India is the land of ahimsa where the cow is considered holy by all its peace-loving people. This enduring cliché could finally be on its way out, if not from Western Europe, then at least from France.
A 30-page French comic book by journalist and author William de Tamaris tells the story of self-styled gau rakshaks, and the alarming trend of vigilante violence spreading across India. Tracing the history of beef bans across several Indian states, the comic highlights the rise of Hindu nationalism and introduces French readers to the concepts of Hindutva and the propaganda for a Hindu nation.
“We were inspired to do the story after I met Vijaykant Chauhan, who calls himself a gau rakshak,” said de Tamaris, who met Chauhan shortly after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, in September 2015. It was then that he decided to work on the subject along with illustrator George H.
The authors admitted that they had harboured a number of stereotypes about India for years, but that changed during the course of their research. “Here I was, supposedly, in the land of tolerance but the hate in the discourse of so-called gau rakshaks was shocking,” said de Tamaris. “In France, people still believe India is the land of Gandhi but that no longer holds true.”
The story took the French authors to Maharashtara, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. They say that Chauhan was keen to talk to journalists, and told them that if he were Nathuram Godse, he would kill Gandhi all over again.
The French authors also spoke to Muslims of the Qureshi community, who have traditionally been involved in butchery, in Maharashtra. They found that the impact of the beef ban and ensuing vigilante violence by gau rakshaks was immense – many have lost their livelihoods and live in constant fear. Some are unable to send their children to school and are resigned to their fate.
Soon after the release of the comic book, French mainstream media began to speak of genocide and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the same breath, while referring to the 2002 Gujarat riots. Analysts in a news discussion on a leading radio channel concluded that this brand of politics and the “extreme discourse” was bringing “instability” to India.
In the month of June, Modi received a warm welcome (and a bear hug) in Paris from France’s newly elected President, Emmanuel Macron. This was Modi’s third visit to France since he was elected as prime minister in 2014.
Any references to Modi or his political discourse still remain sparse in the French media. The focus has been on the sales of the French Rafale fighter jets and controversial Areva nuclear reactors, both worth billions of euros. More recently, President Macron has tried to project India (referred to regularly in the French press as “one of the biggest polluters of the planet”), as a leading partner in climate diplomacy.