Cross border cattle smuggling prior to Eid-ul-Adha is an irritant that keeps officials in both Bangladesh and India nervy. The il/legal trans-/ex-port of cow is a sensitive issue given its sacred status to the Hindus. For them, the cow is considered a sacred mother-figure and is linked with Lord Krishna, whereas the bovine is attributed with symbolic significance during the Islamic festival of sacrifice, Eid-ul-Adha.
Muslims all over the world continue the practice of sacrifice as a reminder of Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, Ismail, for the sake of Allah. Just when the prophet was about to perform the ritual, a ram was found sacrificed in place of his son. Muslims believe the desire to show their devotion to Allah is more important than the meat or blood. The same ordinance is applicable for the other people of the book. The Jews, however, interpreted the incident from the Hebrew Bible as Abraham’s way of testing God as he knew that God would never want him to sacrifice his son. Conversely, the Christians downplayed the sacrifice by arguing that only Jesus Christ’s sacrifice had the redemptive power to wash away human sins. Animal sacrifice (except for cows) holds a special place in the ancient Vedic scriptures that make devotional offering obligatory.
Ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014 with the help of the Hindu nationalist organisation RSS, a feisty euphuism to save cow has entered the lexicon of Indian media. Cow vigilantes are on the prowl. Beef eating is being used as an excuse to normalise a hate crime that has seen the horrific killings of mostly Muslims and Dalits by murderous mobs. According to a report by IndiaSpend.com, 97 percent of the “cow terrorism” between 2010 and 2017 took place in the first three years of the Modi government. Although PM Modi has publicly spoken against cow terrorism, the practice is rampant in the country, and is echoed in India’s characterisation of its beef-eating neighbours.
Last year, the right-wing magazine Swarajya claimed, “Bakr Eid is fast approaching, and there are just too many carnivorous stomachs to feed in the neighbouring country” (July 19, 2019). The rhetoric is tinged with frustration over India’s push to save its cows to starve Bangladesh of beef (Reuters, July 3, 2015). In 2015, the then Interior Minister Rajnath Singh instructed India’s Border Security Force to halt cattle smuggling completely so that the “people of Bangladesh give up eating beef.” The same report quoted Jishnu Basu, an RSS spokesman in West Bengal, who said, “Killing or smuggling a cow is equivalent to raping a Hindu girl or destroying a Hindu temple.”
Thankfully, the Indian ban on cow trade, both formal and informal, has helped the growth of our local cattle industry. According to Bangladesh Livestock Department, while 2.6 million cows came from India to Bangladesh in 2013, it was only 92,000 in 2018. Last year, due to the revamped cattle farming and rural economy, the country had about 11.5 million animals ready against the estimated demand for 11 million animals (EFE-EPA, Aug 12, 2019). Fifty thousand entrepreneurs had joined the sector and made the country self-sufficient in meat. The heavy price of cattle feed in Bangladesh, however, makes Indian cows cheaper allowing cross-border cow trading still to persist. The trade is further patronised by the opportunist businessmen and corrupt security officials on both sides of the border. Yet, the Indian media presents it as a fault of Bangladesh alone—its eating habit.
The internet is replete with images of cows being tied to rudimentary rafts made out of banana shoots and ferried across the river, or being pulled by the necks using pulleys to hoist them over the barbed border fence. This inhuman treatment of the animals shows that there are some greedy, desperate people on both sides of the border who want to benefit from the price gap of a product. Their method is profane, but its media representation remains sacred.
The moral high ground assumed by the Indians, judging us guilty of the cardinal sin of gluttony, demands a state-level response. Indeed, we have spoken through our action—by living up to the challenge of meeting the country’s need for quality protein, but the unchallenged monologue is helping the xenophobia affecting the relationship between the two countries.
On July 19, a news scroll snaked silently at the bottom of the TV screen. Our media did not even find it worth voicing out in the main news section. The following day, a few local print dailies covered the news almost in a nonchalant manner—that three Bangladeshis were lynched in India for their alleged involvement in stealing of a cow.
I searched for the news coverage of the incident in Indian media: “Three from Bangladesh lynched in Assam for ‘cattle smuggling'” (The Hindu, July 19); “Bangladeshi Men Lynched on Cattle Lifting Suspicion” (The Wire, July 20); “3 Bangladesh cattle thieves lynched in Karimganj” (Times of India); “3 Bangladeshis lynched by locals for stealing cattle from Karimganj tea estate” (India Today).
How do you know that they were Bangladeshis? “The bodies were found with biscuits and pieces of breads made in Bangladesh, ropes, wire cutters and pliers,” the local police officer reported. Ah, so the confectionary items gave away the national identities of individuals who entered the cow shed of a tea estate labourer whose home is 1.5 miles away from the Bangladesh border. This is the second time a mob lynching happened in the same area within the span of a month. On June 1, one Bangladeshi cattle lifter identified as Ranjit Munda was lynched by a group of villagers in the Putani tea garden. In May, another Bangladeshi cow thief, identified as Rubel Miya, was lynched, while three of his Indian accomplices, Malun Munda, Pradip Tanti, and Umashankar Kaibarta, were arrested. Why kill the Bangladeshi and spare the rest? Your guess is as good as mine.
The portrayal of Bangladeshis as intruders, thieves, smugglers, or lifters is a mimetic rivalry promulgated by the state discourse. Why would so many join in the murder of some people caught in the act of stealing? This lynch mob is united with their shared desire of finding a victim to exert their violence. There is a “conversion experience” when one becomes part of a mob in which an individual imitates (mimesis) the behaviour of the other.
For René Girard, the French sociologist and author of “Violence and the Sacred”, sacred violence is ultimately linked to our desires over the same thing. Girard argues that people don’t fight over their differences; they fight because they are essentially the same, and they desire the same objects. They do not necessarily need the same things, but they want objects that will earn the envy of others. People desire things that are desired by others. Girard holds this “mimetic desire” responsible for “victimising mechanism” or scapegoating. The criminals involved in cow stealing are violating a law that is presented not as a crime, but as a sin. And the punishment for such a sin becomes severe when the sin is committed by a supposed outsider. The cow is a surrogate figure in a “mimetic rivalry” that exists on both sides of the border.
It is not possible to know whether the victims were the recently declared “illegal immigrants”. After all, the only identity markers are some Bangladeshi-made bread and biscuits. Also it is not clear how many cows were there in the shed of a tea garden labourer to characterise the strangers as smugglers. One thing is obvious: we are indifferent to the state of the victims. We do not protest with the sincerity that these state crimes deserve. Every accused has the right to a fair trial. Somehow, we have accepted the idea that our poor people are disposables. They can be sacrificed, albeit to violence instigated by mob mentality, because they are “smugglers”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, violence is being construed as a sacred duty to protect a shared ideology. Unless we treat the life of every citizen as sacred, we will not have any meaningful exchange and interactions with our neighbours. Let us raise the ground of our morality so that we can match the moral high ground assumed by the Indian ideologues. If we do not care for our citizens, how can we expect others to do the same?
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.