The cost of silence is murder

They murdered a man in Dadri, a small town in India I had never heard of, and it made me think of Greifswald, another town of sixty thousand, host to one of the world’s oldest universities. The university’s name was changed in 1933 to Ernst Moritz Arndt on the instructions of Hermann Göring, a decorated soldier of the First World War, whose nationalist credentials can scarcely be disputed. Arndt too was a bit of a nationalist, and adolescent boys may be forgiven for admiring one of his ideas, “Da ist Freiheit, wo du in den Sitten und Gesetzen deiner Väter leben darfst; wo dich beglücket, was schon deinen Ureltervater beglückte”. (Freedom is where you can live according to the customs of your fathers; where you are made happy by that which made your most distant ancestors happy)

That is the connection to Dadri – for the man they murdered was Mr. Mohammad Akhlaq, 50 years old, a blacksmith and a Muslim. While he was resting at home with his family, so the accounts go, an accusation was made in a nearby Hindu temple that he had killed a calf and consumed its flesh. The cow being holy to Hindus, this outraged the faithful, and they found their way to his home, dragged him out of bed, and beat him to death with bricks and sticks. They also attacked his son, and the female members of his family. The men who murdered him were probably not scholars of Arndt, but they would have agreed with his ideas on freedom, for is India not their land, and are not the Muslims outsiders, with foreign ways? In their romantic view of ancient India, cows were treasured, and slaughtering them quite unthinkable. When they heard of Mr. Akhlaq’s alleged transgression, they decided that mercilessly beating him and his family would pave the way to a return to a nobler age. They dispensed with contemptible innovations such as due process, tolerance, privacy, and respect for human dignity. The rumor of a basic value of the community being outraged is reminiscent of Göring’s goons who spread tales of the ritual killing of (Christian) children by Jews as part of a vilification campaign that resulted in loot and murder.

A man was torn from his home and viciously torn apart by a mob – but that is not the saddest and scariest bit. That questionable honor belongs to the reaction that ensued. At least one journalist titled his piece, “No beef consumed in Dadri murder”, and the local authorities confirmed that the meat found in Mr. Akhlaq’s home was “simply mutton and not beef”. A man was murdered, but the “local authorities” thought they would best serve by running tests to identify foodstuffs, and the press considered it a vital enough angle for the headline. A common refrain on Internet comments was along the lines of “Yes, well, but what about that other incident where a Hindu person was attacked?” Another appears to complain about “liberals” letting down the side by tarnishing the national image. The word “liberal”, standing for “person daring to put individual freedom and human dignity ahead of national or racial interests” appears to have the same connotation in some circles as did the appellation “intellectual” back in the Soviet Union. The police showed up, arrested some suspects, which lead to more violence, and shocking statements made by politicians. All that notwithstanding, the most detestable reaction was silence. Bertolt Brecht’s verse, inspired by the era of Göring, comes to mind: “Was sind das für Zeiten, wo ein Gespräch über Bäume fast ein Verbrechen ist, weil es ein Schweigen über so viele Untaten einschließt!” (What terrible times are these, when an ordinary conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it tacitly implies an acceptance of the injustice around us!)

Mr. Akhlaq is beyond our help. His death is yet another warning that we may not stay silent, not just when the mob is gathering in an unknown provincial town, but when we hear the intolerant remarks at the breakfast table in our own homes. Quite harmless remarks, and everyone is entitled to an opinion, surely, and it is tiresome to have a political debate over a casual utterance. Yet every unchallenged remark disparaging a certain group of humans confirms a certain antagonistic weltanschauung, and someone will pay with blood. Surely, this we have learnt.