IN MANY parts of India, the majority Hindu population considers the cow sacred. However, violent acts against humans in the name of “cow protection” are a worrying indication of the current administration’s failure to rein in extremist Hindu groups.
Narendra Modi’s ascension to the premiership was propelled by the support of the Sangh Parivar — the family of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), where he earned his stripes as a grassroots organiser.
However, a large section of his support base also comprised the urbanised middle-class, who elected him for his commitment to economic development. This middle class largely disavows the use of violence and sees it as antithetical to economic development.
The Modi conundrum is thus as follows: If he allows religious extremism and violence, he might lose the support of the growing middle-class.
Yet if he is perceived to be too harsh on the Sangh groups — some of which allegedly instigate cow vigilantism — then he risks losing his other major support base.
Modi is, thus, forced to strike a balance between his two major support bases while taking serious action against violence in the name of religion.
Arguably, there has been a correlation between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national victory in 2014 and the emboldening of a number of radical Hindu and Hindu nationalist groups and sub-groups.
While most of them have existed prior to Modi’s electoral victory, they have gained great visibility and media prominence in the past three years.
For instance, on June 13, a mob of around 200 Hindu cow vigilantes attacked a government convoy carrying cattle from Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu for a government-sponsored breeding programme.
Also, much of the violence has been directed at Muslims and Dalits, who often form the most marginalised sections of Indian society.
This has led to increased cynicism towards the Modi administration’s commitment to the Indian ideal of secularism.
While Modi is unabashed in portraying himself as a proud Hindu nationalist, he has actively called for people of all faiths to coexist peacefully.
Yet, his critics have pointed out that he has been largely silent about increasing incidences of violence, aggression, and discrimination in the name of Hinduism by purportedly radical Hindu mobs, determined to assert their cultural and religious superiority.
Historian Richard Landes calls this phenomenon “triumphalist religiosity”, in which believers consider non-believers inferior, such that they attempt to justify their own religiosity publicly.
In the case of cow vigilantism, the perpetrators are self-proclaimed gaurakshaks or “cow protectors”, who believe that defending cows is their ordained religious duty.
Thus, public mob lynching and targeting minorities become rational actions for them.
Political Legitimacy Under Threat
Modi the Hindu reformer and moderniser cannot be seen as the benefactor of cow vigilantes and the killers of Muslims and Dalits.
The spectre of cow vigilantism thus threatens to fracture Modi’s political legitimacy as well as stifle his attempts to expand the BJP’s appeal on the back of his popular brand image.
Understanding this requires comprehending that the rise of Modi is a largely middle-class phenomenon.
His popularity today is due to his image as a rational moderniser and developer — an image that can be delegitimised if excesses of Hindu extremism are permitted.
Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Indian politics, has argued that a young, aspirational burgeoning middle-class — that which Modi has referred to as a “neo middle-class” — perceives Modi to be a “super-CEO” and less of a politician.
Distrustful of traditional politicians and disdainful of the legacy of dynastic politics and corruption, this neo-middle class forms the core of Modi’s new support base.
It constitutes a culturally Hindu imagined community made up of an increasingly young educated population, Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) living overseas and newly urbanised groups, who share economic aspirations.
Staying True to Moditva
The argument here is not one that prioritises economic development over Hindutva, but rather that Modi’s brand of politics, dubbed Moditva by political observers situates economic development and pragmatic, rational politics as the key driver of the rise of a powerful, prosperous Hindu India.
Modi’s political legitimacy then lies in his ability to abstain from the excesses of Hindu nationalism and pursue Moditva with the drive and vision of politicians like Lee Kuan Yew whom he is often compared to by followers.
The beef ban would result in
a devastating economic blow to the industry, a deep contradiction to Modi’s development ambitions.
Serious questions must then be asked about whether the neo-middle class would remain supportive of a regime that overtly or tacitly supports mob justice which continually threatens to spill into communal violence.
While there is discernible support for legislative action banning beef eating and instituting “cow protection”, cow-vigilantism is a different beast altogether. It will be seen as antithetical to Hindu values, inhumane, and counterproductive to the vision of economic growth and development.
It will also question Modi’s legitimacy as a harbinger of economic prosperity and a strong peaceful Hindu rashtra or nation.
Juhi Ahuja is a Senior Analyst and Pravin Prakash is an Associate Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore