It is convenient to pin the blame for every communal incident on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Let’s be clear. The murder of Mohammed Akhlaq by a lynch mob in Dadri is indefensible. Any murder is indefensible. There is no such thing as a “noble” or “justifiable” motive for heinous crime. But let’s also acknowledge that communal prejudice and communal violence precede the ascent of Modi. In fact, they predate the birth of an independent India. What is perhaps tragic is that 68 years of freedom haven’t ushered in the modernity necessary to erase that prejudice and violence. And the problem isn’t going to be resolved by a stern statement or two from PM Modi.
Society needs to introspect as much as politicians do. That said, no society has ever been totally free of fringe elements or extremist violence. The challenge is to ensure that it remains “fringe” and doesn’t mainstream itself. The danger in India is that what might be considered fringe elsewhere is far too acceptable by elements of the mainstream. The problem is that Mahesh Sharma (who called the Dadri incident an accident) and Asaduddin Owaisi (who calls it premeditated) are bigots masquerading in the mainstream.
Fundamentally, the principle of secularism has either been misunderstood or misappropriated. The Nehruvian version (also the Western notion) depended on society moving away from its strong religious moorings (and accompanying prejudices) as industrialisation happened and modernity took over. Perhaps it was the failure of the Nehruvian economic project that communal prejudices and grievances grew rather than evaporated with time.
Of course, cynical politicians played their part. The BJP and its predecessors (Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha) may have been open about their majoritarianism, but the so-called secular parties led by the Congress always found it convenient to let the fires of communal prejudice and violence simmer from time to time. It is difficult to think of any political party, which has openly campaigned in favour of genuine secularism in recent decades. Even now, does any Congress leader have the guts to put their career on the line and step into the cauldron of Dadri? Still, the fallout from deep-seated prejudices and fears might have been contained if India had given greater weight to the rule of law. It is because individuals and groups feel that they are beyond the pale of the law that they act to destroy and murder. In other advanced, societies it is the rule of law which prevents the fringe from coming anywhere near the mainstream. There are serious consequences for heinous crimes which act as a deterrent. In India, governments (politicians, bureaucrats and police) have given the rule of law short shrift.
Unsurprisingly, society too cares little for the one principle which could safeguard life and property. If there was even a semblance of rule of law in Uttar Pradesh, a mob would not have dared to lynch a man with such impunity on the suspicion that he had slaughtered/eaten a cow. Incidentally, it is the “secular” Samajwadi Party which is responsible for the rule of law in UP. If indeed Akhlaq had committed an illegal act, the correct response would be to report him to the authorities. The BJP, in its wisdom, is legislating against cow slaughter in several states. But where in those laws is there a provision which grants a free licence to kill an offender? Perhaps Nehru was right. The only solution to a society’s prejudices was economic development. Modi needs to double down on the task of delivering prosperity in rapid time. It will probably be more effective than a rap on the knuckles to some in his parivar.