In the late evening of 28 September 2015, in Bisara village near the town of Dadri, just 50 kilometres from Delhi, an angry mob of over 100 people, approached the house of 50 year-old farm worker, Mohammed Ikhlaq. The mob demanded to see the contents of his refrigerator and the family insisted that the meat found inside was mutton. The mob, however, convinced it was beef, attacked Ikhlaq with a sewing machine lying nearby. Rhey also dragged the entire family, including Ikhlaq’s 75-year-old mother outside and subjected them to a barrage of kicks and beatings with sticks, swords and bricks. The police were called, but on their arrival an hour later, Ikhlaq was dead, and his eldest son, Danish, critically injured. The mob then continued to their marauding attack – setting fire to nearby vehicles and shops. They were eventually subdued by police firing into the air.
But was the meat beef after all? Did it really matter? It turned out that the most important part of the investigation for the Uttar Pradesh (UP) police was not the identity of the accused, the events or even the violence, but the piece of meat itself. The slaughter of cattle was prohibited in the state of UP in 1955, but the importation of beef or indeed the consumption of it was not illegal. In Dadri, although sacral matters had been at the centre of the violence from the beginning, the issue of the missing calf mixed science with religious sentiment. Under apparent pressure to prove a motive that might change the nature of the murder prosecution, the UP police sent a sample of the meat from Ikhlaq’s fridge for forensic testing. Initially, the UP Veterinary Department concluded that the meat was mutton. But eight months later, a second report from a laboratory in Mathura, sought by the lead defence lawyer in the lynching case, claimed that the meat was indeed from ‘cow or its progeny’. The strategy was that the existence of beef might neutralize criminal culpability and allow the defendants to press for ‘culpable homicide’ rather than murder charges.But in a further twist, a UP Police Officer spoke to the press arguing that the last sample had not actually been collected from Ikhlaq’s house, but from a junction nearby.
India is a country in which an everyday event in a small UP village can easily spiral out into the national arena, as the small is magnified to represent something much larger and the whispers of events reach many ears. The lynching was subsequently suddenly of interest to politicians across the spectrum. Over the days following the attack, politicians from all parties either met with Ikhlaq’s family or with the aggrieved families of the arrested. The Chief Minister of UP, Akhilesh Yadav, granted an ex gratiato the family of 2 million rupees, and helped move the family to Delhi by 6 October, leading to protests from the BJP.Mahesh Sharma, Minister for Culture and Tourism in the BJP government met with the villagers on 1 October, arguing that ‘innocents should not be punished and everyone should get justice’,and that the attack was an ‘accident’.Rahul Gandhi in a visit to the victim’s family, asked the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a statement condemning the lynching.The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, attempted to visit the village on 3 October, but was initially turned away by police. When he finally met the family and other villagers, his critique of the BJP was barely concealed. Only politicians really gained from the breaking of this 70-year peace between Hindus and Muslims in the village, he claimed: ‘Slaughter a cow to provoke Hindus. Slaughter a pig to provoke Muslims. How easy it has become to incite riots.’ Kejriwal called on the media to stop reporting the ‘poisonous politicians’ who gained from this incitement and suggested that ‘this country can only be saved by one man. The common man (aam aadmi)’.
What gives these populist appeals traction, or makes them convincing, is a changing representation of truth and evidence. The recent election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and the far-right critiques of the mainstream media have popularized the ideas of post-truth or ‘alt-truth’. This new regime represents a coordinated assault on established paradigms of scientific research and the institutions that support it. But it has some of its most distinctive and original/earliest characteristics in India’s right-wing populism. The killers did not need to wait for verification about the culpability of Ikhlaq: He was from a Muslim family, the only one in the village, and that alone marked him as potentially guilty. Neither was the legality of beef consumption relevant, but rather the larger symbolism of the sacral cow that permeated the reaction. Political leaders arriving at the scene, and particularly those on the political right, rather than focusing on the grieving family, presented alternative versions of the event. The BJP MP from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, Sakshi Maharaj, further reinforced the narrative of state response – asserting that the Chief Minister’s ex gratia was a typical or habitual example of pro-Muslim bias.
Alternative truths also permeated the events and aftermath of the lynching. They are part of a larger trend in the re-formulation of political, social and historical knowledge in India, promoted by the Hindu right. These include the re-writing of India’s pre-colonial history to de-emphasise periods of Muslim rule; the representation of demographic knowledge in terms of religious community based rates of fertility; the representation of recent anti-colonial history which writes in the Hindu right as the ‘true’ nationalists; and the reorientation of scientific research to explore ancient Hindu forms of space exploration and the use of cow urine and dung for cancer treatment.
In sum, then, the acts of 28thOctober 2015 did not just highlight the problematic nature of intercommunal violence in India but also a sustained attack on truth, evidence and scientific methods of investigation. Like in the West, this blurring of truth and interpretation can have dire consequences for objective public debate on key issues. As former editor of the Guardian, C.P.Scott, suggested in 1921: ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’. Such a blurring therefore makes us all the poorer and adds to communal polarization – forcing societal groups apart and thus compounding the problem touched upon in the first place.
Professor William Gould is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Professor of Indian History and a Historian of the Hindu Right & Hindu Nationalism. See his profile here:
© William Gould. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Saif Khalid, ‘Indian mob kills man over beef eating rumour’, Al Jazeera, 1 October 2015.
Mohammad Ali, ‘Dadri meat was beef, claims fresh forensic report’, The Hindu, 31 May 2016.
‘It’s beef says report, but sample not from Akhlaq house’, The Times of India, 1 June 2016.
‘When Muslim Dies They Give 20 Lakhs, but Hindu doesn’t even get 20,000: Sakshi Maharaj’, Zeenews, 4 October 2015.
Sobhana K Nair, ‘Mob Lynching in Dadri: Kin of Accused attack Journalists over Bias’, Mumbai Mirror, 4 October 2015
‘Union Minister Mahesh Sharma Terms Dadri Killing as ‘An Accident’,The Hindu, 1 October 2015.
‘Rahul meets Dadri Lynching Victim’s Family’, The Hindu, 3 October 2015.
Betwa Sharma, ‘Arvind Kejriwal on Dadri Lynching: Hindus and Muslims Should Stand Against “Poisonous Politicians”’, Huffington Post (India Edition), 7 October 2015.
See R Prasad, ‘Panchagavya… if cow urine could cure cancer’, The Hindu, 21 July 2017.