Parties are pitting one fear against another ahead of the state polls on February 27.
As Meghalaya heads into elections, a declaration – or confession – by a politician from the state on his dietary habits has attracted national attention. Meghalaya BJP president Ernest Mawrie recently said in a media interview that he eats beef, and his party has no problem with it.
Since some supporters of the party elsewhere in India are known for their cow protection vigilantism that occasionally extends to lynching those suspected of eating the holy cow, this declaration has naturally been met with surprise. It is, however, nothing new for BJP leaders in or from the Northeast. For years now, local BJP politicians, especially in the hill states that surround Assam, have been making similar statements every now and then.
The reason was explained quite clearly by one such politician a couple of years ago.
In July 2021, another BJP leader from Meghalaya, state minister Sanbor Shullai, had raised a storm by encouraging people to “eat more beef” shortly after taking charge of the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department. When this created a national furore, Shullai issued a clarification saying that he had spoken specifically in the context of a stringent new law banning cow slaughter that was then coming into force in neighbouring Assam. This had created a panic among the indigenous tribal and other communities in the state of Meghalaya who consume beef and consider it a part of their staple diet, Shullai said. “So, to eradicate any such fears against the BJP, I wanted to tell the indigenous tribal people here in Meghalaya that they will be able to continue to eat more beef without the fear of any item being banned in the state of Meghalaya,” he had added.
The eradication of fears linked to the BJP are high on the agenda of the party’s politicians this poll season. The BJP is fighting hard to increase its presence in Meghalaya. It has put up candidates in all the 60 constituencies in the tribal-dominated Christian-majority state where it currently has just two MLAs, of whom Shullai is one.
Mawrie – who is not currently an MLA – is among the party’s aspirants in the electoral fray, and will be contesting from West Shillong. He is up against two strong contenders in sitting MLA Mohendro Rapsang of the National People’s Party and his main rival, former state minister Paul Lyngdoh of the United Democratic Party. With the BJP’s rivals painting it as an anti-Christian party out to impose Hindutva’s favourite taboos, such as a beef ban, on the local population, Mawrie and others like him are at pains to appear as liberal as possible.
Their task is a difficult one, given the regular stream of Hindutva excesses elsewhere that keep making headlines. The cow recurs a central figure in several of these incidents.
When the news went viral earlier this month that the country’s Animal Welfare Board had asked people to celebrate Valentine’s Day as “Cow Hug Day”, much mirth and merriment had followed. Along with the stream of memes and jokes that flowed through social media in the Northeast was a letter, purportedly from the Meghalaya BJP, saying Valentine’s Day is against Indian culture – advising unmarried couples in a threatening tone to not go out together and promising that it would eliminate Western culture from the state when voted to power.
Mawrie and the state BJP denied they had anything to do with this letter, and filed an FIR alleging it was a fake that had been circulated “in an attempt to tarnish the reputed image of the party before the eyes of the public of the State of Meghalaya and that too at this crucial juncture when the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly elections are around the corner”.
In the multi-cornered contest taking place in Meghalaya, fears of various kinds are being pitted against one another by different parties.
Fears of immigration from Bangladesh have launched the careers of generations of politicians across the Northeast. Politics arising from that fear led eventually to the National Register of Citizens in Assam, completed under BJP governments at the centre and in the state. There are demands in every single one of the Northeast states for an NRC, although the migrants sought to be kept away are mainly those from Myanmar in the case of Manipur.
While the BJP and local as well as regional parties all broadly support the demands for NRC, a crucial difference arises between them on the separate but related matter of the Citizenship Amendment Act. The BJP has repeatedly expressed its commitment to implementing CAA, but local and regional parties across Northeast India are vehemently opposed to it. The reason for this is the fear of Bangladeshi Hindu immigration.
For the local parties, Bangladeshi Hindus are at least as unwelcome as Bangladeshi Muslims. There is a long history of violence in the region against Hindu refugees from East Bengal going back to at least 1960.
With the entry of the Trinamool Congress as a major player in Meghalaya, the issue of Bangladeshi migration has made an appearance in the catalogue of electoral fears.
Speaking at a campaign rally in Dalu in the Garo Hills of Meghalaya recently, Home Minister Amit Shah warned that if the TMC – the principal opposition party in Meghalaya – comes to power in the state, it will enable infiltrators from Bangladesh to enter and change the demography of the place. This has been repeated by party functionaries down the line.
Meghalaya has a 443-km border with Bangladesh, with long stretches that are described – usually by those who have never actually seen a land border – as “porous”. The worry that this porosity enables movement of people is followed by a second worry for the Hindutva faithful: the worry that cows, too, are moving into the neighbouring country whose inhabitants eat beef.
Stopping the smuggling of cattle into Bangladesh is an important part of the BJP’s agenda. Among the clauses in the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, the stringent new cattle protection law passed by the Assam government in 2021, is one that very strictly regulates the movement of cattle through the state. This was the law whose passage caused consternation in Meghalaya and prompted Shullai to make his “eat more beef” remark. His encouragement, however, did not address the issue of supply. Since all land routes to mainland India from all the Northeast states barring Sikkim pass through Assam, the virtual halt on movement of cattle which used to be brought in via Assam led to shortages and higher prices of beef in the neighbouring hill states such as Meghalaya.
The issue of beef had come up before the last Meghalaya assembly elections in 2018 as well. In 2017, the BJP at the national level had banned the sale of cows for slaughter countrywide. It solved its electoral dilemma in the hill states of the Northeast by saying that it did not intend to interfere in the food habits of local people.
This duality of positions became routine, allowing politicians like Mawrie, Shullai and the party’s candidate against Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, Bernard Marak, to get away with remarks encouraging beef-eating. It enabled the party to allay local fears about its cultural and social agenda while expanding its footprint with promises of development. Meanwhile, the cultural agenda and social engineering kept progressing through the Hindutva turn in Assam, the central and politically most important state of the region. No doubt, it will gradually diffuse out into the surrounding states as well.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has always called itself a cultural and social, and not a political, organisation. The cultural and social agenda is at the core of the imagined Hindu Rashtra.
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