Mohammad Akhlaq was in bed when the mob arrived.
The commotion began in the distance, but crept closer and closer like encroaching thunder. Suddenly, there was a pounding at the door. Then the door broke inwards and men dragged the 50-year-old farmer from his sheets and into the street, according to the Indian Express.
They beat him with bricks found underneath his own bed; beat him until the bricks broke in their hands; beat him until Mohammad was dead.
Akhlaq’s alleged crime?
The attack on Monday night in the northern Indian city of Dadri has shocked the country, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise. For the past six months, meat has been a matter of major debate in India.
Eighty percent of the country’s of 1.3 billion inhabitants are Hindu — many of whom avoid beef for religious reasons. Roughly 250 million Indians are not. That tally includes almost 25 million Christians and up to 140 million Muslims, like Akhlaq.
The issue has raged in India for years. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power last May, however, incidents have increased, as they tend to do whenever a conservative government has been in power.
Modi is a Hindu nationalist who, as chief minister of Gujarat state, presided during religious riots in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people — most of them Muslims — were killed. For years afterwards, Modi was blocked from visiting the United States because of his role in the riots.
All that changed last year, however, when Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power. Modi campaigned on a vision of India finally fulfilling its economic potential — a promise highlighted by his recent tour of Silicon Valley.
Yet, critics claim Modi’s tenure also has been marked by a concerted cultural shift that undermines secularism and threatens to drag India back into sectarian bloodshed.
In the past, Modi has complained about India’s “pink revolution” of rising meat exports and backed the idea of a national ban on cow slaughter, according to the BBC.
Since Modi’s election, Muslims have grown worried about a string of inflammatory statements and actions by Hindu nationalist leaders. Accused Islamist terrorists have been executed ahead of non-Muslims, stirring anger. Meanwhile, BJP lawmakers have openly called for Hindus to out breed Muslims to “protect Hindu religion.” That same politician, Sakshi Maharaj, invited outrage when he called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot.” (Nathuram Godse was a militant Hindu activist who killed Gandhi for “appeasing” Muslims.) Finally, India’s foreign minister has called for the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, to be declared a “national scripture.”
Hindu leaders have also launched efforts to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism and warned against romantic relationships with members of other religions.
It is beef that has drawn the most blood, however.
India’s 36 states and territories have long been a patchwork quilt when it comes to their laws regarding beef. Some said that only old cows could be killed. Others allowed only bulls or bullocks to be sent to the butcher.
In the past 15 months, however, many states have tightened their laws — with encouragement from Modi’s political party.
The most prominent example is the western state of Maharashtra, home to the bustling metropolis of Mumbai and many of the country’s Muslims. Under BJP leadership, the state passed the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Bill back in 1996 but it was blocked from becoming law because president Shankar Dayal Sharma of the Opposition Congress Party refused to approve it.
With Modi’s election last year, however, times have changed. And in March of this year, BJP members in Maharashtra convinced the current president to approve the law.
The move effectively banned beef overnight, putting thousands of predominantly Muslim butchers out of a job and putting anyone eating beef in the state at risk of arrest.
Despite legal challenges to the ban, the new law immediately brought results. Just days after the law’s implementation, two people were arrested for allegedly slaughtering two calves, the BBC reported. Last month, four more people were accused of smuggling beef into Mumbai, according to the Indian Express.
The crackdown on cow-eating is driven by a desire for religious/national purity, but critics point out that it’s already creating political and practical problems.
“Some Hindu hard-liners insist the idea of eating beef was introduced by Muslim invaders, despite references to its consumption in ancient texts like the Vedas, written more than a millennium before the time of Muhammad. By eradicating this ‘alien’ practice, they hope to return the country to values they hold dear as Hindus,” wrote novelist Manil Suri in a New York Times op-ed.
Suri said it was part and parcel of a broader conservative cultural shift under Modi and the BJP.
“With the recent re-criminalization of gay sex, bans on controversial books and films and even an injunction against the use of the colonial-era name ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’ in a Bollywood song, the new laws join a growing list of restrictions on personal freedom in India,” he warned.
Since his election, Modi has said he is committed to secularism at the same time members of his party openly push to outlaw beef, the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt pointed out in April.
“That’s why while the idea of cow mug shots may be amusing, the beef ban is deadly serious,” he said. “India’s triumph has been forging a nation in which Hindus and Muslims can live happily together. The fear is that the beef ban is part of a process that is gradually undermining the compromises that made that possible.”
Beef again became a pretext for violence during Monday’s mob attack in Dadri, a city of roughly 60,000 near New Delhi in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where a near-total ban on beef is in effect.
The attack allegedly came moments after an announcement at a nearby Hindu temple that Mohammad Akhlaq had slaughtered a calf. The calf had gone missing several weeks earlier, according to the Indian Express. Rumors quickly spread around the neighborhood that Akhlaq was the culprit.
Incited by the announcement, the mob broke down Akhlaq’s door and dragged him into the street, where 100 men beat him to death with bricks, his family members told the Express. The invaders also dragged Akhlaq’s 22-year-old son, Danish, outside, beating him until he was close to death as well.
“They accused us of keeping cow meat, broke down our doors and started beating my father and brother,” Akhlaq’s daughter, Sajida, told the Express. “My father was taken outside the house and beaten to death. My brother was dragged to the courtyard downstairs and they used bricks to hit him on the head and chest, leaving him unconscious. They also tried to molest me and hit my grandmother on her face. They threatened to kill me if I said a word to the police.”
Sajida said her family had never suffered from Islamophobia in the past.
“Every time there was a feast in this house, Hindu residents of the village would attend such functions,” she said, standing in a ransacked house littered with bricks and blood splatter. “Even on [Muslim holiday] Bakr-Id, we had guests. But suddenly they started doubting us.”
Police appeared to confirm the account.
“Preliminary investigations revealed that an announcement was made from the temple” about the family consuming beef, senior superintendent of police Kiran S told the Express. “We have been told that a group of people entered the temple and used a microphone to make the announcement. However, investigations are still underway. We do not know if any of the accused are associated with the temple.”
When police detained six people, including the temple’s priest, on Tuesday, protesters set fire to two police cars. One person suffered a gunshot in the riot, although the priest was released after questioning, according to the Express.
In a cruel irony, Akhlaq’s family insists that the meat in question wasn’t even beef.
“There was some mutton in the fridge which was taken away yesterday,” Sajida told the Express. “They thought it was beef.”
“The police have taken it for examination,” she said. “If the results prove that it was not beef, will they bring back my dead father?”