Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomnberg

Death and Development: The Town at the Heart of India's Dilemma

  • Dadri is the junction of two of the nation's biggest projects
  • It has also become a byword for religious tension in India

The twin forces helping forge India’s future can be found at a dusty fork in the road on the old Highway 91, just east of New Delhi.

Straight ahead is the town of Dadri, representing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to make India an economic superpower in Asia. The town is the intersection of two of the government’s most important infrastructure projects -- the junction of the western and eastern lines of a rail freight project designed to tie the country together, and the northern end of the $90 billion Delhi-Mumbai economic corridor.

Workers construct a rail bridge in Dadri. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
Workers construct a rail bridge in Dadri. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Take a left, though, and down a wooded country lane you reach the village of Bishara. It was an incident here last September that shocked the nation and made Dadri a household name. A Muslim man named Mohammed Akhlaq was dragged from his home at night and beaten to death with bricks and rods in front of his children. Among his attackers were neighbors and the sons of longtime friends, who were enraged by rumors that Akhlaq had slaughtered a cow, an animal sacred to Hindus.

Modi came to power almost two years ago on a platform that promised economic development and resurgent Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva. If he is to achieve the first, he may need to keep the second under control. Neither is going to be easy.

"He hoped to maintain an equilibrium whereby he could use his powers in Delhi to really focus on this project of economic modernization, but I think he realized pretty quickly that he could not sideline those kinds of Hindutva elements," said Milan Vaishnav, a specialist on Indian politics at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He understands, though, at the national level he cannot let this overtake the economic story."

Stirring Trouble

While speeches that inflame religious sentiment are splashed across newspapers, fueling fear among minority communities, the laborious task of upgrading roads, building new ports and modernizing the tangled rail network is less visible to most citizens. Even with the fastest-growing major economy in the world, finding well-paid work is still a struggle for many.

Animals walk past Mohammed Akhlaq’s house in Bishara village
Animals walk past Mohammed Akhlaq’s house in Bishara village
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

“It’s not made any difference to me,” shouts Abhinab Jain, a 22-year-old shopkeeper, over the blare of traffic horns in the street and the haggling of a customer over the size of a scoop of rice at his family’s dry-goods store in Dadri. He knows little of Modi’s plans, other than the fact that construction on the road outside is snarling local traffic.

The store clears 45,000 rupees ($666) a month, leaving Jain, his parents and two sisters with about 5,000 rupees ($74) between them after expenses.

On nightly news shows, critics of Modi speak of grand conspiracies to divide and conquer. In the shops and winding by-lanes between Dadri and Bishara, the talk is more nuanced, with concerns about a shift in atmosphere, fanned by politicians looking for votes.

Religious identity was always in the background but was never a serious issue until the past few years, said Khazan Singh, 72, a retired Indian Army officer and Hindu, sitting in his front yard in a predominately Muslim block in Bishara.

“These parties, sometimes they divide the community,” said Singh, who knew of the 10 men who were first arrested for the murder, including the son of a local political activist for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “The country goes to hell but they come to power.”

Divided Nation

In a nation with 22 official languages, a society still separated by caste, and a vast array of cultural, ethnic and geographical fault lines among the 1.3 billion populous, the Hindu religion can be a powerful common platform for politicians looking for votes. About 80 percent of Indians identify themselves as Hindu, while the figure is about 14 percent for Muslims, according to government data.

During his election campaign in 2014, Modi accused the incumbent Congress Party of expanding the slaughter and export of cattle, calling it a "pink revolution." His top aide, now president of the ruling party, said he supported the rebuilding of a Hindu temple at the site of one of the bloodiest confrontations between India’s Hindus and Muslims in the past 25 years. Close to 1,000 people died in riots after Hindu nationalists tore down a mosque on the site in 1992.

On the night Akhlaq’s neighbors came for him last year, a local temple’s loudspeaker announced: "Somebody has slaughtered a cow! Go and see," according to Anurag Singh, the senior police officer in the area. Rumors spread that a plastic bag with the skin and hooves of a cow were found.

“Some little kid told them this thing was thrown by Akhlaq,” said Singh, sitting in his small office down the street from a local courthouse with a crumbling facade. That sealed Akhlaq’s fate.

“It was a law and order issue and has been sorted out,” said Rajesh Kumar Singh, the top bureaucrat in Dadri. “It will not have any long-term effect on development.”

Rail Junction

Long-term development in Dadri means a front-row seat to the nation’s economic plans. It is the meeting point of two dedicated rail-freight lines spanning about 3,300 kilometers, designed to carry goods at up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour), compared with the current average speed of about 25 kph.

Railway bridge construction in Dadri
Railway bridge construction in Dadri
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

It’s also within the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, which would link the country’s political and economic capitals with a 1,500-kilometer belt of industrial developments and “smart” cities. Neither the rail nor the industrial corridors originated with Modi, but he has given strong backing to both.

The promise of the future can be found just a few miles west of Dadri, in a New Delhi suburb where road signs advertise an aspirational lifestyle -- The Hemisphere Golf Suites, Cherry County, Lake Side Garden Villas.

That world remains an impossible dream for most Indians, like 21-year-old Pankaj Saini. He makes about 3,000 rupees ($44) a month working at a small construction supply shop near the turnoff between Dadri and Bishara.

Impossible Dream

"I don’t think the future will get any better," said Saini, who trained as a machinist, then worked as an apprentice for a year at a tractor company and couldn’t find a full-time job. After getting married last February, he hoped the local economy would take off under Modi, but "there’s been no change."

The small shop around him was dark; the electricity had shut off, something he said happens more hours than not during the day.

At the entrance to Bishara, a 14-year-old boy sells rice from a cart. He’d left school, the boy explained, because his father, a potter, borrowed money from a local man and couldn’t pay him back.

“Any number of smart cities, any number of industrial clusters, cannot really create jobs at the scale at which India needs,” said Neelkanth Mishra, managing director for equity research at Credit Suisse Securities (India) Pvt. “Smart cities and industrial clusters are needed, but what India needs to create are tens of millions of jobs.”

That means getting small businesses “to grow from, say, employing two people or three people to five people or 10 people,” said Mishra. Modi’s government is trying to help by encouraging basics like access to bank loans, the Internet, electricity and roads, he said.

“What we are very worried about is job growth, because we have a lot of young people, 10 to 12 million people, joining the workforce every year," Jayant Sinha, the nation’s junior finance minister, said in an interview late last year. India’s birth rate means that it will add some 90 million people in the next six years to overtake China as the world’s most populous country, according to United Nations projections.

Potent Threat

A combination of heightened Hindu nationalism and disaffected, unemployed youths presents a potent threat to Modi’s economic agenda.

Dadri court and administrative office
Dadri court and administrative office
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomnberg

Singh, the deputy superintendent of police in Dadri, said half of the 10 men initially arrested after the murder of Akhlaq were unemployed. In all, 15 people now sit in jail awaiting trial, and two more have been arrested.

Meenakashi Lekhi, a BJP spokeswoman and member of parliament, said accusations by the opposition Congress party that community disputes have increased since Modi came to power aren’t borne out by official statistics.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 650 “communal incidents” were recorded up to October last year, compared with 725 for the same period in 2013, the last full year of Congress rule. But identifying whether a crime is rooted in religious intolerance is notoriously difficult.

In October, Modi made his first public remarks about Akhlaq’s death, saying in a newspaper interview that it was "undesirable and unfortunate." 

In a Facebook post titled, "The Ease of Doing Business," Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in November that Modi is the target of a strategy by Congress and leftist activists to "project India as an intolerant society."

"Dadri was a stray incident," he wrote. "It was both unfortunate and condemnable. The guilty will be taken to task."

The prime minister is running out of time to show widespread economic progress before a hardline Hindu agenda takes over, said Prem Shankar Jha, a political analyst in New Delhi. "Modi got in because Congress had failed the people, and Modi promised to revive the dream” of a prosperous nation, said Jha. “He hasn’t done that.”

India’s best hope may be the millions of citizens who want a moderate, inclusive nation.

Mohammed Ali Jan Khan prays
Mohammed Ali Jan Khan prays
Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

On the night Akhlaq was murdered in Bishara, Mohammed Ali Jan Khan, a 50-year-old Muslim washerman was at home. He knew Akhlaq, having often seen him at the mosque or chatted with him around the neighborhood. As the mob roamed the streets, there came a knock at Khan’s door.

It was a Hindu neighbor and friend, who had come to tell Khan that the Hindus with whom he’d laughed and shared food for many years, whose families had known his family for generations, would not abandon him.

Others in the village repeated similar stories. Khan decided to stay in Bishara but he is nervous about the growing divide in the community.

“Because of all this party politics, the atmosphere is getting polluted,” he said.

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