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India is in the Grip
 of a Deadly Season
 of Fear and Loathing

9 minute read

On a good day, the Al-Saqib slaughterhouse in Meerut, a city in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, can butcher 600 buffalo—more than one every minute. With grim regularity, trucks arrive at the complex’s iron gates and drive the animals to an outdoor holding barn. The workers lead them under a shower and into the slaughtering room where their throats are cut with an Islamic utterance to render the meat halal. Weighing around a thousand pounds each, the buffalo then emerge on an overhead conveyer belt that spans the length of the adjacent processing room. They dangle by their ankles, their heads lolling back. In the space of a few minutes, the time it takes to move them across the room, they are decapitated, dehooved, skinned and sliced in half. Blood trickles into gutters as the buffalo become carcasses.

A few rooms down, the buffalo meat, cut-up and vacuum-sealed, is packed into boxes for export to Muslim consumers in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Overseeing the operation is the owner’s 23-year-old son Saqib Akhlaq, a designer watch flashing on his wrist. For years, says Akhlaq, business was good—enough to buy him that watch and a Mercedes.

Those good times may be over. Last March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one of the country’s most politically influential. Modi, 67, named a local BJP politician, the hard-line Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath, 45, as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister. It’s illegal in the state, as in most of India, to kill cows, an animal sacred to India’s majority Hindus, or to eat beef.

Buffalo meat is supposed to be permissible and Uttar Pradesh is the heartland of the industry, which is worth about $5 billion to India. Yet one of Adityanath’s first orders was to temporarily shutter Al-Saqib, which is government-approved, and other slaughterhouses to check, officials said, if they were operating legally. Akhlaq believes there’s another reason: “We are Muslims; it is a Muslim business. The BJP shut the slaughter­houses so they could get the [Hindu] voters onside.”

Once, Muslims, who make up about 14% of India’s 1.3 billion population, were also courted as voters, particularly by the Congress party, which fought for India’s independence and is currently in opposition. Historically Muslims have played a big part in India’s development. But today, many feel marginalized, especially after Modi and the BJP, whose ideology is Hindu nationalism, came to power in 2014.

It’s not just the slaughterhouse crackdown in Uttar Pradesh. Since 2015, gangs of Hindu men have killed or injured more than 150 people whom they accuse of harming cows or eating beef. Among the more egregious incidents was the June 22 killing of Junaid Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim. Khan was on the train home from a day’s shopping in New Delhi when an argument broke out over a seat. Hindus on the train began taunting Khan and his two brothers, calling them Pakistanis and beefeaters. As the insults escalated, people in the crowd pulled out knives and began stabbing the three boys, fatally injuring Khan. His death shocked India, both for the senseless brutality of the killing, and for how young the victim was. After Khan’s death, the Hindustan Times launched an online “hate tracker” to record the number of attacks against Muslims and, to a lesser extent, other minorities. The tracker recorded 149 attacks dating to September 2015, 40 of which were fatal.

Critics of the BJP blame the party for emboldening radical Hindus. “The BJP’s whole ideology is of Hindu nationalism,” says Saba Dewan, a documentary maker and the founder of Not in My Name, a movement opposed to violence against minorities. “Hindu nationalism equates being Indian with being Hindu. So there is no space within India for Muslims.” Adds Arman Dehlvi, a Muslim musician who has performed at a Not in My Name rally: “There is a sense of fear among Muslims.”

Contemporary India was not supposed to be this way. When Modi came to power, he propagated a vision of a modernizing, tech-savvy, globally oriented nation on the move. Instead the economy, once the world’s fastest-­growing, recorded the lowest GDP growth rate in three years for the April-to-June quarter. And India’s democracy, the world’s biggest, is proving illiberal in parts. Journalists, writers and academics have faced hostility and abuse from the BJP base when they have criticized the party or spoken in favor of secularism, which is enshrined in India’s constitution. In 2015 more than 40 top Indian authors began returning prestigious state awards to protest what they saw as a rise in Hindu nationalism encouraged by the government. The same year, 200 academics issued a joint statement that read: “Centres and institutions of higher learning are being handed over to those who qualify only through their ­allegiance to ruling-party agendas.”

Journalists have been labeled “presstitutes” by BJP officials, and have received threats of rape and death from party supporters. In late April, Reporters Without Borders dropped India three places to 136th in its annual World Press Freedom Index. On Sept. 5 the Bangalore-based journalist Gauri Lankesh, a vocal critic of Hindu nationalism, was killed by three gunmen while entering her home. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for the New York–based organization Human Rights Watch recently wrote that the “open declaration of vigilantism by BJP affiliates or supporters is a sad and terrifying prospect for an India that wants to appeal to foreign investors as a safe society that adheres to the rule of law.”

Rather than moving forward, India seems to be sliding back to old communal and cultural hatreds. The most horrific manifestation of such hatreds was during the subcontinent’s Partition in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Up to 2 million people died during the rupture of the British Raj into these two main nations. Partly to mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, partly to spotlight the current religious violence, Dehlvi, the musician, is partnering with oral storyteller Fouzia Dastango in a public staging of a well-known tale reflecting the savage aspect of Partition. At a rehearsal, as Dehlvi plays his harmonium, Fouzia widens her eyes and launches into the gory story of an ice-cream vendor who is stabbed and left to die beneath his cart, which drips cold water on the blood, congealing it. After the man is taken away, a small child sees the blood and tells his mother, his mouth watering, “Look, jelly!” Says Dehlvi: “In a sense, Partition is still ongoing. This deep sense of embedded hatred—it’s seeped down into my generation.”

Though Dastango doesn’t wear a hijab or anything that identifies her as Muslim, she says she has encountered daily instances of prejudice—­micro­aggressions from even her educated, cosmopolitan friends that make her feel unwelcome in India. At the university where she once lectured, Hindu colleagues refused to share her vegetarian food, saying she must have cooked it in pots used for meat. While watching India play Pakistan at cricket, her friends tell her she must, as a Muslim, be supporting Pakistan. Another friend told her to cancel a cab when the driver’s name revealed him to be Muslim. “We’ve been feeling that over the last three to four years the situation has been getting worse; we are told that we don’t belong here,” says Dastango. “No one used to say this so openly. Now it’s become one’s right to beat someone who is named Fouzia [or] Arman.”

Modi met with Muslim leaders in May to say the BJP was not behind the violence. “We treat all communities equally. We don’t believe in any prejudice on the basis of religion or caste,” the Prime Minister said, according to a cleric who spoke to the Hindustan Times. And after the death of teenager Khan, Modi said publicly: “Killing people in the name of protecting cows is not acceptable … Violence never has and never will solve any problem.”

But the Prime Minister did not comment on the assassination of Lankesh, and his critics say he is not doing enough to stem the hate. In particular they cite his appointment of Adityanath to lead Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath has a history of making public speeches against Muslims, saying in 2014, “If the other side does not stay in peace, we will teach them how to stay in peace. We will teach them in the language that they under­stand.” A year later he told a crowd: “If given a chance, we will install statues of [Hindu deities] Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi in every mosque.”

While that hasn’t happened, Muslims are intimidated. At Al-Saqib the workers operate in silence, their heads down. After the plant’s monthlong closure in March, they fear another suspension or even a ban. Akhlaq, the owner’s son, says another slaughterhouse was recently ordered to stop operating because one of its security cameras was broken. Still, he remains defiant. “They need something to shut us down,” says Akhlaq. “Now that we’re aware they’re looking for things, we don’t give them chances.” For now, however, Muslims and many other citizens are on the losing end of India’s deadly culture wars.

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