In the age of Charlie Hebdo, isn’t an ink attack civilised protest?

In the age of Charlie Hebdo, isn't an ink attack civilised protest?

A face blackened is not a pleasant sight, irrespective of whose face it is. That the very act of blackening somebody’s face is a disagreeable act too is beyond argument. Among civilised people, such a practice cannot be a norm. And, this should not be a perfunctory criticism which, having been ritually made, must therefore, be quickly followed by the clichés – “having said that” or “be that as it may”. It has to be as categorical and unequivocal as a stand can be.

Yet, I cannot bring myself to sympathise with Engineer Rasheed, the MLA from Langate in Kashmir, who suffered this fate at the Press Club in Delhi on the Monday last. It is not just because of the man himself, and his earlier actions, that fetched him such a consequence. It is also based on the context of his actions and the larger issue of cow slaughter. A reasonable way to judge it is on the basis of the law of the land as well as a standard of behaviour normally expected of everyone.

Cow slaughter is banned in 24 states of India which comprise over 85 per cent of both, the population as well as the land-mass. It is not a new law. This law has been in the statute books for decades, and in some cases, including Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir, for centuries. In the post-independence constitution of India, through the Entry 15 in the State-list, as enshrined in the 7th schedule, it is exclusively a state Assembly’s prerogative to enact law(s) protecting cows and their progeny. Also, it is a prominent principle of the desired State Policy, as enunciated in the Article 48 of the Constitution of India that “We the People” gave ourselves. Thus, it is a matter of very basic common-sense that so long as the laws oblige us to behave in a certain manner, nobody has any business flouting them, under any pretext.

Though ignorance of law is never an acceptable alibi, those who violate this law do not do so in ignorance. Most likely, not. The hush-hush secrecy with which cows are trafficked and slaughtered proves it. The traffickers, clearly, take a calculated risk hoping to getaway. The primary impulse here is greed. Their best bet is a stretched, apathetic and corrupt police. At one level, they are like thieves and the law needs to deal with them accordingly. At another level, it isn’t the kind of violation like anybody’s signal-jumping, bootlegging or betting racket that the general population just shrugs off and goes about its life. State-apathy towards cow slaughter has led to civil vigilance. Such vigilance doesn’t take much time morphing into vigilante squads. And, if there are vigilante groups on the loose, mob-lynching cannot be far away. There have been several instances already. Let us see how various limbs of our system have or have not dealt with them, often contributing to aggravating the situation.

The states ought to have responded to uphold the law at both the ends. First, enforce cow slaughter ban as that is the law. Second, end vigilante justice. In fact, it can be justifiably argued that the second ceases to happen when the first is truly and stringently enforced. But, it was easier said than done. When the government of Maharashtra moved to ban the cow slaughter under a law, what followed was an avalanche of indignation. From the Malabar Hill to several such urbane terraced slopes that have become the abode of well heeled bohemians, a lament about the violation of personal freedoms rang out. For any democracy that prides itself with deep roots and a tradition for robust argument, some political jousting and name calling was par for the course. But, what was not par for the course, was for this contrarian elite to turn a blind eye towards the society at large and insist on having its way regardless.

Had UP followed the example of Maharashtra, chances are that there wouldn’t have been the vigilante justice of the kind seen at Dadri. Forget enforcing, the state in UP not only drags its feet on its own law on cow slaughter, under the Mulayam/Azam rule, it is in open cahoots with the violators, particularly in western UP. Which is why the violations are rampant and so are now the vigilante squads. In fact, such squads have begun to operate in the neighbouring states like Himachal, Haryana and Delhi too because the traffickers from UP are emboldened enough to operate trans-border.

Likewise, in Jammu and Kashmir. The law banning cow slaughter has been part of the statute since early nineteenth century. Beef, in any case, was never a part of the normal dietary practices prevailing in the State, even among the Muslims. Forget beef, even mutton has few takers in this, primarily, lamb-preferring Valley. Over and above, there was an unwritten code that despite any absence of prohibition under the laws, the Hindus will not rear pigs and sell or consume pork. But, all that had begun to change with radicalisation. It became an integral part of the Islamist assertion in the Valley to flaunt beef.

So, when the high court was petitioned to follow the laws on cow slaughter, the Jammu bench obliged. It ordered the State police to strictly enforce the law. In reaction, and violation of the judicial process, the Srinagar bench admitted a petition challenging the order of the Jammu bench, triggering a crisis in the higher judiciary. Supreme Court stepped in. But, giving a bizarre turn to the event, apart from reining in the Srinagar bench that had clearly stepped out of line, it also stayed the earlier order of the Jammu bench, which was merely upholding the statute. Which every court is meant to do as its sworn obligation. Supreme Court created a moral and legal equivalence where none existed. It dragged itself into practising exactly the same perversion of secularism that abounds in the political space. It had the imprint of clever by half “statecraft” written all over it.

But, much happened before and after the Supreme Court’s intervention. The radicals had gone to town slaughtering cows, publicly. Not just that. The videos of the same were shot – writhing cows, dripping knife, exhortations et al that went viral. Engineer Rashid, an MLA who specialises in clumsy muckraking, decided to cross the boundaries. He announced a “beef party” in the MLA hostel, with beef emblazoned banners and posters, and media beaming nationwide on the prime time news. All this was done to a people who, in 1857, rose in revolt to fight their first war of independence, precisely, on this issue. Images of pieces of beef being served on plates being passed around were not just an affront. It was a deliberate dare mocking the state. And, the state again looked the other way. Just as it had been doing when the videos went viral, when the tricolour was burnt, when the Pakistani flags were waved in front of police headquarters and their national anthem sung by Asiya Andrabi.

If all this could provoke the extraordinarily thick-skinned MLAs, who came to blows on the issue, on the very floor of the house, what it must have done to the ordinary people is anybody’s guess. The issue isn’t any more if the Shobhaa De’s of the world have a right to their steak that they have been having for years without much ado. It is whether, in this day and age of Charlie Hebdo type carnages to avenge “affront”, given your flair for prime time provocations and throwing a public dare, should you be raising such a hue and cry about mere ink-attacks that you literally beg for? And, should the media oblige you with the time and space, which is what you seem to be doing all this for, in the first place!

~ Sushil Pandit, Student of Media and Politics, makes a living by managing communication for brands and issues, interested in and active among Kashmiris expelled from Kashmir.  Twitter: @neelkantha