It was a double whammy for Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who made highly controversial communal remarks over beef-eating, only to retract them after his Officer on Special Duty (OSD) Jawahar Yadav issued a statement this morning that he was quoted incorrectly by The Indian Express, and that the state would file a defamation case against the newspaper, which had published his on-record interview.
In the interview, a recording of which The Indian Express put out on its website after the denial by Khattar's OSD, the chief minister is quoted as saying that if the Indian Muslims had to stay in the country, they should not be eating beef. "Muslim rahein, magar is desh mein beef khaana chhodna hi hoga unko... yahaan ki manyata hai gau (Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef. The cow is an article of faith here.)"
An RSS pracharak, 61-year-old Khattar had emerged as the dark horse after the BJP's first-ever success in Haryana Assembly elections last year. He was a protege of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was appointed the chief minister after overlooking the claims of several senior BJP leaders. The interview to The Indian Express, which was conducted by its Chandigarh resident editor Nirupama Subramanian and deputy resident editor Varinder Bhatia, was a part of a series of interviews he is giving to the media on the completion of one year in office.
The interview, which was recorded on four different devices and well within the chief minister's knowledge, came at a time when the contentious Bihar elections are underway and the issues pertaining to Muslims and cow slaughter very much in focus.
As news spread about his statement this morning, his OSD Yadav apparently did not get in touch with his boss and gave a statement to TV reporters that the statement attributed to Khattar was "distorted". He even threatened to file a defamation suit and ask for damages from the newspaper. In the meantime, the chief minister himself told some TV channels that if any of his statements had hurt any community, he was prepared to withdraw his remarks.
However, his OSD, also from the RSS, had to eat his words when the newspaper released excerpts of the audio conversation in which the chief minister is clearly making these points and indeed emphasising them.
Besides his remarks on eating beef, the chief minister also had a foot-in-the-mouth moment while making a statement about the Dadri incident in which a man was killed on the suspicion that he had eaten and stored beef. The chief minister is quoted in the interview as having said that the Dadri incident was "wrong" and the "result of a misunderstanding". He went on to say that "both sides" had committed wrong and claimed that the victim had made a "halki tippani (loose comment)" about cows which had hurt the sentiments of the people who had subsequently attacked him.
He likened the incident to the reaction of a man who sees his mother being killed or his sister molested, and said that anger for the perpetrator would getting the better of the man.
He even justified his beef-eating remarks by stressing that even the Constitution says you cannot do something that offends me. "I cannot do something that offends you", and drive home the point by saying, "They can be Muslims even after they stop eating beef, can't they? It is written no where that Muslims have to eat beef, nor is it written anywhere in Christianity that they have to eat beef."
His latest remarks have come after a contentious cow slaughter bill was brought forward by his government and passed by the state Assembly, which provides for a punishment of ten years for selling beef. Also, beef-eating can lead any person to jail for five years.
Khattar is already facing the heat from a couple of his ministers and senior party leaders, particularly health minister Anil Vij, had been refraining from meeting the media or giving interviews. It is well known that he does not find himself very comfortable answering questions, and had decided to open up a little in the recent past. However, he may have to return to his shell after the latest fiasco.
His government had also recently decided to seek the help of controversial RSS leader and educationist Dinanath Batra to help "correct distortions" in the historical references in school text books.
While these acts had not attracted much public attention, his latest controversial statements are bound to have wider ramifications, including in Bihar, where the BJP is contesting a prestigious election.