The recent lynching of 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq on the outskirts of India’s capital reaffirms that intolerance is rising. Whether it be women wearing leggings in the southern Indian city of Chennai or college girls having a drink in a Mangalore (a city on the west coast) pub or couples seeking moments of privacy in the western Indian state of Maharashtra or the ban on cow slaughter — the message is loud and clear. That a 5000-year-old civilization like India’s — known for its community kinship, live-and-let-live attitude and its inclusive liberalism — is being hijacked by radical political groups, bent on converting the country into a wholly Hindu state.

Relatives of Mohammad Akhlaq mourn after he was killed by a mob Monday night
Relatives of Mohammad Akhlaq mourn after he was killed by a mob

A rumor that Akhlaq had stored beef in his home refrigerator turned men into monsters that day at Bisada village in the Dadri district — just nodding distance away from New Delhi — where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been talking about the loftiest of ideals.

But at Bisada — where Hindus and Muslims lived and loved each other like brothers, and which had never seen communal conflicts even during some of the worst times of disharmony elsewhere in India — the mob, obviously provoked into a bloody rage by politicians, marched to Akhlaq’s house, ransacked his refrigerator, found meat, dragged him out and beat him to death even as his wife, daughter and son pleaded for mercy. The son was also severely wounded in the heinous attack, and is recovering in a hospital.

It has now been proved that the meat kept in the refrigerator was of lamb, not of cow. How horrific can the whole episode get!

This incident angered broad-minded Indians, and hundreds of thousands of them have been lamenting on social networking sites that something as personal as a man’s food habit is now under the scanner.

To begin with, why did the administration have to send the meat for a forensic test? This is shameful. Have we lost the right to eat what we want to?

Poisoning the atmosphere even more has been the insensitive utterances of public figures, including members of the BJP.

Here are a few examples: “Those who eat beef can go to Pakistan…The cow is our mother. It is sacred. It cannot be killed by Muslims. It cannot be eaten by Muslims. Those who eat beef are not Hindus and are disrespecting the Hindu culture and tradition. Ban cow slaughter. Ban the eating of beef. Kill those who are disrespecting our religion. Kill those who eat beef”

Where will all this end? As a speaker in a television debate the other night said, such rabidly radical thinking may only invite a civil war.

And India’s prime minister Narendra Modi stepped in only after several days of silence. He said Thursday that Hindus must not fight Muslims and vice-versa. It was time they fought poverty and not each other, he said.

But Modi’s statement — which he made at an election rally in Bihar (a state in eastern India) — came too late and was not powerful enough to drive the message across, especially to members of his own party, BJP.

This was only too apparent because BJP legislators kicked and punched an independent member, Engineer Rashid right inside the Jammu and Kashmir (northern Indian state) Assembly Thursday. What was his crime? He had served beef at a private party he hosted.

Admittedly, while Rashid could have been a little prudent, given the volatility of the situation, he had obviously wanted to defy the ban on beef in his state.

Now, this is the kind of danger one foresees when the government begins to tinker with the individual freedom of its citizens. And food is such a personal issue.

It is only given that in these circumstances, the mood becomes foul and people turn recalcitrant.

If the cow is sacred to Hindus, which it is, it is very well then. Let them not kill or eat it. But if other communities (Christians included, and beef fry and curry are hot dishes in the southern Indian state of Kerala) do not find anything wrong in consuming beef, so be it too. But forcing them to follow what they may not want to will certainly rob India of its awe-inspiring plurality.

The nation has always been known for its rich diversity and richer minds that embraced all faiths and points of view with sheer magnanimity. Why are some people or groups bent on destroying such amazing state of co-existence and tolerance?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times

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