Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s strong condemnation of self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) at his Obama-style town hall on Saturday gives one the impression that the prime minister is saddened over Dalit atrocities across the country, including his home-state Gujarat, in the name of protecting the cow.
Modi’s comments are indeed a relief only if we can be sure they'll put an end to the long-practiced criminal over-reach of cow vigilantes towards fellow human beings who make a living by skinning dead animals and disposing of animal carcasses. And mind you, this is an activity critical for community health and sanitation.
Modi said, “It makes me angry that people are running shops in the name of cow protection. Most of them are anti-social elements hiding behind the mask of cow protection… I will ask state governments to prepare a dossier on such people as 80 percent of them will be found to be involved in anti-social activities which no society will approve of," Modi said.
Ideally, Modi's comments should offer confidence and embolden thousands of Dalits like Balubhai Sarvaiya beaten up in Una, Gujarat, in July for skinning a dead cow. Why not? After all, it’s the country’s prime minister who is angry, not a random aam admi, and the ones on the wrong side of his anger — in this case self-proclaimed fraud gau rakshaks in the day and anti-social elements at night — should worry before raising their hand next time against a Dalit in the name of cow protection.
But, there's a problem. The prime minister seems to be making a distinction between genuine gau rakshaks and the anti-national socials among them. He seems to be saying that legitimate gau rakshak samitis, about 200 of them that have sprung up in Gujarat alone, are kosher. That raises two questions: Who appoints legitimate gau rakshaks and offers them immunity and impunity, the state or a political ideology? (If cow protection is done in the name of Hinduism, prey why only for cows?) And, two, how does one distinguish between a rakshak and a vigilante, if ever there is a difference?
And how does one know who is a genuine gau rakshak and who is a day-gau rakshak-turned-night-thug?
To be sure, Modi didn’t mention the Una incident. But it is only logical to assume that the comment drew inspiration from the unfortunate torture of the Dalit-family. Balubhai was a farmer and chamaar (tanner) by vocation and what else was he supposed do with a dead cow except to use its skin to make some money for his family? Skin of dead cows is used for several commercial products ranging from cricket balls to Kolhapuri chappals that are crafted using hides of cattle. Just how will city and village administrations to with carcasses if Dalits decide not to dispose them, as they have already threatened to do?
If the prime minister reckoned this issue was important enough to comment on during his town hall, why did it take so many days to break his silence? In his speech, Modi spoke about how opinion makers and TV channels want him to speak on every other issue. “For the purposes of TRP (TV channels ratings) this could be right. The issue is not whether it hurts PM, the issue is whether this is right for the democracy," Modi said. Of course, Dalit-atrocities and basic human dignity are complicated issues. But wouldn't an early prime ministerial intervention (the event occurred on 11 July) impacted the morale of the Dalits a lot more?
The Una incident has prompted seven members of the community to publicly attempt suicide, which showed sheer helplessness and their lack of confidence in the system to protect their fundamental rights.
The PMO is at fault for poorly communicating on such a socially sensitive issue and an earlier intervention would have looked more honest and less politically convenient considering the harm it has done to the BJP's Dalit cause in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh.
True, some of the wrongdoers in the Una episode are nabbed already, but what about hundreds of cow vigilante groups thriving in the country? Also, one must remember that it was when Modi was Gujarat chief minister, the Gujarat Animal Preservation Act, 1954, got more powers to punish ‘offenders’. According to reports, the Gujarat government’s Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board, which is part of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, has even been rewarding gau rakshaks for years for dealing with people acting against cows. The purpose of highlighting this is to show that the gau rakshaks aren’t a recent phenomenon or a product of RSS ideology alone but has thrived more because of political backing for long. Hence the solution against Dalit atrocities can only come from political will not religious sermons.
If PM Modi is serious about saving Indian Dalits, he should walk the talk and ban gau rakshak dals that are increasingly gaining ground across the country and have begun to openly declare that they are goons. Till then, Modi’s anger on gau rakshaks will mean little to the many beaten up, demoralized Dalits living in a fear psychosis.