Cow democracy: How protection of cow has come to mean oppression of Dalits

In the present mood, one can go to the TV debate, even critique Narendra Modi but not gau mata. If one does that, he/she may come out with his/her skin peeled.

Written by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd | Updated: August 1, 2016 9:23 am
Hundreds of members of India's low-caste Dalit community take a pledge not to remove cattle carcass as they gather for a rally to protest against the attack on their community members in Ahmadabad, India, Sunday, July 31, 2016.Dalits have been protesting after four men belonging to their community were beaten while trying to skin a dead cow in Una in western Gujarat state early this month. Placard in Gujarati, front, reads, "Long Live Dalit Unity". (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki) Hundreds of members of low-caste Dalit community take a pledge not to remove cattle carcass. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

India is a unique country. This is the only nation in the world to have passed laws that protect one animal and its progeny even if it means the death of human beings, Dalits and Muslims. The first incident of the killing of Dalits when they skinned a dead cow took place during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s rule, in Jhajjar. Now in the Narendra Modi regime, the beating of Dalit men for skinning a dead cow that was killed by lions in Gujarat and of women for possessing buffalo meat in Madhya Pradesh, is part of the spreading narrative. Abusing Mayawati is also part of the same pattern. If Dalits are part of the nationalism professed by the Sangh Parivar, why have there been so many incidents in the short period of their rule? Is Dalit skin equivalent to cow skin? Where lie the roots of this ideology?

Thanks to B.R. Ambedkar and the Dalit movement, the unique status of this social force that constitutes about 200 million people is known all over the world. When birth-based discrimination against these groups was sought to be taken to the United Nations Organisation Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia in 2001, in search of a global solution to the problem of untouchability and caste discrimination, there was huge opposition from upper caste forces. The then NDA government strongly resisted the effort (I was part of the team that made the effort), arguing that this problem would be solved by using constitutional tools, within India.

At that time, the non-Hindutva upper caste intellectuals, considered to be liberals, argued that taking the caste and untouchability issue to the UN is morally unethical and politically anti-national. The main opposition party, the Congress, also argued on similar lines.

Sadly, the Congress itself initiated enactment of cow protection laws in different states that have negative implications for Dalit and Muslim livelihoods. But the Congress did not implement such laws forcefully as long as it was in power at the Centre and the direction to the states was to wink at them. The police must have also been given a direction to go slow on the implementation. Not that there were no “gau raksha” minded officers who did not book cases with the help of cow protection squads. There were some, but they were few and far between.

The serious implementation of the Congress cow protection laws with some new BJP cow protection laws started during NDA I. A new ideology called “skin for skin” (like eye for eye), if Dalits skinned a dead cow, took shape. The underlying message: A dead cow’s skinning is equivalent to the skinning of living Dalits. The first major case of “skin for skin” was that in Jhajjar, Haryana. On October 15, 2002, five Dalits were killed for skinning a dead cow. Till today nobody knows what happened to those who killed the Dalits.

Under NDA 2, the gau raksha programme assumed force because now the BJP is in full control of the levers of power. This time gau raksha means Dalit bhakshan. In state after state, very strong laws of cow protection have been brought in, affecting Dalit and Muslim economy and employment.

The Sangh Parivar networks deploy a large number of private armies as gau raksha samitis with full powers and weapons to implement the programme. They are provided resources that help these armed squads run after the suspects with lathis to beat them up. In fact, if Dalit youth skin the dead cow as part of their economic activity, the “Start Up” teams of gau raksha beat them till their skin peels off. Several such incidents have been reported in the last two years. The cow has become a metaphor for the strategy of skin for skin.

If anyone opposes these private squads, they will be dubbed as anti-gau mata and anti-Bharat mata. These new codes of abuse have impacted civil society. I encounter BJP spokespersons on English TV channels, who deny the link between the gau raksha force and the democracy raksha party. Their English-speaking spokespersons are soft, sometimes sophisticated too, but those in other languages shout and scream and generally win the argument. The TV owners are happy. The more they shout, the more TRPs they get. In the process, Dalit bhakshan is guaranteed. In the present mood, one can go to the TV debate, even critique Narendra Modi but not gau mata. If one does that, he/she may come out with his/her skin peeled.

The skin for skin approach is dreadful. But the gau rakshaks believe that gau mata democracy is like that only. It is our culture and heritage, they say. Indian democracy itself is conceptualised by gau mata, they say. If Ambedkar were alive and were to oppose these laws of cow protection, he too would have been declared “anti-gau mata” and therefore, “anti-Bharat mata”.

One can see Modi is a changed person ever since he embarked on his prime ministerial campaign. He focused his campaign around development and Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas. That was the reason why many Dalits and Muslims also voted for him. How is it that private squads roam so freely after he became prime minister?

BJP spokespersons argue that the country was run with “no PM” during the 10 years of the UPA regime, and that now every citizen will be safe under “our” strong PM (he is PM of the Dalits and Muslims too). But where is the strong PMO when such skin for skin ideology is in operation on a daily basis? Yes, vikas is the PM’s agenda. But is it the agenda of the whole Sangh Parivar?

The parivar network was never trained in the issues and vocabulary of economic development. Except for a small English-educated section, they were trained to do gau raksha, desh raksha, varna raksha. Some Non-Resident Indian ideologues imported from the West know what it is because they have some training in vikas raksha in the West — particularly in the US. But the foot soldiers of the Sangh Parivar were never taught about human raksha as the key link in development.

The moment a Parliament session begins, the programme of skin for skin, the abuse of Dalits, begins from its ranks, reflecting the training of decades. At least now, when the abused have voted them to power, is it not possible to re-train the Sangh’s cadre to respect humans more than animals?

(This column first appeared in the print edition under the title Cow Democracy)

The writer is professor and director of Al Beruni Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.