The concept behind ‘New India’ is that EPI should replace VIP. EPI means Every Person is Important. We should accept the importance of 125 crore Indians.” Thus spoke Prime Minister Narendra Modi. EPI is a compelling formulation and because it sounds like a statement of conviction, not just intent, it needs to be used as an index to measure the importance of every Indian as they go about their normal lives, plying a trade, commuting, cooking, eating.
How important, if we are to go by this index, was Pehlu Khan, pulverised to death on the Alwar road a month ago for transporting legitimately acquired cattle; or Abu Hanifa and Riyazuddin Ali, lynched in a Jorhat village of Assam the other day, on suspicion of being cow thieves? When Ramesh, Ashok, Vashram, Bechar and three others were publicly flogged for skinning dead cattle in Gujarat’s Una block last July, were they important? Should we consider as EPIs cattle trader Mohammed Mazlum Ansari and his 14-year-old nephew, Mohammed Imteyaz Khan, found hanging on a tree in Jharkhand’s Balumath block last July? Or Rizwan and Mukhtiar, forced to eat cow dung cake for “transporting cattle” a few weeks earlier on a Haryana highway?
What of Mohammed Akhlaq of Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri, who was killed in September 2015 after being attacked by bricks and staffs because of the meat in his fridge? Or Salma, whose was brutally thrashed for her bag of buffalo meat at Mandsaur railway station in Madhya Pradesh last year? How important is Manish Mandal, beaten so badly that he could lose an eye for daring to honk loudly to clear cattle on a Bihar road?
Names are important in these stories from the primeval wilderness of the religio-political landscape, although there may be thousands of unnamed people who suffered similarly but haven’t figured in a journalist’s report or a police FIR. A timeline of these incidents indicate how closely they follow shifts in political power. Incidents of cow vigilantism in coastal Karnataka, linked directly to local Sangh affiliates, began to get reported shortly after the NDA assumed power in 2014. The years 2015 and 2016 witnessed an escalation of these attacks in number, scale and intensity, but it is in the brief period right after the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister this March that there seems to have been a conspicuous spurt.
The newly appointed police chief of the state, in his first public statement, had vowed to crack down on “gau rakshaks”. But his words do not matter when his chief minister expresses impatience, not at the deliberately slow pace of the criminal justice machinery in stymieing such random brutality, but at the lethargy of cow protectors. The yogi has just warned: Mouthing slogans is not enough, “honest efforts” are needed for cow protection. What does this statement mean: More honest bludgeons, more honestly plied?
His words indicate why cow protection has emerged as such a profitable enterprise, with the yogi projecting himself as the first gau rakshak of his state through strategic photo-ops. In all the states where the BJP is now in power, there is a smoothly functioning patronage system for cow protection, not just in terms of large outlays for cow shelters and the like, but through a lower bureaucracy and police that extend all possible assistance for such activities, from issuing licences to cow protectees to ensuring that criminal action is largely reserved for the alleged “cow smugglers/thieves” rather than their murderous, extortionist assaulters.
The monetisation of cow protection encourages the emergence of criminalised gau raksha gangs, but it is the spiritual and moral affirmation bringing them together that allows them to perpetrate brutalities that ordinary people would find repugnant. The ensuing bonding that takes place, at least for the duration of the assault, creates a common purpose, an instant imagined community, as it were. This is also probably why there is a performative dimension to such acts. Young gau rakshas delight in uploading videos of their assaults as trophies on their Facebook page, unmindful of the trail they thus leave behind, or perhaps so overwhelmed by a sense of impunity because of their new connectedness with institutions of power and political benefactors.
Many of those who participate in such actions may be members of politically powerful outfits, but they are also, for the most part, youth — mostly male — with no real future. A cohort that Craig Jeffrey describes well in his book Timepass as young men left in a void, waiting interminably for the non-existent “decent job” to come their way. Feted momentarily as “Bhagat Singh” by their political handlers, a few ride the blood-speckled tide and assume leadership roles in their respective mafia. For the majority, however, it is oblivion that awaits them, if not terms in jail.
This then is a tragedy in many parts.