If you and your friends saw a crowd of people beating up one man, what would you do? What if the poor fellow was being whacked for allegedly “offending” a religion?
Some of us may try to ask for more details, hopefully to calm down the situation.
Some of us may agree with the attackers without even finding out more – simply because we are of the same religion.
Some of us may pretend that we see nothing.
Thankfully, this is not about Malaysia – well, not yet.
Beef is a taboo for Hindus, as the cow is regarded as sacred. But should cow lovers attack people in the name of religion?
In India, Mohammad Akhlaq was beaten to death with sticks and bricks by a mob for “offending” Hindus by eating beef. This occurred in Bisara village, 45km from New Delhi, on Sept 30.
An AP report details how tension grew after some cows went missing. A temple priest then stoked the fires by announcing that the family had slaughtered cows and kept beef in their house. The victim’s daughter screamed that it was mutton in their fridge, not beef. But the mob refused to listen.
India has been transfixed by this case. Writer and former minister Shashi Tharoor said on Twitter that the “horrific killing shows this meat (beef) bigotry has gone out of control”.
Since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power after the May 2014 elections, inflammatory religious rhetoric has risen.
The BJP-linked Hindu paramilitary group RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or “National Patriotic Organisation”) has said that cow slaughter is an issue of “honour” for Hindus and called for a nationwide ban on the beef trade, which is run mostly by Muslims.
The Culture Minister from the BJP central government, Mahesh Sharma, tried to sweep the issue under the carpet, calling the murder a “misunderstanding” and an “accident” at dnaindia.com.
However, The Indian Express newspaper reported that eight of the 11 suspects arrested for Akhlaq’s murder are related to Sanjay Rana, a local BJP worker.
Eighty percent of the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants are Hindu. Roughly 250 million Indians are not, including 25 million Christians and 140 million Muslims.
But what is being called “the beef murder” shows how tragic things can get when politics gets mixed up with religious sentiments.
Tharoor, who is a member of the Indian Congress party (now in the Opposition), asks whether all this is a BJP “strategy” to divide voters. The BJP, on its part, has accused Congress and other parties of “appeasing” Muslims. (Doesn’t this sound like Malaysia, where PAS was once accused of being a “lackey” of the DAP?)
Another Congress leader, Manish Tewari, was reported by The Deccan Herald as saying, “There are some people who are trying to change the narrative of the country. They want the minority to be second grade citizens.
“The government wants to dictate what people should eat, wear and talk. So this is an issue on which all progressive and right-thinking people need to stand together.”
Back in 1947, when India gained independence, its founding fathers Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned it as a secular country where all religions and languages are recognised as equal.
They resisted the natural impulse from the majority Hindi-speaking Hindus to impose its culture and religion on others. And today, India has 22 official languages: apart from Hindi and English, these include Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and even Assamese.
India faces huge challenges from issues like corruption, poverty, inequality, cleanliness, and even safety for women. Amidst this discontent, some politicians have roused the masses by offering Hindu nationalism as a magic balm to solve all problems. (Seemingly ignoring the fact that even though Hindu politicians have controlled India for 68 years since independence, these problems are still deep rooted.)
This has emboldened certain people to start bullying others in the name of upholding “Hindu honour”.
For example, on Oct 17, a group threatened to cut the skin off the leg of a visiting Australian in Bangalore because he had the tattoo of a Hindu goddess on his shin.
But isn’t having a tattoo a mark of admiration for something?
No, the group (which included local BJP politician Ramesh Yadav) insisted that the Australian was “insulting” Hindus.
Then on Oct 20, Hindu agitators from the Shiv Sena group poured black ink and oil onto the face of Sheikh Abdul Rashid, a politician from Kashmir, for having a “beef party” to support the right of non-Hindus to eat that meat.
This incident prompted Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to remind citizens that Indian civilisation has always accepted dissent and differences.
The Indian Express reported him as saying, “A large number of languages, 1,600 dialects and seven religions co-exist in India. We have a Constitution that accommodates all these differences. Our civilisation has celebrated diversity, plurality and ... tolerance.”
We in Malaysia like to congratulate ourselves that we have not reached the kind of bickering seen in India. But the parallels should serve as a cautionary tale to us.
After all, it was just a month back, on Malaysia Day, when unity and harmony were supposed to be celebrated, that politically-linked rallies and their derogatory remarks made news. How are beef bigotry and pork prejudice related?
Surely all people who cherish moderation, harmony and fairness do not like to see a majority with power (in any country) bully a minority? This applies not only to Hindus/Muslims in India but also to whites/blacks in the United States and Jews/Arabs in Palestine.
We also may want to step back and ask: how has politics got into the mix to colour (or discolour) the situation?
Finally, if we saw someone being bullied or attacked for allegedly “insulting” a religion, perhaps we may want to ask more questions before jumping to any conclusions.
Andrew Sia prefers full-flavoured teh tarik over weak English tea any day.