Meat and murder in India

Meat and murder in India


The murder by a Hindu mob of a Muslim man rumoured to have slaughtered a cow has thrown a spotlight on the polarising agenda of some followers of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sajida Saifi, daughter of Mohammed Akhlaq, mourns his death after assailants broke into his home in late September, beat him to death then dragged his body into the street.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Mahesh Sharma, the local member of parliament and Modi's culture minister in the ruling Hindu nationalist party, vowed in a recent speech to cleanse public life "polluted" by Western influences.

Visiting Bisara this week to pay his respects to Akhlaq's family, Sharma said the killing could have been an "accident".

"I don't think the minister knows the difference between an accident and murder," said Akhlaq's widow Ikraman.

Critics say Sharma's comment implicitly condoned the lynching and pandered to fringe Hindu militants who have recently become active in the district.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Vandalised household items are seen inside Akhlaq’s home.

Communal clashes had never erupted in Bisara, home to 400 landowning Hindu and 35 Muslim families, even when religious riots have broken out in the region.

But an announcement by a Hindu priest over his temple loudspeakers that Akhlaq had butchered a cow and that his wife was cooking beef brought a sudden end to the village's tradition of tolerance, according to family members and villagers who heard the call.

Within minutes a mob stormed into Akhlaq's house, vandalised the kitchen in search of beef and beat the 56-year-old blacksmith to death with bricks and stones. His body was dragged out in front of his family.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Relatives of Akhlaq mourn his death.

Akhlaq's youngest son, who suffered severe head injuries, is fighting for his life in a hospital intensive care unit after undergoing two brain operations.

His widow says he was killed for a crime he did not commit.

"Even now I can't believe that my Hindu neighbours killed my husband," said Ikraman. “My neighbours were like my extended family.”

Local Muslims say the killing was a pre-meditated attack aimed at polarising the village on religious lines by militant Hindu groups loyal to Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
A policeman sits near a relative of Akhlaq.

Sharma and Modi are both members of an umbrella group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that is the BJP's ideological parent. The movement propagates an ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness, which asserts that India is a Hindu nation.

Police have arrested seven Hindu youths over the murder and one paramilitary soldier accused of planning the attack. Investigators are also searching for Hindu activists who spread rumours and online posts stating that Akhlaq had stored 6 kg of beef in his refrigerator.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Asgari Begum, mother of Akhlaq, mourns his death.

The region holds village council elections next week and Bisara has, in the wake of the killing, become a magnet for campaigning politicians. One BJP lawmaker accused of instigating the Muzaffarnagar riots came to Bisara on Sunday and warned of a "befitting reply" if the suspects were prosecuted, according to news reports.

Many Indian states, including the country's largest Uttar Pradesh, where Bisara is situated, have banned cow slaughter for more than two decades.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
Local residents stand outside a temple in Bisara village.

Modi's party has, in states where it rules, clamped down further on eating beef - even though India is the world’s fifth biggest consumer. In recent months, government leaders have advocated a national ban on cow slaughter.

Critics say tougher anti-beef laws discriminate against Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus who rely on the cheap meat for protein.

The crackdown has, meanwhile, provided cover for the rise of Hindu vigilante groups.

. Bisara, INDIA. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Such groups attack cattle trucks and warn Hindu girls against falling in love with Muslim boys. Modi has expressed no disapproval towards them.

"Those who spread this poison enjoy his (Modi's) patronage," political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in the Indian Express. "This government has set a tone that is threatening, mean-spirited and inimical to freedom."