken from Akhlaq's home 'to the forensics department for examination.' One wonders how that is even relevant.

Even if it were true that beef had indeed been consumed or stored (prima facie reports suggest that it was mutton, and not beef), did it justify the killing of a man and injuring of his young son?

Can there ever be a justification for vigilante justice, leave alone a case of outright mob violence like this one?

Does the consumption or storage of beef in Uttar Pradesh warrant death?

And even if it hypothetically did deserve the death penalty, will the mob on the street decide who dies and who lives on the basis of rumours?

Is that Akhilesh Yadav's idea of rule of law and justice dispensation? That somehow if his police proves that Akhlaq had indeed stored beef, it was justified to publicly execute him?

Even when we got hold of Ajmal Kasab, just after he had killed hundreds of Indians, we did not publicly hang the 26/11 terrorist at the Gateway of India the very next moment. We showed exceptional resilience and maturity, as a State and a society, ensuring Kasab got a fair trial.

If we could afford this to India's most dreaded criminal, why could we not offer the same Constitutional right to a more deserving citizen such as Akhlaq, of not being held guilty without a fair trial, of not being killed for a crime that certainly deserves no death penalty, even if it was committed?

Equally appalling are the statements of some BJP leaders including ministers like Mahesh Sharma, who feel that the death was a result of a 'misunderstanding.' Local BJP leader Vichitra Tomar demanded the release of those arrested for the murder.

Sharma, much like Mulayam, is obligated to preserve, protect and defend the Indian Constitution, the very document to which the two affirmed true allegiance while stepping into office as ministers.

To then find illegitimate excuses to rationalise extra-Constitutional actions, merely out of cynical political considerations, betray what is common to both these antagonists -- that power for them comes before principles and often at the very cost of principles.

At the heart of the Dadri lynching case, which the National Commission for Minorities described as 'communalism in its ugliest manifestation,' there are many simultaneous sub-plots that need to be addressed.

The less obvious but equally pertinent ones are that of the scant respect shown towards the rule of law and the freedom of choice.

Akhlaq's death isn't only about a Muslim being killed out of sheer communal bigotry, but also the denial of the Constitutional guarantees of 'due process' under Article 21 and the freedom of choice. Even since the BJP government has been voted to power, we have seen a wide variety of bans being imposed.

The apparatus of the State and society is being given the wherewithal to decide everything for us the individual, private citizen -- whether we are allowed to watch a certain film in our rooms, or send a WhatsApp message to our friends or even eat a meal of our choice.

Right from extending control over our bedrooms to our kitchens, the BJP government has actively promoted the idea that individual freedoms and the right to free choice must be subservient to what the State or a majoritarian section decides.

And that debate, which hitherto has been going on in urbane centres, from Mumbai to Delhi, from Ranchi to Jaipur, in the form of #Meatban and #Beefban played out with violent consequences in the rusty, rural setting of a village in Dadri.

If Akhlaq's free choice of eating or not eating meat, beef, fruits or vegetables or whatever he wanted to eat was indeed respected, he would not have been made to pay this price of alleged non-conformity to what the majoritarian group decides.

This forcible imposition of eating habits of a section onto another by self-appointed messiahs of Hindutva is exactly the kind of hypocritical pseudo religio-cultural terrorism that was unleashed by the Klu Klux Klan against minorities and African Americans in the US and today by ISIS in the Middle East.

All three use religion (rather an incorrect version of it) to justify their militant tactics and superiority over the other, legitimising their right to forcibly impose their ideology upon the other.

It is yet to be established that Akhlaq was indeed guilty of cow slaughter, but the saffron cousins of ISIS had already pronounced his guilt from the announcements at the temple. I doubt very much if the scriptures they refer to prescribe imposition of the death penalty on those who don't find the cow sacred.

I doubt if those scriptures rank the life of a cow or any other animal higher than that of human life. I am ready to stand corrected if it does. But I doubt they can convince me any more than the ISIS sympathiser who says Islam supports the wanton killing of people by strapping on suicide vests or the KKK activist that justifies a higher place for the white man than a black one, under the egalitarian scheme of Christ's teachings.

Recently, on his trip to the United States, Modi urged the world to stop differentiating between 'good and bad terrorism.' That is some sound advice, indeed.

And perhaps Modi should take a lead in setting that example by having a Mann Ki Baat to not only condemn the lynching of an innocent man, but the lynching of the Constitutional precepts of freedom of choice, rule of law and justice itself.

More importantly, let the prime minister prove to the world that he practises what he preaches by seeing no difference between the fundamentalism and terrorism of ISIS and of Hindutva groups. Only then can we truly be rest assured that this Gandhi Jayanti, the children of Godse won't take over.

Shehzad Poonawalla is a lawyer-activist and founder-member of the governing body of the think-tank PolicySamvad.

Shehzad Poonawalla
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