The Yogi and the cow
The nascent rule of the Hindutva firebrand has been marked by violent vigilantism and fetishising of the bovine species
On March 11, when it became clear that the BJP would resoundingly come to power in Lucknow, the big question was how this extraordinary mandate should be read. It did not take much time for the party’s leadership to announce the name of Yogi Adityanath – a Hindutva hardliner – as chief minister.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to appoint an incendiary firebrand perplexed many. What did a religious monk who was constantly in the headlines for spewing hate have to do with the business of governance? It seems that this was not an important question for the large number of voters who backed the BJP. If the videos of many Adityanath rallies are anything to go by, his speeches were all about hateful and divisive rhetoric. It was clear that many in the boisterous crowds that showed up at his rallies had no confusion about why they wanted the BJP to come to power. There was seething resentment against the social coalition of Muslim-Yadav that brought the Samajwadi Party (SP) to power and led to the alleged exclusion of all other castes. In a state where job creation has been non-existent, an impression that employment and privileges were going to the Muslims or the Yadavs was enough to consolidate every other caste against the SP government.
Though Manoj Sinha was the preferred choice of Modi, it was the realisation that the Yogi and his followers could rebel against such a decision that tilted the scales in Adityanath’s favour. Reluctantly, it seems, the Yogi was appointed CM, but the plan was to manage UP from the centre by designating bureaucrats who would help take key decisions. In a month of his rule, during which the gushy reporting of the media has tried to normalise the ascension of a priest to chief ministership, there is little to suggest that the fiercely independent Yogi will follow the commissars. On the contrary, his rise has lent legitimacy to the agenda of vigilante Hindu groups on the fringe. These outfits endeavour to turn a secular India into a Hindu Rashtra where the interests, concerns and fears of the majority community will drive state policy.
When the BJP came to power at the centre in 2014, this agenda was cloaked in inclusionary slogans like ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’. Even this surface-level appeasement was far too much for Hindu chauvinists. Their crusade against meat –largely accentuated by the Jains of Gujarat – meant an aggressive practice of untouchability towards Muslims despite knowing that many Hindus, too, were similarly meat-consuming. Paranoia about Muslims eating beef became the driver of a kind of vigilantism which was nothing else than extorting and stealing cattle from those involved in this trade. In the past few years, the country has seen innocent people being lynched for allegedly consuming beef. Cow protectors, supported by the local police, have been stopping vehicles carrying cattle in different parts of the country. This vigilantism has compromised the police forces and allowed goons and criminals to make a fast buck.
From this standpoint, the cow was central to how the young Yogi went about administrating UP. Reports of his love for the bovine species began to appear in the media. A particular English news channel, which was later savaged on social media, exultantly recounted how calves ran to meet the Yogi when he visited his ashram after becoming CM. Other reports highlighted how he had Muslims to tend to his cattle and take care of his household. This mythmaking conveyed to the overzealous administration where his priorities lay. Within a week of his assuming power, the Chief Secretary of UP sent a letter to all district officials regarding the illegal transportation of milch animals. This order was not confined to cows, but included buffalos and even goats. It was preceded by a crackdown on ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses that ostensibly sought to fulfil another poll promise of the BJP. The supporters of the party saw the drive as an attempt to banish all those illegal slaughterhouses that had spawned under the protection of the SP, and the Muslims read it as an attempt to hurt their livelihoods and food habits.
For days in Lucknow, legendary shops like Tunday Kababi were denied buffalo meat to make their famous galoutis (soft kebabs), forcing them to do the unthinkable – make chicken kebabs instead. Other outlets, too, famous for serving biryani and nihari, had to curb operation due to a dearth of buffalo meat. This is despite the fact that buffalo meat is not banned and India is one of its largest suppliers.
The strictness displayed by the police and municipal authorities in controlling slaughterhouses has spread panic in UP. People belonging to the Muslim community worry not just about where they will procure meat from but also about their safety. “I don’t know when the meat supply will sort itself out,” wondered Hamid, a motor workshop owner who had been chasing rumours about where meat was available for sale. There are people who ran small meat shops, which have been closed down as they did not meet the new rules that are needed to run them.
The Yogi and his administration claim that the shutting down of the slaughterhouses is merely an implementation of the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). This is an obvious ruse. Nothing is clear, but this order was enough to give legitimacy to the drive to shut meat shops and drive people running them out of business. Lakhs of small-time butchers and animal skinners were rendered unemployed. Some of them tried to seek a licence from the municipal body, but were rudely told that they could apply only next year. While there was an imperative to clean up this messy business, the manner in which it has been gone about has struck a body blow to butchers, meat sellers and consumers. A senior leader of the BJP told this writer that the SP government had looked the other way when cows were being slaughtered. According to this leader, “Even in the Arab world, there is no public slaughtering of animals as happens in many parts of UP. There is a need to slaughter animals in a civilised manner and this is what this government is trying to enforce.”
Ordinary Muslims are unsure whether their fortunes will really improve under this government. They fear that the entire meat business will be severely impacted as it is virtually impossible to transport cattle now. Waylaying of cattle transporters has created a crisis for the Rs.20,000-crore meat export industry. After the Adityanath government came to power, a number of export-oriented units were closed on the specious and flimsy grounds that their CCTV cameras were not working. Even the state-of-the-art Allana meat factory in Aligarh that processes close to 2,000 buffalos a day, suffered as the supply had dropped dramatically.
Hundreds of thousands involved in this trade are hoping that things will settle down but if the happenings in other parts of the country where the BJP is in power are any indication, the road ahead will be fraught with hardship. For Muslims, the diminishing of their economic fortunes has followed their political marginalisation. This is a state of affairs that will not change anytime soon.
The Yogi has been brought in to fulfil many agendas and not just to help the cows to come home unscathed. He has to pivot the politics of the state towards politics that give greater space to Hindutva and that will mean keeping the Muslims and Other Backward Castes that they had aligned with in the past on the defensive. The Yogi’s success at Hindu consolidation is critical for the return of the BJP at the centre. Will he construct the Ram temple in Ayodhya? What about the temples in Varanasi and Mathura? If he can pull it off without triggering communal riots, he could become the darling of the liberals too!
Modi knows that. However, he also understands that as the young CM grows politically stronger in UP, he will have to politically accommodate his choices and ambitions at the centre too. Interesting times for a monk who did not need to sell a Ferrari to come to power – his saffron robes and his self-belief were enough!