If the ruling party can’t tame the Dalit backlash, it will be grazing on dangerous terrains
Who are the Gau Rakshaks Prime Minister Narendra Modi was referring to in his townhall meeting in New Delhi on August 6? This was the first time the PM directly referred to the so-called cow protectors who were involved in a series of attacks, mostly against Muslims and Dalits, over the last two years. Modi said this “cow protection business” makes him angry and most of these vigilantes are “anti-social elements”. The ongoing Dalit agitation in Gujarat, triggered by the public flogging of four Dalit youths by cow protectors in Una, may have prompted the PM to make this statement. But who are these people he’s slamming? The major cow protection organisation in the country is the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal (BGRD), being led by Pawan Pandit, a software engineer by training. Pandit calls himself a “radical Hindutva” man. Founded in 2012 as a company and registered with the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs, the main objective of the BGRD, according to its website, is to “to care for stray, abandoned cows, bulls, retired oxen, and orphaned calves”. A Brahmin, Pandit chairs the entity. The BGRD, whose head office is in East Delhi’s Laxmi Nagar, has 6,000 full-time members, mostly Brahmin men, and has set up cow protection units in states such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat.
Pandit says his organisation has no links with any political party. But he’s clearly trying to champion the cow politics the RSS has been nurturing over the decades. And the BGRD has steadily expanded its violent raids after the Modi government was sworn in. Since the lynching of 52-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi on September 15, 2015 by a Hindu mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, for allegedly keeping cow meat inside his residence, cow vigilante groups have attacked Muslims and Dalits in several parts of the country. The BJP-ruled state governments either failed to stop the violence by cow protectors or refused to act. In January, a Muslim couple was assaulted at the Khirkiya railway station in Madhya Pradesh over suspicion of carrying beef. In March, in Gurgaon alone, at least eight cases of violence by vigilante groups were reported to police. In June, two men were forced to eat a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee in Haryana over suspicion of transporting beef. On July 27, two Muslim women were attacked in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh, for carrying beef.
Though Pandit says he abhors violence, many of those involved in these attacks were BGRD members. Also, Pandit was in the forefront of public debates after the murder of Akhlaq to defend activities of cow protection units. “If a cow is being slaughtered, you should know that the foundation of the country is being slaughtered,” he told Mint daily last month. This largely derives from the cow nationalism the RSS has been propagating. In 1952, the then RSS chief MS Golwalkar wrote: “What issue would prompt Hindus to be readily prepared to sacrifice our all for the honour and glory of the motherland?… such a point of honour in our national life is none else but mother cow, the living symbol of the Mother Earth…”. He added, “To stop forthwith any onslaught on this particular point of our national honour, and to foster the spirit of devotion to the motherland, (a) ban on cow-slaughter should find topmost priority in our programme of national renaissance in Swaraj”. In 1966, a violent Hindutva mob had stormed the Parliament, demanding cow protection in which eight people were killed.
The modern day Gau Rakshaks are following the path set by their predecessors. But they erred strategically when their militant cow protectionism started targeting Dalits, who are, in theory, considered part of the Hindu community. After Muslims, the biggest chunk of the 80 million beef-eating population in India is Dalits. Among Hindus, over 70% of the beef-eating population comprises of Dalits and Adivasis, and 21% other backward castes, according to NSSO data. This means, Dalits have clearly placed themselves outside the map of Golwalkar’s cow nationalism. But what today’s Gau Rakshaks may not have expected is the kind of resistance by the Dalits which they are facing now. The Dalit agitation that touched off after the Una beating was so huge that it even cost Anandiben Patel her job as the Gujarat chief minister. But can a government led by the BJP, the political arm of the RSS, which is the so-called guardian of Hindutva, take action against organisations such as the BGRD? The government needs to make its stand clear on the cow.