Gautankwad: Terror in the name of cow

Someone on social media, that simultaneous repository of truth and lies, called this emerging strain of terrorism Gautankwad: Terrorism in the name of the the holy cow, derived from aatankwad, the Hindi word for terrorism. Gautankwad is more dangerous than the conventional variety of terrorism because it is either condoned or supported by the state. This support may not be material, but it is systemic and systematic, and it is subverting the institutions meant to act against such terrorism.

When Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri in 2015, following rumours and allegations that he had consumed beef, or when Majloom Ansari and Imtiaz Khan were hung from a tree in 2016 in Jharkhand for ferrying cattle, the state said these were “isolated incidents,” a term beloved of Indians to either justify what should never be justified or simply to ignore inconvenient facts (it is the same term used by Delhi to describe the racism and violence against Africans). As this timeline indicates, Gautankwad is no longer about “isolated incidents.” Official justifications grow not just about the deification of the cow but the violent Hindutva culture coalescing around the unfortunate animal (otherwise left to eat garbage and plastic, and live and die on India’s streets and cow shelters—in Kanpur, 152 cows died in five months).

The Rajasthan home minister said there were faults on “both sides,” as his police proceeded with cases against the murdered farmer and his brutalised sons by these non-state actors. His chief minister condoled the victims of a terrorist attack in Stockholm, but could not bring herself to say anything about the man lynched by Gautanwadis in her state.

India’s minister for minority affairs, a Muslim, denied that the Alwar attack even happened.

India’s minister for urban affairs, a meat-eating man from a state where almost everyone eats meat, said he avoids food banned by the constitution—implying beef. But of course the country’s founding document has no such bans (not yet at least).

Normalising the cult of the cow

In the US, they talk and struggle against what they call “normalisation,” the process of accepting hate and falsehoods to push populist and majoritarian agendas. But the American normalisation faces great resistance from society, media, and institutions. In India, normalisation is proceeding with much greater speed and vastly less resistance.

The police routinely file cases against victims of Gautankwad instead of the criminals—or terrorists—who perpetrate the atrocities. This week in Maharashtra, members of the Bajrang Dal accompanied the police in beef-locating raids on illegal slaughterhouses. Gau rakshak dals, or cow protection forces, spread across the cow-belt states of the vast Hindi-speaking north India form the core of Gautankwad. They train with weapons for judgement day (essentially, a time when they will get a free hand to attack Muslims) and ally with the local police when they can.

Vast swathes of the society, including national institutions, have already accepted such normalisation and official resources are poured into augmenting the cult of the cow.

The Cow Protection Police Task Force in Haryana is headed by an officer of the Indian Police Service. Last year, that officer, Bharti Arora, said the “smuggling of cattle or cows is a crime of the highest order.” In Rajasthan, before the lynching of Pehlu Khan, the police proceeded against a hotel that was attacked by Gautankwadis who alleged that it served beef. No such evidence was found, but the police filed cases anyway and municipal officials shut it down. In the latest case, Alwar’s dead dairy farmer is being investigated for transporting cattle without a permit from the district collector. That such alleged violations are somehow even offered as justification for murder indicates the advent of anarchy. That such details become a topic of national discussion and dissection indicates how the normalisation of hate has progressed.

So, no one in government had a problem with the union minister for—well, culture—Mahesh Sharma showing up to pay tribute to the man accused of killing Akhlaq, the alleged murderer’s body kept in a Tricolour-draped coffin. A man accused of murder was thus normalised into a Hindu martyr, supposedly reflecting Hindu sentiments.

It is Hindu sentiments that now provide the overarching justification for every violation of the law by those who profess to love the cow. Gautankwad is that sentiment’s sword arm. The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 was clearly a criminal act, the result of a breakdown in law & order. Today, even the chief justice of India implies the building of a Ram temple at the spot is a matter of faith and calls for a “negotiated settlement.” How do you negotiate criminality? And how do you negotiate when one party to the settlement runs the state and brandishes its non-state sword arm?

If India sets down this path—indeed, it has made long forays in that direction—the normalisation of India’s non-state actors will not be difficult. It will be alright to beat, lynch, and kill first, justify later—without logic or rationale, as in the way of all terrorism—knowing that India’s political and judicial institutions and media will back you up, although the Alwar killing has come as a jolt even to many who, in theory at least, support the primacy of the cow.

And, so, those who murder can get away, but those even suspected, however wrongly, of “trafficking,” harming or eating a cow—particularly if they have Muslim names—can be locked up, in the case of Gujarat now, for life.

Normalisation does not happen by chance. Organised or organic, there is a design. The Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Chhattisgarh said he will hang anyone who harms a cow. The BJP chief minister of Gujarat was more grandiloquent. “Protection of cows,” he declared, “is the single-most important principle towards saving the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation.”

None of these declarations are isolated incidents. They are the result of a gradual escalation and hardening of Hindutva, Hindu majoritarian rhetoric, and the growing freedom allowed by the state to the non-state actors of Gautankwad. To be sure, the demand to ban cow-slaughter dates back to before independence, and most BJP-ruled states were gifted their cow-slaughter laws by Congress governments. But many of these laws were loosely enforced, partly because it suited the Congress’ style of convenient secularism and partly because of a recognition that such laws were bad in practice.

A secular state cannot simply cave in to majoritarian demands. History and the modern fate of nations that are succumbing to such instincts—Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, Iran, parts of Europe, and many Arab countries that were once secular—indicates a loss of not just founding ideals but a subversion of institutions and a loss of the rule of law.

In double-quick time, it becomes normal to hate, kill, or terrorise in the name of god. On the other side of normalisation lies anarchy, and that is what India is on the verge of normalising.

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