Posted by: John Elliott | October 21, 2015

Sacred cows and religious intolerance undermine Narendra Modi’s image of India

India has been hit by waves of growing religious and social intolerance since Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was elected 18 months ago. This has flushed out some of the Hindu nationalist party’s most stridently anti-Muslim voices, and has also sharply increased liberal concern about where a Modi-led India is heading.

For the most part, Modi and his fellow ministers have done little to restrain the extremists though, facing the possibility of failing to win the state of Bihar’s current assembly elections, they have been trying to defuse a row over eating beef that has escalated into a national issue. 

“Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef,” Manohar Lal Khattar, who was personally picked by Modi to be chief minister of the BJP-run state of Haryana adjacent to Delhi, said last week in the latest of a series of such remarks. He later said he regretted his words, but then the Panchjanya weekly newspaper published by the RSS, the BJP’s ideology-driven parent organization, said that Vedic scriptures ordered the killing of “sinners” who slaughtered cows that are regarded as sacred by Hindus. The agriculture minister has described cow slaughter as a “mortal sin”

So serious has this issue and other examples of prejudice and intolerance become – and so silent was Modi and his fellow ministers – that Pranab Mukherjee, the country’s President, has broken tradition by speaking forcefully on a current topic. He has twice called for restraint in recent days, expressing “apprehension about whether tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.

The events have confirmed the worst fears of those who opposed Modi’s election last year. They have also damaged India’s image abroad, which has already been hit in the past two or three years by evidence of widespread rapes, caste-based repression and violence, and endemic corruption.

A 50-year-old Muslim farm labourer was killed on September 28 by a mob at Dadri, a town in Uttar Pradesh 56 kms from Delhi near the Noida satellite city, after the local Hindu temple broadcast a rumour that he had killed and eaten a cow. Two months earlier, three Muslim men were beaten to death in the same area for transporting cattle in a van.

Secular historian and rationalist MM Kalburgi was murdered in Dharwad in KarnatakaAt the end of August, M.M.Kalburgi (left), a 76-year old renowned Kannada writer and prominent academic in southern India, was shot dead, allegedly by right wing extremists who objected to his rationalist views on idol worship and Hindu ritual. 

The lack of official condemnation of this and other similar killings, and the failure of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), a government-funded but supposedly independent institution, to condemn the slaughter and commemorate the life of one of its awardees, led to a stream of protests from other authors. This became linked with protests against the government’s inaction over the beef row, and numerous writers have demonstrated by returning awards given by the Akademi, which has increased national publicity over the issue.

Modi was slow to comment on the killings and the broader beef issue, and when he did speak on the Dadri death, he only said it was “saddening and unfortunate”. 

A prime minister might be expected to be more outspoken about such a crime, but it fitted with his approach to all controversial anti-Muslim events and extreme Hindu nationalist remarks since a government minister soured the government’s image and undermined the apparent supremacy of its economic agenda last November when she implied that non-Hindu’s (ie Muslims) were illegitimate.

Two months later, in January this year, the BJP was unexpectedly routed in Delhi’s state assembly elections. Now it seems unlikely to achieve a clear win, and might even lose, in Bihar’s assembly polls, which are being seen both by the BJP and by opposition parties as a test of Modi’s political standing 18 months after his landslide general election victory.

It was noticeable earlier this month that, as reports of the BJP doing badly in the first phase of he Bihar polling began to emerge, Modi and his colleagues presented a softer face, having earlier apparently believed that a strong Hindu nationalist approach would win them votes. Modi echoed the president’s words, and said that “Hindus should decide whether to fight Muslims or poverty. Muslims have to decide whether to fight Hindus or poverty”.

That goes to the heart of India’s current political divide between the aspirational young who voted BJP last year because they want Modi to lead the country into a new era of economic success, and the BJP’s traditional supporters (and many party leaders) who believe in Hindu nationalism. Modi seems to have a split personality on the issue as, probably, does Arun Jaitley, his finance minister and chief spokesman, whereas Amit Shah, Modi’s chief political strongman, is seen as a nationalist hardliner.

It was politically significant therefore when, 16 days after the Dadri killing, Shah eventually said that it was “wrong” and that those responsible should be punished. He then reprimanded ministers and others who had made controversial comments, saying that they were diverting attention from Modi’s economic agenda. The prime minister was said to be “upset and distressed”, which seemed odd, given that he had stayed silent for so long. 

CowHANot eating beef from cows, which are seen as a mother symbol since they provide milk for humans, is a typically Indian unclear taboo (buffalo beef is widely used instead, and is a major export). The taboo is widely accepted as something that most but not all Hindus, many of whom are vegetarians, follow as a way of life without any controversy or argument. Because it has a religious basis (like Muslims not eating pork), it is however easily used by extremists to stir up unrest. The 1857 Indian Mutiny (or India’s First War of Independence) was sparked by rumours that cartridges for new Enfield rifles were greased with beef and pork fat

There have been laws on cow slaughter in almost all of India’s states for many years, but in the past many have not been enforced, especially for ageing cows that stop producing milk. But since the BJP came to power last year, many states have strengthened enforcement for ideological reasons, led by Maharashtra which activated a 1996 law for the first time in March, with some including heavy prison sentences. 

Other developments in the past 18-months that have threatened social harmony have included mass Hindu conversions of  Muslims and Christians, allegations that Muslims seek Hindu brides in order to spread their religion (known as Love Jihad), and suggestions that Hindus should protect their religion by breeding faster than Muslims. There are also moves to strengthen Hindu nationalists’ grip on the education system and other academic and literary institutions (such as the Sahitya Akademi) so as to strengthen Hindu nationalism’s grip.

KASURI-KULKARNI_2582216fThe anti-Muslim line also erupts over relations with Pakistan. Extremists, notably the arch fundamentalist Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which is a BJP ally and has for years tried to block Pakistan cricket matches and other activities. 

Last week, Shiv Sena protestors poured black paint (above) over the organiser of the launch in Mumbai of a book by Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, a former Pakistani foreign minister. Kasuri was on a tour of India, and had been welcomed at the Kasauli Literary Festival (that I attended) in north India. He debated his version of history with Indian writers and other specialists and went on to speak in Chandigarh, a regional capital, without any disruption. The Mumbai attack therefore was an isolated event, but it demonstrated the intolerance of a vocal and influential minority promoting nationalist (and regional) chauvinism.

The Shiv Sena also forced the cancellation of a Mumbai concert by famous Pakistani singer, and this week its activists stormed into a meeting of the Pakistan and Indian cricket officials in Mumbai who were planning future matches.

On a different level, the government has become intolerant of dissent by non-governmental groups, notably Greenpeace and others that try to ensure that environmental regulations are followed by infrastructure and other development schemes. The Ford Foundation has also been under attack for funding such groups, and individuals have been harassed.

Governments have tried to curb dissent for decades, and there have also been violent protests about beef eating and strongly held views on religion for years. But this has escalated in recent months, with nationalism being raised to a new level for a variety of causes that, as can be seen from these events, range from curbing Muslims’ freedom to harassing well-meaning environmentalists that dare to criticise government actions.

This implies that India is being run by an embattled, authoritarian and repressive regime, supported by vigilantes, a view which contrasts sharply with the friendly open “make in India” economic-growth face that Modi displays on his frequent visits abroad – and will do again in the UK next month. 

As President Mukherjee, a veteran Congress Party politician said, there is apprehension that “tolerance and acceptance of dissent are on the wane”.


  1. Targeted intolerance against any individual, community or group should be strongly condemned and fought against. However we should be careful of providing too publicity to individual events of intolerance. Over the board criticism, especially by public figures creates a vicious cycle which can ultimately lead to the society becoming more and more intolerant:
    Is ‘intolerant India’ a self fulfilling prophecy?

  2. As an Indian hindu,I am disturbed by these incidents in my country.This is not part of the religion that I love and this is not the India that i want.Hinduism and the foundation of India is “an all encompassing belief system with its idea that the truth is one while the paths are many; with its recognition that people with different personalities have different ways of finding the truth; with its intuition that the mystery at the heart of the universe is, in John Coltrane’s words, a Love Supreme. Its spacious vision invites all of us to transcend small-mindedness and narrow-heartedness, to move into a wider space that is open and free, for our sake and the world’s sake.” What people of other religions are doing or not going shouldn’t be the benchmark of our actions and not the excuse to commit wrongdoings.One wrong doesn’t make another wrong right.Unfortunately,most of the people who claim to be hindus have not studied the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the religion.

  3. Famous Paintings
    What is happening in India today under Modi, would make Gandhi cry.
    Oct 22, 2015 4:37am

    Vajra Ayudha

    Are you that politically naive, Its the opposition doing it, making it look like its happening under Modi government.
    Reply · 1 · Oct 22, 2015 6:09am

    Haresh Advani · Baruch College
    Yes, it would. (Just like what has happened in Pakistan – a theocracy, extreme punishments for apostasy – would make the country’s founder, M A Jinnah, turn in his grave.)
    Reply · 4 · Oct 22, 2015 6:20am

    Yehya Ahmad · DumDum
    Vajra Ayudha Its bigots and extremists like Modi and BJP leadersip that is doing it and so openly and yet you deny it like a fellow BJP bigot of theirs. Read this article again for facts. The holy cow brigade is nothing but about kiling and subjugating Muslims as has been proven by Dadri incident.
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 7:53am

    Zain Abidin
    This BJP, RSS, Shiv Sena and many hate groups are the face that India has been trying to hide from the rest of the world. Thanks to social media, the true face of India is becomming more and more apparent each day, and it is looking very ugly.
    Like · Reply · 1 · Oct 22, 2015 5:47am

    Haresh Advani · Baruch College
    . . . and will get uglier, unfortunately ( a word that Mr Modi used to describe the lynching of the Muslim). Back in the good ole USofA (me ist an Indian-American), when the Muslim boy in school got harassed and arrested for his invention of a clock, the president of the country invited the boy over to the White House. Can you imagine Mr Modi inviting the family of the man who was lynched, over to his residence in order to offer his sympathy and condolences??!! (And I will not even mention any kind of financial compensation?) Mr Modi will TRY and get away with doing as little as is publicly possible in this case and every future – and be rest assured these incidents will only increase – cases.
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 6:27am

    Raj Yadav
    John Elliott how about you covering a story about Dakshina Kannada who was hacked to death by Muslims less then 48 hours ago. Idiots like you and rest of the media always choose the wrong side to get fame and $$. Muslims can never co-exist with anyone not even their Shiite-sunnis.
    Like · Reply · 2 · Oct 22, 2015 3:56am

    Haresh Advani · Baruch College
    Really, really, really Mr Yadav??!! Muslims have co-existed in India – along with Christians, Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews – since the time of the founding of the Islam religion about 1300 years ago. (And some of the other religions me hast mentioned, much before that.) Go read your history and try not to let your emotions cloud your thinking and writing. PS Do have the openness to read a history NOT sponsored or promoted by Hindu groups.
    Like · Reply · 1 · Oct 22, 2015 6:17am

    Vinay Satyanarayan · R.V College of Engineering
    Haresh Advani Have you visited Somnath Temple and several temples in India where Muslims have demolished them, Have you heard stories about GURU TEGH BAHADUR who was vertically sawed by Aurangzeb, as he would not convert to Islam, Have you read story about Chatrapati Sambaji Maharaj, who was tortured to death by Aurangzeb for not accepting Islam. Hindus in Pakistan area before its partition were 22% , now they are barely 1% , they have been massacred or forcefully converted.

    Additionally, Have you recently read about news of a Moodabidri Hindu Flower vendor killed by Muslims for stopping COW slaughter, WHY IS THE MEDIA BLIND ON THAT? why is this AUTHOR blind on it? I think Media feels that HINDU lives are waste and DO NOT MATTER.

    Secularism means treat all people as HUMANS and Not selectively condemn or criticize a crime against a faith, call spade a spade. Religion and faith must be with in 4 walls OF OUR houses NOT ON NEWS PAPERS or Streets. What is been propogated by the PAID MEDIA IS AN IGNORANT ONESIDED PSUEDO SECULARISM.
    Like · Reply · 6 hrs

    Sunil Banathia · Associate Manager at Accenture
    Hindus have been tolerant for long time while western countries and Islamic fenatics continued to insult our Religion, our belief , our values, our teachings, our culture our temples destroyed, looted and Insulted for centuries and last many decades. Our contribution to science, medicines and education has been continuously hijacked and patented. You name me a country where all religions and sects from each of those religions are present; You won’t find any except India. All muslim sects are present only in India..Not even in Islam dominated countries and yet we are the Intolerant ???? Our patience has been pushed to the limit and it has become really difficult to see and preach peace anymore. Eating beef and Insulting Hinduism in a country where cow is sacred is Secularism where as protesting it is comunal ? Media continues to show it’s dark colors with a bias that while three deaths of muslims have been discussed here, more than twice Hindus are probably already killed and humiliaed in the very country where their fore fathers, gurus and saints lived. When I Travel across places and see how people are kept ignorant about a culture who has suffered through ages has been made a villian. Each riot, each incidence of violence in here is triggered by Other communities (read and research about how everything you seem to be care about started and then will you realize what are you talking about). and I hope who has created mess in the world, just look at present situation and your religious past as well. Modi has come as a hope for us who would help remove reservation of all kind and treat Indian citizans equal, with equal opportunities of growth and starting the research again on our ancent knowledge.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs

    Denzil Browne · Works at Dodge
    It seems that every time the BJP get into power, the hardliners of the RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena, etc go overboard and this costs them the elections. Similar situation now. There are a lot of problems such as rapes that need addressing but Modi prefers to push all that under the carpet and focus on his image. The rapes in particular have become so vile that even children are affected.

    I would think the rapes of women and children should be more important than what people eat.
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 9:46am

    Kirti Patel · South Gujarat University
    Did Sonia Gandhi paid you to write this partisan BS Propaganda?
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 8:26am

    Muhammad Adeel Sheikh · Karachi University
    Not only Muslim, lower caste Hindu ( sorry to say ), christians and Sikhs are also on the trail of RSS hindu extreamist and they are getting crazy by as every day pass by.. This is the true expamle why TWO NATION THEORY was a better idia..
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 11:39am

    Ali Abbas · FAST-NUCES
    Extremist Hindus are killing minorities.
    Like · Reply · 17 hrs

    Mushtaq Ali · Executive Finance at Atlas Honda Ltd
    I appricate your article, representing true picture of India
    Like · Reply · 20 hrs

    Uma Singh · Bangabasi Morning College
    John Eliot seems to be ignorant about India as far as this aricle/blog is concerned. It has been since time the Muslims invaded India Hindu Muslimtensions has been there. And whether u like it or not, agree or not it will continue to be there till this civilisation exists. Muslims are merciless killers by birth barring exceptions, and Indians are by birth tolerant, accomodating and believers in Vasudhaiva kutumbakam since time immemorial. No religion or country teaches this. Why in all muslim countires killing is going on? Why there is unrest wherever they are? Are Indians responsible for that?
    Like · Reply · Oct 22, 2015 10:25am

    Mushtaq Ali · Executive Finance at Atlas Honda Ltd
    One can only laugh at your comment. The article written above is quoted with reference and names of Modi government’s ministers. But you have described the author as ignorant? How funny.
    Muslims cannot be compared with hindus in any way. I dont want to compare religions as you have started. Just talk about worst senario in India for minorities and women. Dont hide your shorcomings under cursing Muslims. Muslims dont kill for eating a piece of meat nor rape womens just like happening in India.
    Like · Reply · 23 hrs

    Dv Gokhale
    Shame on you John for such a biased and uninformed reporting. You must be paid (and you joyfully accepted) a lot of money for writing this nonsense.
    Oct 22, 2015 5:51am

    Ham Head
    You people continue bending backwards to the invading muslim hordes and keep on suffering incidents like rotherham and numerous others..We’ll deal with them on our own terms.
    Oct 22, 2015 3:17am

    Haresh Advani · Baruch College
    “Invading Muslim hordes”. What are on earth are you talking about? There are [Muslims} crashing through India’s borders with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan? There are “invading hordes” landing on India’s west and east coasts infiltrating in the middle of the night? Get real!!!
    Oct 22, 2015 6:11am

    Chittaranjan Mishra · Muscat, Oman
    Haresh Advani Harish, you are school-boy romantic. Keep it up. Bitter reality is not good for adolescent taste buds.
    Oct 22, 2015 7:59am

    Eqbal Khan · Works at Law Firm San Francisco
    Funny, It is the Times and Newsweeks of the world that made Modi who he is tody.
    15 hrs

    Gene Tyson · Phoenix, Arizona
    When there are so many bad apples something is wrong with the orchard !
    When there are so many “anti-Muslims” like the propaganda above calls it, all-over the world (from different countries) . Probably something is WRONG with the ISLAM
    Oct 22, 2015 4:46am

    Yehya Ahmad · DumDum
    Right, just like everyone complains of US’s efforts to bring damocracy to the rest of the world. How about your orchard being rotten and you a part of it?
    Oct 22, 2015 7:57am

    Gene Tyson · Phoenix, Arizona
    Yehya Ahmad Except that US is not a religion!
    Oct 22, 2015 7:58am · Edited

    Nasir Khan · Works at Self-employed
    Comeon Gene. Muslims are in minority in India. It is ridiculous to kill someone for eating beef. Do you eat beef ? If so how would your dear ones feel if you are crucified for eating beef ?
    22 hrs

    Rafi Uddin
    My greatest fear is that these Fanatics Hindu Fundementalists might bring back the old Hindu Rituals of Burning the wife of the Deceased Husbands in the same Funeral Fire of the Husbands. Also theuy might introduce the “Dev-Dasi” ritual of sacrificing the young women as a slave of god in the temple to be abused by the upper caste hindus.
    14 hrs

    Nasir Khan · Works at Self-employed
    I don’t understand this beef controversy/hypocricy ! India has been a big exporter of beef for past many years, which means they have been killing their sacred cows. So Hindus are ok with it as long as money is involved.
    22 hrs

    Gurmeet S Multani · Colton, California
    A society that spends 10 crores a day on housedng and feeding cows who no longer can give milk and ignores the millions of children who could be educated with the same money needs to have its head examined. It is okay to eat goats sheep lambs chicken fish camels but note cow. ONce India gets away from its religious baggage it might be orth investing into .. If you are willing to MAKE A GOOD STEAK in India We will be happy MAKE IN INDIA all the other stuff
    Oct 22, 2015 7:14am

    Ritesh Pranil Chand
    Those millions of children, are parents responsibilities. Why bring kids in this world, when you yourselft live and deficate on the streets. Why is it the governments responsibiliies to feed your children? As for muslims not getting beef, well let me see them eat pork and drink alcohol.
    Why does it has to be only Hindus, who have to give up religious beleifs?
    Oct 22, 2015 7:53am

    David McClellan · Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
    EVIL! (Sin) What is it really?
    What does Islam actually stand for? Let’s be sure of what it is and what it isn’t.

    What does the word “evil” (sin) actually mean? Most people have a tragically mistaken idea and the mistake is greatly magnified when it comes to Islam. Does it mean doing things like getting drunk, using “four letter” words, criticizing people (including the President, the Pope, or Muhammad), dressing the wrong way, eating or drinking the wrong things, calling people bad names, lying, stealing, killing (not the same as murder), going to church on Sunday if others think you’re supposed to go on Saturday, not going to church at all, associating with the wrong kind of people, not washing your hands before eating, or not doing something the right way at the right time or in the right place etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum as Sharia Law, for example, requires? ……(too long to run here – see Newsweek site)

  4. HocusPocus • 21 hours ago
    John Elliot, please remind yourself that according to your own account, water buffalo can still be slaughtered and eaten even while zebus, not “cows”, are protected. Since India’s beef exports are water buffalo meat, classified as beef by the USDA, and India’s beef exports are currently the largest in the world, there is a sizable international market for it, which indicates that it is palatable. In other words, there is nothing preventing Muslims or anybody else from eating red meat in India. The present trouble arises because a 19 year old statute with an environmental purpose is finally being enforced, and this so-called religious intolerance, and the clearly illegal violence that may be a result of provocation, is being fanned by Nehruvian fanatics after the 19 year old fact, and exported via your column to no good end.

    KS Subramanian • a day ago
    For a change let us know about the religious tolerance of Islamists, Sikhs, Parsees and also Christians.

    Javak • 2 days ago
    While I think Modi could certainly have done more to promptly re-assure the people of India about the unacceptability of such incidents, the author seems to forget that India has a federal structure and Modi or his party do not have power in many of the states in which these appalling events have occurred. For instance, the Dadri lynching by a village mob happened in UP which is ruled by the “backward class” Socialist Party and the rationalist Kalburgi was killed in the Congress ruled Karnataka. The blackening of a former BJP leader in Mumbai was by the lumpen Shiv Sena, which unfortunately is propping up the BJP led government, because the BJP does not have enough seats in the state assembly. Incidentally, the biggest outcry against the incidents has been by the Hindus and this is clearly a major factor that distinguishes the Indian democracy. If the BJP loses the Bihar elections, Modi may realise that the electorate demands quick, clear statements and decisive action from him on such incidents, regardless of which party is in power.

  5. My heart joins millions of Indians’ cries on these unholy developments in India, as it is against our 5000 year old DNA of syncretism and liberalism.

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