For the past several years, ‘cow-protection’ vigilantism has been the pretext for casteist and communal violence. Akhlaque was killed in Dadri by such a mob; two Muslim cattle herders were lynched and hung from trees in Jharkhand by such mobs. Such mobs, acting closely with RSS outfits, have routinely stripped, paraded and thrashed their victims in the presence of police, and uploaded videos of the violence online. But they have done so once too often in Una in Gujarat’s Somnath District.
The job of skinning and tanning cow leather and disposing of cow carcasses is assigned by the oppressive caste system to Dalits, who face untouchability for doing this work that is considered ‘dirty.’ On July 11th, a Shiv Sena ‘cow protection’ mob caught hold of four Dalit men who had been called by a farmer to dispose of a dead cow. Accusing the Dalits of being ‘cow leather smugglers,’ the cow-vigilantes brutally stripped and thrashed them for four hours, and released a video of the atrocity as a ‘warning’ to ‘cow smugglers.’ The Gujarat police, far from intervening to prevent the violence and arrest the perpetrators, detained the victims and questioned them. This is reminiscent of the shocking manner in which a UP Court has ordered that a FIR of ‘cow slaughter’ be registered against the family of the Dadri lynch-mob victim Akhlaque.
The Dalits of Gujarat have erupted in protest against the atrocity. They have adopted an innovative means of protest: they are dumping cow carcasses at Government offices, saying that Dalits refuse to dispose of cow carcasses any more. They have declared that those of the RSS, Shiv Sena and other ‘cow protection’ outfits who claim the cow to be their mother, can in future take on the responsibility of conducting the ‘last rites’ of their ‘mother’. This form of protest has most effectively exposed the sheer hypocrisy of the casteist and communal ‘cow protection’ groups that refer to cows as their ‘mother’, but consider the ‘mother’s’ carcass to be too ‘polluting’ to be handled by anyone except Dalits.
Some 16 Dalits of Gujarat have attempted suicide in the wake of the atrocity, reflecting the sense of outrage and humiliation felt by Dalits in the State. The Gujarat Government, in an attempt to contain the protest, has suspended some of the concerned police personnel. But suspension is far from adequate: all the perpetrators, identified on the basis of the videos, must be arrested and the responsible police personnel arrested and prosecuted for their complicity in an atrocity against Dalits.
A study titled “Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages”, conducted in Gujarat by the Navsarjan Trust between 2007-2010, had found evidence of widespread untouchability, tacitly approved and encouraged by the Government, in 98% of the villages. And Gujarat is unlikely to be an exception – untouchability and anti-Dalit atrocities are common all over rural and urban India.
What needs to be emphasized is the fact that casteist anti-Dalit discrimination and violence is joined at the hip to communal discrimination and violence. Strategies used to stoke hatred and violence against Muslims today, have long been used against Dalits. Both Dalits and Muslims are the targets of organized violence in the name of ‘cow protection’; Dalits, like Muslims, do not share the taboo on consumption of beef imposed by caste Hindus. Dalit communities face violence when Dalit men marry ‘caste Hindu’ women; Muslim communities face violence when Muslim men marry Hindu women. In other words, ‘cow protection’, as well as inter-caste and inter-faith marriage are common pretexts for casteist and communal politics as well as mob violence. Modi himself, during the Parliamentary and Assembly election campaign speeches in Bihar, repeatedly used the ‘cow protection’ motif in a vain attempt to stoke communal hatred and consolidate caste and religious vote-banks in Bihar.
Today, the BJP and Sangh Parivar are caught in a wedge. They are the champions of the ‘cow protection’ politics and the casteist and communal violence that go with it. At the same time, they seek to woo Dalits to identify with communal, anti-Muslim politics. Their ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) campaign is essentially a campaign to ask Dalits to embrace their subordinate position in the Hindu casteist status quo, without complaint. They also seek to appropriate Ambedkar, minus his radical anti-caste and anti-communal democratic politics. But time and again, actions and words of the BJP, Sangh and Hindutva leaders and groups reveal them to the Dalits to be ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’
When Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister, he referred in a book titled ‘Karmayog’ to manual scavenging as a ‘spiritual activity’ done voluntarily by Dalits to serve society. After facing huge protests, he has since changed his tune. But his original remarks throw light on the Sangh’s own ideology that disguises and glorifies anti-Dalit atrocities as part of a desirable social order.
Even as the Dalits of Gujarat – Narendra Modi’s supposedly ‘model’ home state – are up in arms against a shamelessly casteist administration and Government, Mumbai has witnessed a massive rally of Dalit and Left groups against the BJP Government’s shocking demolition of Ambedkar’s historic office at Dadar.
The Dalits’ protests in Gujarat must resonate across the country. Democratic groups all over India must unite to demand a ban on cow protection vigilantist outfits that indulge in, promote or glorify mob violence in the name of ‘cow protection.’