Hindu vigilantes are using violence over particular issues (cow protection in this instance) as a language of negotiation with the Indian state about how communal power relations are to be structured. These vigilantes have also used other issues to engage in violence against Muslims—most nefariously the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, in which not only the mosque itself was demolished by hand, but it triggered a wave of rioting throughout northern India in which several thousand people were killed. Here is an answer to how one of the world’s biggest exporters of beef can also have an organized movement of vigilantes engaged in violence over the slaughter of cattle: it is about communal hierarchy. But—and this is key—the theological underpinnings of this are entirely irrelevant.
Liberalism is grounded in a rejection of communalism and hierarchy, in favor of individualism and equality. But this ideological slant is rapidly becoming a luxury that the West can no longer indulge in. Eliminating religion as a political cleavage in Europe took two hundred years of terrible conflict and violence, and resulted in religiously homogenous societies across much of Europe. The reemergence of religious communalism in western Europe has come as a deep and disconcerting shock to societies long used to thinking of themselves as “postreligious.” If we like religious pluralism, then we will also have to get used to the idea of communal hierarchies.
The principal public-policy challenge of our time is devising responses to the assertion of communal rights (and power) in pluralistic societies that manage the inevitable conflict that pluralism, religious included, necessarily generates—without insisting that the liberal framing of the problem (individualism) be imposed on societies long organized along communal lines. But that is a subject for another day.
Vivek S. Sharma has taught politics at Yale, EHESS (Paris), the University of Copenhagen and the Claremont Colleges.