When Devi Lal was wrecking V.P. Singh’s government in late 1990, he was famously described in an Abu Abraham cartoon as the bull who carried his own china shop. I was too junior to be on the inside track of politics just yet, but if I knew Devi Lal, and since I know my fellow Haryanvis, I am quite sure he took no offence. In fact, he would have wondered what the excitement was about. A Haryanvi’s best friends are his cattle. Sure enough, Devi Lal, whom R. Venkataraman had allotted a large house in his President’s Estate along New Delhi’s Willingdon (now Mother Teresa) Crescent, had converted its beautiful gardens into a shed for his 100-plus milch cattle. Nor would he have understood Abu’s brilliant pun. So he went on to demolish V.P. Singh anyway.
The story comes back to us not only because cows, along with “bulls, oxen and heifers” are back in national headlines with Haryana’s BJP government moving (and getting passed unanimously) a new cow protection law in the state assembly, somewhat quaintly titled the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Bill. And it isn’t because any great outrage is about to rock a state where socio-economic and caste elites (Jats, Brahmins and Banias) are mostly vegetarian, and where Christians are only a few and Muslims confined to one district.
The state’s police will have draconian new powers to protect our common “mother” from slaughter and export. Actually, way more than that. If you are eating, selling, storing even canned or processed beef products, imported from elsewhere, you will face a jail sentence longer than for manslaughter. If I were the HR head, or the compliance head, of a Korean or Japanese company with investments in Gurgaon and around, I would order all my executives to return. And while arrangements to travel back are made, clear their refrigerators of any incriminating evidence. The scores of restaurants, bars and booming new five-star hotels in Gurgaon will have the Sharia equivalent of dietary restrictions imposed on them. On any evidence, you can see very little beef is eaten in Haryana. This will now criminalise something in our fridges and on our dining tables. We Haryanvis will then be globally hailed not for gaubhakti (devotion to cow) but, I say with trepidation, for our bull-headedness. Other curious issues in the law: it protects only indigenous breeds. So are Jerseys kosher? And is artificial insemination to improve bloodlines still allowed?
This week’s argument is not about some fundamental right to eat beef, or even against a sense of rising vegetarian terrorism under BJP where paneer would ideally be our daily eating. In a country where, as the Anthropological Survey’s People of India report (1993) noted, 88 per cent of the 4,635 communities into which we can be classified, are meat-eating, this argument is about an incredible madness seizing BJP governments that takes attention away from more important issues of governance while rivals are once again licking their chops. From cows to Christians, IITs to hasty ordinances on sensitive laws, from voluble Sadhvis putting us collectively to intercity tests on the basis of our voting preferences to born-again VHP-ites giving communal colour even to the revolt of 1857, the party is opening fronts and battles it is bound to lose, frittering away political capital.
Let’s stay with Haryana for a moment because it is the starkest study of how the BJP is straying (pun intended) from the path it had shown India. In Haryana, cows will be numbered, given identification collars. I suppose innovations will follow, like cell-phones with Nirbhaya-type apps so the cow could alert a police control room if threatened. Old excuses – I thought this was buffalo meat or regular mutton kebab – are not going to work. Because under the new law, Haryana will set up labs to confirm the origins of a meat. This in a country so lacking in forensic infrastructure for humans that more than a year after Sunanda Tharoor’s death, her viscera test report from the US is still awaited after the sample was duly “escorted” only last month by a Delhi Police DCP. A string of gaushalas will be built across the state. An entire police force will then be fixated on protecting stray cows, lifting meat samples from butcher shops, grocers, delicatessens serving Gurgaon’s large expat community and filing criminal FIRs for “matricide”. This really is nobody’s idea of minimum government, maximum governance. India’s richest, fast urbanising state needs its police to fight crimes against women and excesses of khap panchayats, bring its delinquent godmen to justice so they can prevent more disasters like Rampal. It is becoming a laughing stock.
A pracharak in formal power has never been successful, and don’t let that be a reflection on Narendra Modi because his record in Gujarat and his promise in 2014 convinced us that while still wedded to his ideology, he had grown out of being a mere old puritan. We can still only guess whose choice it was to install an unknown pracharak in a highly politicised state electing the BJP for the first time, on Modi’s promise of technology and manufacturing-driven growth and jobs. They had never bargained for this holier-than-cow RSS takeover. Within months of coming to power, the government is already becoming an inspiration for WhatsApp mirth: predictable in a close, well-connected, tiny society that swears by its buffaloes, among the world’s best and priciest, and bhains ka doodh (buffalo milk) that powers its mostly vegetarian wrestlers, boxers and athletes to collect more international medals than the rest of India. And they know how to laugh, particularly at themselves when they think they goofed up. That’s what they think now.
Haryana was the last non-BJP state to vote in a government entirely in Modi’s name. They had not bargained for an RSS khap panchayat equivalent they got instead. It is a predominantly Hindu and devout population with little history of communal phobias or riots. The RSS itself is seen as a comical indulgence of the Punjabi “refugees” Partition brought to its cities. The state has a history of a strong, respected Arya Samaj movement – it elected Swamis Agnivesh and Adityavesh on secular tickets in 1977. Its Arya Samaj is puritanical but in an understated, non-intrusive way. If the RSS wants a new laboratory of pracharak-run Hindu Rashtra, it has chosen the wrong state.
Haryana is more or less a Hindu state. In fact, one thing we Haryanvis are known for is being reckless bullies, not for living in fear of anybody – Muslim, Christian, American, Chinese, Pakistani, Hindu. And that is the reputation we hold close to our hearts. Only thing we are collectively embarrassed about is the way we treat our daughters, maintaining that shameful spot at the bottom of the male-female ratio chart. We’d love for someone to help, persuade, even coerce us to reverse that. The government we just elected, walking out of the old dug-outs of caste and feudal loyalties, wants us to become one large gaushala instead. We haven’t seen any credible opinion polls yet, but if you have any sense of the Haryanvi pulse, this government is already spoilt goods; many are kicking themselves for voting BJP. Nobody understands this better than Yogendra Yadav. Which explains his impatience to spread AAP into Haryana. I am not sure it is ready to vote in AAP yet, but it will definitely vote the BJP out.
Modi is clever enough to know electoral waves wane. Delhi confirmed that. But even Maharashtra, Jharkhand, J&K fell way below the party’s early estimates in spite of the continuing death of the Congress. Bihar, coming up next, is a real battle. Punjab, disgusted with Akalis and the Congress, can repeat Delhi if AAP finds a good, clean chief ministerial choice like, say, Manpreet Badal. If you see dispassionately, politics, 10 months into a landslide, is beginning to look as “normal” as a year and a half after Rajiv Gandhi’s much bigger 1984 landslide.
If Modi wishes to rise as a truly tall leader he must call the RSS/VHP bluff now. Nobody any longer buys the idea of the RSS/VHP being mere fringe groups. They, in fact, are the bull that carries its own china shop in any BJP government. Vajpayee sidelined them, Modi will need to fight them.
Postscript: The stupidest statement this week was made by VHP Joint General Secretary Surendra Jain (heard his name before?). Justifying the attack on a Hisar church, he said it will go on as long as Christians convert and that 1857 was a religious war against Christians. I’d like to present him a copy of William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. It’s a stirring account of an army manned by mostly upper caste Hindu ranks and led by mostly Muslim officers fighting for no more than a symbolic Mughal flag under Zafar, the titular “emperor”. I’d mark a particular passage where Eid is approaching while the battle for the control of Delhi is on and rebel commanders (all Muslim) worry that incidents of cow slaughter could be used to divide their troops. They get the friendly Kotwal (police chief) to carry out public announcements by drummers asking Muslims not to harm cows. Then, not to take chances, the Kotwal rounds up any stray animals he can find and locks them in the protection of the Kotwali (old police station that still exists) in Old Delhi. The revolt of 1857 was as secular as any war India has fought in its recent history.