Cow Vigilantism Blocks Dalit Outreach




ONE of  the lesser known facts perhaps of  the 2002 Gujarat riots is that Dalits were at the fore of  much of  the violence against Muslims

in Ahmedabad. When I asked an accused Dalit boy  in the Naroda Patia area why he had got involved in the rioting, his answer troubled me: “The local Bajrang Dal has promised us we will  be allowed to stay in the land vacated by the Muslims who have fled. “ Whether that was a riot “jumla”, the fact is many Dalits  were the foot soldiers  of  the rioting mobs and were swayed by the promise of  being empowered by caste Hindus. The local Muslims were then seen as a common ‘enemy’.

Cracks in Hindu identity

In 2016, cracks are being noticed in this so-called consolidated “Hindu” identity. The images of the lashing of  Dalits in Una by cow protection vigilante groups have gone viral and highlighted the social disquiet that lurks beneath Gujarat’s seeming  caste and communal peace. The anger which has spilled onto the streets of Ahmedabad and beyond is  a sign that Dalits will not take the violent discrimination lying down. While Dalits maybe just seven per cent of  Gujarat’s population, their unease at being taken for granted by caste Hindus threatens the political project that the Sangh Parivar first initiated in the state almost three decades ago.

Remember, it is Gujarat that has been the BJP’s laboratory for its political expansion from the late 1980s. It is here that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement got its initial impetus with L K Advani’s rath yatra attracting a large cross-caste support in the journey that began in Somnath. That saffron surge came against a backdrop of  a decade of intense caste and communal conflict. Anti-reservation protests snowballed into communal riots in the mid-1980s, rupturing the carefully crafted KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) caste alliance of  the Congress. The break-up of  that alliance was virtually the beginning of  the end of  Congress dominance in Gujarat and slowly allowed the BJP to capture the space on the back of  its claim to represent a unifying “Hindu”  ethos.

That merged Hindu identity now finds itself under intense scrutiny.

First, it was the Patel agitation with the demand for reservations which raised questions over whether  the rapid economic growth which had created  a ‘neo-middle class’  had also led to growing frustration amongst those who felt left out of  the wealth creation process. Now, the Dalits seem to feel that their trust in caste Hindus has been betrayed. This isn’t just about what happened in Una. Statistics show that atrocities against Dalits have been on the rise in Gujarat even as conviction rates are amongst the lowest in the country.  It is almost as if  Dalits are finally waking up to a harsh reality that participation in a rath yatra or a riot for that matter won’t change the feudal  order in regions like Saurashtra where the rigidity of  caste traditions has still not been annihilated.

But this is not just about the caste politics of Gujarat. One of the challenges for the BJP in its political ascent has been to ensure that it is seen as a more inclusive, less socially conservative party. Which is why the emergence of  OBC leaders like a Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh or a Narendra Modi himself  in Gujarat was crucial to  the BJP’s aim to grow beyond its original Brahmin-Bania image. The RSS too, consciously encouraged this process, one that gathered momentum through the BJP’s decade of  phenomenal  growth across north and western India in the 1990s.

Ahead of  the 2014 general elections, the BJP made a deliberate effort to attract Dalit leaders to its side, then be it an alliance partner like Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar or even an Udit Raj in Delhi. In UP too, there was a clear strategy to wean away the non-Jatav Dalits away from Mayawati  by promising  them “membership”  of  the wider Hindu Parivar. Even the Prime Minister’s Stand Up India scheme, launched on the birth anniversary of  the Congress’ original Dalit face Babu Jagjivan  Ram, was designed to promote entrepreneurship among Dalits.

Atrocities against Dalits

Now, one incident in Una threatens to undo the hard work put in by the BJP  to win the confidence of  Dalits. This isn’t the first time upper-caste Hindus have been caught beating up Dalits in a horrifying manner.  Massacres have taken place in Congress-NCP ruled Maharashtra (Khairlanji), in Congress-ruled Haryana (Hissar and Sonepat), in RJD-ruled Bihar (Laxmanpur Bathe). And yet, the fact that the incident takes place in the Prime Minister’s home state and  the Chief Minister wakes up to the horror almost a week later makes it a potential political volcano. Most damaging is the fact that there has been little attempt made to effectively rein in the cow protection mobs. Extending the ban on cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks and even to their trade and consumption in BJP-ruled states like Haryana and Maharashtra have only empowered gau raksha groups to believe that they enjoy state sanction for their goondaism.

Which is why the BJP and the Sangh Parivar need to speak out loud and clear on where they stand on Dalits engaged in “hereditary” occupations like disposing of dead carcasses or skinning dead cows or tanning leather. Are Dalits going to be seen as anti-Hindu for carrying out the very tasks that Brahminical Hinduism assigns to them in the traditional “varna” system because of repugnant notions of purity and pollution? Surely, you cannot sustain a Dalit outreach and then perpetuate the most ugly form of  caste discrimination in the name of  cow politics at the same time. Professed reverence for a Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings and a deep attachment to the Manu Smriti cannot co-exist.  If  crime in the name of  gau-mata is unchecked, then the entire Hindutva project could unravel.

Post-script: In his book Karmayog  published in 2007, Prime Minister Modi writes that “the work of  cleaning toilets has been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki community”. Would the Prime Minister who has maintained a deafening  silence on Una care to explain to the country  just what he means by  manual scavenging being a “spiritual” experience?