Eating beef has become a sort of metaphor for the idea of India, as government ministers appear to spar over people’s right to eat it.

Last week, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the junior minister for Parliamentary Affairs, declared, “If a certain section is dying because they can't sell or eat beef then this is not the country for them. Let them go to Pakistan or an Arab nation.” Naqvi’s statement was rightly interpreted as being aimed at Muslims. When it was pointed out to him that the North Eastern states, Goa and Kerala, among others, had no ban on cow slaughter, he was not moved.

On Tuesday, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs, repudiated Naqvi at press conference in Aizwal. “I eat beef, I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Can somebody stop me?" he said. "So let us not be touchy about somebody’s practices. This is a democratic country. Sometimes, some statements are made which are not palatable.”

His statement generated a frisson online. There is nothing quite like two government ministers publicly at odds with each other on a hot topic of ideology. Do the sentiments of a supposed majority trump the rights of all others in a democracy? Was Rijiju’s assertion of his right to eat beef a sign of internal dissent? Not quite.

Statement denied

Rijiju was quick to deny his statement. “I was misquoted,” he claimed later. “When the civil societies and press [in Aizawl] asked me if they have to go to Pakistan for beef consumption, I said India is a secular country and food habits cannot be stopped but the Hindu faith and sentiment must be respected in Hindu majority states, same as other communities have rights in their own dominant states.”

Therein lies the rub. Rijiju’s original statement was also set in the context of a majoritarian assertion of rights.  The difference between Naqvi and him is only in the form of majoritarianism each espouses. Naqvi is for brute majority. Rijiju is for local brute majority.

Naqvi is Hindu majoritarian in an absolute sense: there are more Hindus in India than any other religious group so it is their writ (as espoused by the Sangh Parivar) that runs. This is his justification: “If one talks about cows, definitely crores of people revere it, they worship it...How can one think that when such a large section has faith for cow and worships it, you expect to cut it in front of them…”

Rijiju takes the view that the writ of the majority in a state is what runs in that state. His explanation goes like this: “If a Mizo Christian says that this is the land of Jesus, why should someone have a problem in Punjab or Haryana? We have to honour the sentiments of each place and each location. If Maharashtra is Hindu majority…if they are to make laws which are conducive to the Hindu faith, let them be. But …in our state where we are majority… they also should not have a problem with the way we live.”

Undermining idea of citizenship

In his own way, each of these BJP ministers is challenging the idea of citizenship in India and the rights and freedoms this confers. Naqvi’s non-beef eating Indian has greater rights and freedoms than other citizens. No one can eat beef because the so-called majority does not want cows killed. Anyone who wants to eat beef must go to Pakistan, presumably because India has no place for them.

Rijiju’s citizen’s rights and freedoms change depending on where he/she lives in the country. They can eat beef in states where the majority usually eats beef, but not in states where the majority does not eat beef. So this Indian has greater rights and freedoms in some parts of the country than in others.

Replace “eat beef” with any rights that some form of majority might challenge, and you will get the picture. This country is held together not by majoritarian brute force – national or regional – but by an idea of a common citizenship. The moment we challenge our common citizenship, we begin to unravel the nation.