This is the week the Chinese president and Indian prime minister are abroad in Africa, their delegations coming within touching distance of each other on Monday in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi were in Rwanda on the same day, one that saw the first ever visit to the small east African country by a Chinese president and an Indian prime minister.
That the two men overlapped underlines the intensity of China and India’s competitive push for allies and deals in Africa and elsewhere. For Mr Modi, who gifted 200 locally sourced cows to Rwanda to support its president’s flagship family poverty alleviation programme, the visit showcases a new kind of Indian diplomacy. It is one in which the world’s most populous Hindu country conspicuously uses Hindu cultural beliefs as a brand marker. Until recently, constitutionally secular India preferred to highlight Mahatma Gandhi and his powerful message of syncretism and non-violent resistance. That it is turning to cows is of a piece with Mr Modi’s remaking of India’s image abroad — and its own idea of itself.
This is very different to before and has a dark subtext. For any mention of cows and India must now go beyond well-meaning presents to Rwanda. It has to include the rash of lynchings by cow protection vigilantes in various parts of the country.
The most recent incident, which occurred on Friday in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, was like many others of its ilk. A Muslim man was set upon, on suspicion of being a cow smuggler and transporting the animal to a butcher to be sold for meat. There have been other brutal cases in which vigilante justice was administered on the basis of flimsy allegations — that a Muslim man was carrying beef, or had some in his refrigerator.
This horrific culture war, with its ritualised public acts of violence, started after Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Their loud calls for cows to be protected because they are holy for Hindus are seen to have provided political cover to mobs, which sanctimoniously call themselves gau rakshaks (cow protectors) and ceaselessly search for targets.
Critics accuse Mr Modi’s government of malevolent messaging — at best, it ignores vigilantes; at worst, it condones it, with two of Mr Modi’s ministers publicly honouring members of a lynch mob.
This would be a divisive record for any government anywhere but there is more. In an indication that a terrifying mood to mete out rough justice is spreading in India and that it goes beyond Muslims, there has been a separate spate of lynchings too. These have occurred when mobs act on false rumours spread by WhatsApp messenger of a child abductor in the neighbourhood. Nearly two dozen people have been lynched for this since April.
The state of affairs is judged serious enough for India’s Supreme Court to ask parliament to legislate against lynching, saying that the “recurrent pattern of violence cannot be allowed to become the new normal”.
That it has become the new normal and on Mr Modi’s watch has put India in the spotlight — but for all the wrong reasons. On the very Friday that a cow protection mob was beating a man to death in Rajasthan, another was being lynched in Karnataka for WhatsApp-rumoured child abduction. This prompted WhatsApp to announce that it would restrict Indian users — at 200 million, its largest market worldwide — to forwarding a message just five times.
The restriction appears to cast Indians as more credulous, violent and frankly, more regressive, than WhatsApp users elsewhere in the world, for all the country’s much-vaunted high-tech talent. But it apparently came after Mr Modi’s government requested new tech safety features. Even so, as a WhatsApp spokesperson carefully put it, the violence in India “requires an action by civil society, government and tech companies”.
Mr Modi, swinging through Uganda and on his way to the Brics summit in South Africa, has not commented on WhatsApp’s implicit appeal to the Indian government to take responsibility. But what is there to say?
Before he began his African odyssey, Mr Modi’s government decisively won a parliamentary vote of no confidence brought by the opposition. The vote gave Mr Modi a made-for-television chance to run through his achievements in the past four years — electricity provided to at least 10 per cent of households and public buildings in 18,000 remote villages; 50 million lifted out of poverty; India’s rise as the world’s sixth major economy.
There was no mention of the other dark narrative that runs alongside the shining India story. At some point, the two will fuse.