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India Lynchings Revive Bitter Debate

November 03, 2002|John Lancaster | Washington Post

DULENA, India

— DULENA, India -- It began, by most accounts, with a grisly rumor: Five men had been arrested after stealing a cow -- revered by Hindus as the mother of all humanity -- and skinning it alive just steps from the construction site of a Hindu temple. Something had to be done.

It was.

Inflamed by a day of religious revelry, a mob several thousand strong converged on the small police outpost where the men were being held, dragged them from their cell and beat them to death with clubs and bricks, according to government officials and local residents. Two of the bodies were burned.

Now the gruesome killings in this small farming community, less than an hour's drive west of New Delhi, have revived an impassioned national debate: Is the life of a cow more sacred than that of a man?

The debate echoes a larger battle over the identity of this vast and ethnically diverse nation of a billion people, pitting the guardians of India's secular pluralistic traditions against ascendant Hindu nationalists who see themselves as protectors of India's dominant faith and culture.

Although authorities have promised a full investigation of the Oct. 15 lynchings, which occurred in the presence of several dozen police officers and a local magistrate, so far the only charges in the case have been lodged against the five dead men, for "cow slaughter." Investigators have received the results of an autopsy -- on the cow.

And for many members of India's powerful Hindu nationalist movement, the killing of the five dalits -- or untouchables, who occupy the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system -- was an understandable, perhaps even justified, response to an even more serious offense.

"We consider the cow to be the mother of the world, of humanity, so if you've murdered a cow, then you've murdered a mother," said Pitambar Gaur, 35, who heads the local chapter of the World Hindu Council, a prominent nationalist group.

While expressing sympathy for the dead men, he described the killings as "logical" under the circumstances, adding, "If this act becomes a deterrent to prevent others from doing this, then I think it was right."

Such statements have infuriated secular liberals, who see the case as the latest example of how Hindu extremists and their political allies -- including the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads India's coalition government -- are undermining the rule of law and deepening the fissures in Indian society. Politicians from the opposition Congress Party, among others, have accused police of conspiring with Hindu radicals in the state of Haryana to incite the lynchings, which have received prominent coverage in the Indian news media.

India has a long history of such bloodshed, typically involving clashes between Hindus and members of the country's Muslim minority.

In the state of Gujarat last spring, Hindu mobs killed more than 1,000 Muslims after a Muslim mob attacked a train carrying Hindu activists, killing 60.

But dalits too have suffered their share of persecution. Although they are Hindus, their place at the bottom of the caste system renders them "impure" in the eyes of many Indians, and therefore suitable only for jobs that higher-caste Hindus shun.

One of those jobs involves skinning cattle. Although slaughtering cows is illegal in India, the government grants licenses to dalits who collect and sell the hides of cows that die of disease, old age or accidents. The lynching victims made their living this way, relatives said.

One of the victims, Virender Singh, 23, lived with his wife, two small children and their extended family in a two-story concrete home in Badshahpur, a village just outside New Delhi.

"You wouldn't find a single fault with my son," his 60-year-old mother, Ramvati, recalled as she squatted in the family's fly-infested courtyard, a pink shawl framing her deeply lined face. "He worked with his hands and ate honestly. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke, he didn't gamble."

His father, Rattan Singh, said his son and four companions ran into trouble when they were driving to a distant village with a load of about 200 cowhides, which they planned to sell for up to $16 each. He denied that they had stopped to retrieve a cow, or cow carcass, and accused police of beating the five men to death after they refused to pay a bribe, then concocting the lynching story to cover their own crime.

Other relatives of the victims told a slightly different version, asserting that police beat one of the men to death. Then, they say, police sought to hide the evidence of their crime by planting the cow-killing rumor with Hindu extremists before turning over the other men to the mob.

That a lynching of some sort took place was confirmed by local residents as well as Gaur, the Hindu council official, who said he arrived on the scene around midnight to find five corpses in the road and about 500 people milling nearby.

The police investigation has made little headway, and police say their task has been hampered by the darkness and confusion of the moment. Villagers have been uncooperative; many sympathize with the killers.

"These are good Hindus and as good Hindus, it would be right that they got angry and killed them," said Kuldip Singh, owner of a brick kiln about a mile from the police station. Besides, he asked, "If the villagers did it, why would they point a finger at themselves?"

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