Electoral politics and ecological politics can represent two different ways of life. In an ecological society, one can use symbols from the past to sustain affiliations. An increasingly urbanising society can turn the cow into a mnemonics of the sacred. The cow becomes a symbol of an agricultural way of life. It can evoke life giving symbols of fertility and non-violence. Ecological politics often represents an affiliation between man and animal.
Electoral politics unlike ecological politics is anthropocentric. Animals as food are not part of a covenant. The relation is between majority and minority and rules of tolerance have to be worked out. If ecological politics represents non-violence to the animal, electoral politics seeks a mutuality among human groups. Both can be life giving systems provided symbols are understood. The sacredness and the vitality of the symbol is critical here. When symbols as life giving signs become fetishes politics can turn into mayhem and this is precisely what has happened. The beef ban is merely one example of the fragility of symbols disturbed by populist politics.
To understand this one has to understand the transition from Hinduism to Hindutva. The cow in Hinduism was a life giving symbol of fertility. As India urbanized and politicised Hinduism gave way to Hindutva. The cow was no longer a symbol of nature. It was now a token of an aggressive Hinduism. The urban Jan Sangh, or the BJP voter who was more a shopkeeper or a bureaucrat with few memories of agriculture turned the cow from a token of ecology into a signal for a new aggressive politics. The ban on cow slaughter became a way to differentiate Hindu and Muslim communities.
One has to sense that majoritarian politics is a double desecration. It is a desecration of democracy as the majority bullies the minority. It is desecration of ecological politics because the cow is now symbol for an aggressive politics and this double desecration is witnessed in the recent politics of beef bans.
The killing of Mohammed Akhlaq, a blacksmith, was one such example. Akhlaq was lynched on the suspicion of having cooked and consumed beef. What was even more morbid was the rituals of politicians that accompanied this murder. Both Mahesh Sharma and Sangeet Som acted as guardians of a hypothetically aggrieved cow rather than mourning the murder of a human being. They were ironically using the cow, a non-violent animal to create an aggressive Hinduism. The silence and complicity that followed showed that majoritarian politics had become murderous.
The beef ban in Kashmir was even more perplexing. Why the PDP regime should impose a beef ban in a state like Kashmir is itself perplexing. It is virtually threatening its own continuity through such imposition. Worse it is recreating the memory of arbitrary rule. To the Kashmiri Muslim, it brings memories of Hindu Dogri rule. More it brings back governor Jagmohan’s attempt to invoke such a rule.
Both events need to be read carefully. There is no real attempt to sustain the sacredness of the cow. The cow becomes ironically an attempt to symbolically subjugate the Muslim, to assert Hindu majoritarianism as an arbitrary act.
In fact this is precisely what happened in Kashmir in Jagmohan’s time when QusiNisar, a cleric, slaughtered two sheep to defy the ban order. A protest against a beef ban often graduates to a separatist script and what was once a life giving assumption has now become a law and order problem.
Yet the politics of beef bans is only one aspect of a more insidious politics. Food has always been symbolic of deeper identities and food as classification can create both rituals of exclusion and hospitability. By playing with the politics of food, the BJP regime is playing with primordial emotions.
In fact the politics of a majoritarian government becomes clearer as a grammar of a symbolic politics. All operate on the logic of cultural divides. First we begin with moral policing which bans certain forms of dress as licence. Secondly it bans books and movies as part of its hygiene called censorships. Thirdly, it bans certain forms of food because it violates a majority’s sense of identity. All three are what one prefers to call forms of civic cleansing where violence is expressed through the negativity of the ban. Each mode whether censorships, policing, ban seeks to create a form of exclusion impinging on a form of freedom. Each actually violates the culture of democracy by destroying a freedom. The BJP is in fact clear that its rules of hygiene, its ideas of food, and its notions of sexuality will determine the idea of the body politic. Majoritarian politics threatens life, livelihood, and life style and in doing so it destroys ecology.
Deep down one has to understand that the force of symbols is deeply distorted and in violating symbols the BJP is violating both nature and culture. Beef cannot be considered in isolation. Whether it’s the body, beef, book or belief, the politics of majoritarianism become a violation of future of democracy as an imagination.