Sikhs know this better than any other religious minority in India. The state-directed genocide in 1984 showed that Indian politicians rarely face charges for stirring up hatred against non-Hindus. But what is at stake here for Sikhs isn’t just their own safety but the protection of an important principle.
If you are born into a Sikh family, like myself, chances are you have been taught about the sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji. In 1675 a group of fearful Hindu pundits approached the Guru to ask for his help against the Mughal king Aurangzeb, who wanted to forcibly convert them to Islam. The Guru had a challenge for the king. If he could convert him to Islam then the Kashmiri pandits would follow. But, of course, Aurangzeb was unsuccessful and Guru Tegh Bahadur paid for his principles with his life.
The ninth Guru of the Sikhs wasn’t taking the side of Hindus against Muslims, he died to defend the right to practice religion without intimidation. But his sacrifice was more than just a lesson for Sikhs, it was also an example. Guru Tegh Bahadur wanted Sikhs to protect others from such intimidation too.
This is why the growing number of incidents of violent cow-vigilantism should matter to Sikhs, Christians and other minorities. While many Hindus pretend that Muslims are being targeted only for violating the law and ignoring their sentiments, it is clear this is a lie. In numerous cases, Muslims have been murdered merely on a vague suspicion of eating beef or transporting cows, without evidence. Hindus caught committing the same crime have been let go.
Cows should be protected through democratic means, not mob justice. This is no better than Pakistanis murdering Hindus on suspicion of ‘blasphemy’. In headlines around the world, Indian politicians are seen as caring more for the safety of cows than women.
Of course Hindus have the right to worship the cow and protect it from harm if they believe it is holy. And as a vegetarian, I also believe eating meat is wrong (as do many Sikhs). So in principle I actually agree with the gau-rakshaks.
But this is no more than a campaign of hate and intimidation against a religious group. This is Hindutva’s way of striking at Pakistan. The cow vigilantes hate Aurangzeb and all he stood for, but they have become him.
Sikhs, Christians and others should see it as a warning. The Hindutva movement needs to keep creating controversies to polarise the nation. Like a parasite it will grow by consuming its victim and then moving to the next one.
A famous European quote comes to mind. After the Second World War a German priest spoke of his regret in not opposing Hitler earlier. He wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.” Then they came for the Trade Unionists and the same happened. Then the Jews. “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
India’s religious minorities have always been suspicious of Hindutva, aware that one day they could be on the receiving end of its intolerance. That day is arriving faster than they realise.
Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London