Gau rakshaks: PM Narendra Modi's admonition comes too late to heal Dalits' wounds
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi lashed out at those who indulged in criminal activities in the night and donned the robes of gau rakshaks (protectors of cows) in the day, his speech raised more questions than it sought to answer
O vekkhe pandat gyani dhyani daya dharam te bande
Raam naam japde te khaande gaushala de chande,
Koi main jhooth bolyan, koi main kufar tolyan,
Koi na ji koi na ji koi na
(We have seen many pandits, learned men and pious people who claim to be religious and compassionate.
They chant the name of Rama and embezzle the funds of Gaushalas.
Am I speaking an untruth? Am I being blasphemous?
Oh no, not at all.)
(Lyrics from a song in the 1956 Raj Kapoor film Jagte Raho)
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi lashed out at those who indulged in criminal activities in the night and donned the robes of gau rakshaks (protectors of cows) in the day, his speech raised more questions than it sought to answer:
Was he speaking the full truth, half-truth or untruth?
Was he really expressing himself against the spread of unbridled cow vigilantism that India has witnessed ever since his government came to power two years ago or was it a strategic statement to make the best of a bad situation?
Why did he take nearly a year to speak out against the terror that has been unleashed by violent vigilante groups in many states including Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana, where his party rules?
What kind of semiotics was he indulging in by making a rhetorical statement that those who were attacking the Dalits should shoot him instead?
Did he choose to break his studied silence because of the intense Dalit reaction seen in a mammoth rally in Ahmedabad, the nascent alliance that emerged between the Dalits and the Muslims, and the international media’s unusually critical response against the Hindutva brigade’s shenanigans?
On 3 August, The New York Times editorially commented on the “lawless cow vigilantism” whose anti-Dalit face revealed itself fully in the incident at Una and noted that “the gang stripped the Dalits to the waist, chained them to a car, and beat them for hours” while “the police and others looked on”, thus clearly implying that the state administration was complicit in the crime. It also reminded its readers that “Modi himself has exploited the cow slaughter issue at rallies” and listed the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, lynching of two cattle traders in Jharkhand, the “suicide” of Rohit Vemula, and the provocative statements of BJP legislators and other leaders. The leading American daily also pointedly questioned Modi’s “shameful silence”.
Within a few days of the publication of the New York Times editorial, Modi broke his silence. Yet his words failed to soothe tempers and convince people of his sincerity as they rang hollow. The prime minister very cleverly distinguished between the rogue gau rakshaks and the real gau sevaks and gau bhakts. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad correctly interpreted his speech when Hukum Singh Savla, in-charge of its gau raksha cell, said that it did not apply to the VHP’s cow protection activities as the organisation has been in this business since the time “when Modi was not even in the BJP”. In his view, the prime minister criticised only those who were indulging in criminal acts.
It seems that the chain of events in Gujarat that resulted in an unprecedented situation of Dalits refusing to skin the dead cows and other animals, and the unity they forged with Muslims forced Modi to change track. In any case, there was no problem so long as the cow vigilantes were targeting the Muslims as was the case with Akhlaq in Dadri and cattle traders in Jharkhand. However, when the scope of these violent attacks widened and Dalits started being attacked, the situation underwent a fundamental change. News of Dalits toying with the idea of en masse conversion to Islam also rocked the boat, especially in view of the impending Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.
One speech by Modi is not going to make people forget that prominent leaders of his own party like Sangeet Som, T Raja Singh, Giriraj Kishore, Yogi Adityanath and others have been at the forefront of attacking Muslims and Dalits. RSS’ student wing ABVP has specialised in filing FIRs against its leftist, Muslim and Dalit rivals on college and university campuses. Even in Dadri, local BJP leader Sanjay Rana, whose son happens to one of the accused in the killing of Akhlaq, led those who filed an FIR against Akhlaq's family.
Manjari Katju in her definite study Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Indian Politics draws attention to the fact that “the three symbols of Bharatmata (portrayed as a Hindu goddess---often as an incarnation of Durga/Kali, the symbol of shakti or power), Gangamata and to some extent Gaumata, were used extensively by the VHP” during its Ekatmata Yatras in the 1980s. “Bharatmata, Gangamata and Gaumata became the three mother symbols on which the VHP organised its mass campaign. It used these symbols as symbols of Hindu unity, in other words, national unity.” It is not without significance that the when Bharat Dharma Mahamandal met for the first time at Hardwar in 1887, the British authorities looked at it as another manifestation of the cow protection movement. The first petition regarding this demand was submitted to the colonial administration by the Gaurakshini Sabha of Nagpur, the city that later became the birthplace of the RSS.
The cow protection movement of 1966 cannot be de-linked from the electoral successes of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political ancestor of the BJP, in 1967 state Assembly elections. However, cow vigilantism has spread its tentacles much wider than just those states in which the BJP is in power or where the ruling party has its own reasons to look the other way as is the case in Uttar Pradesh.
What Modi has said is too little and too late.
One is not sure if it can really apply ointment on the wounds of the Dalits and assuage their deeply-felt hurt. Cow protection is an integral part of the RSS strategic programme and vigilantism has always been its preferred method, be it Valentine’s Day or love jihad or ghar wapsi.
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