In 2003, the Bharatiya Janata Party politician Uma Bharti was elected chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in circumstances closely resembling Narendra Modi’s ascent to the post of prime minister last year. Bharti was one of the most effective spokespersons of Hindutva ideology, but had campaigned on the plank of development, and won a sweeping electoral victory. Numerous small incidents of communalism had occurred against the backdrop of her campaign, such as an attempt to provoke a riot over the slaughter of a cow near the town of Vidisha, and an effort to mobilise people around a disputed shrine in the western district of Dhar, but these were largely overlooked.
In early February that year, on assignment for the Indian Express, I travelled through the tribal villages near Dhar, accompanied by the journalist Sandeep Bhushan, then NDTV’s Madhya Pradesh reporter, and his cameraman Rizwan Khan. We were investigating a scheme launched by the then mayor of Indore, Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP leader who led the party’s victorious election campaign in Haryana in 2014. Through this scheme, supported by Dharma Raksha Samitis—committees to save the faith—stray cattle in Indore were sold to tribal residents of the districts adjoining the city at Rs 121 a head.
But news had started to filter out that many of these cattle, rounded up from the streets of Indore, where they were used to ingesting plastic, were dying once they passed into the hands of new buyers in rural areas. A veterinary extension officer in the area told us that the accumulated polythene in the rumen of these animals was proving fatal. I made notes for a report, while the NDTV team filmed a story about the problem, and how unhappy the scheme had made the tribal buyers of these cattle.