A few years ago, I met someone whose organisation rescues animals forsaken on Indian streets and provides them shelter. “Which animals needed most help”, I asked. Stray dogs would have been my best guess. But I learnt that cows far outnumbered dogs in his nationwide shelters. “We Hindus are supposed to protect cows”, he said, “but we abandon them on the street after they stop giving us milk, leaving them to eat garbage and plastic to satisfy their hunger”.
I am reminded of this story because cow protection has returned to India’s mainstream politics. Normally quiet on the vigilante politics of the Hindu right, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken vehemently against cow protection groups, calling them, in effect, thugs by night and cow protectors by day. He has even managed to rile the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose members campaigned for him during the 2014 elections.
Modi’s criticism of cow protection vigilantes agrees with a key insight of the modern ethnic conflict theory: Namely, when grand narratives are proposed by the powers that be, people on the ground use them for all kinds of reasons. Some honestly believe in the narrative — in this case, the religious significance of cow protection — but others use it for monetary gain, extortion and settling personal scores. Many Maoists are also known to have used the narrative of tribal justice to grab land and resources.
Cow protection is not a new political issue. In order to build a united Hindu-Muslim platform against the British, Mahatma Gandhi had ingeniously made it a centre of his politics during the non-cooperation movement (1920-22). He supported the campaign of Shaukat and Mohammed Ali — the so-called Ali brothers — against the British, who had defeated the Ottomans in the First World War and, via the League of Nations mandate, rendered the Ottoman Caliphate weak and virtually without protection. Muslims worldwide, argued Gandhi, revered the Caliph, so if he stood by the Ali brothers, the Muslims, in return, could stop slaughtering cows, something that hurt many religious Hindus. The two communities could thus come together and fight the British rulers as a united force.
What are Modi’s reasons for plunging into the debate on cow protection? Unlike Gandhi, Modi’s aim is not to build bridges with Muslims.
He neither spoke forcefully when a middle-aged Muslim man was killed last year by a lynch mob for allegedly eating beef, nor when two Muslim men were hanged to death from a tree for cattle trading in a Jharkhand village earlier this year.
Modi is acutely troubled because the cow protection vigilantes have now attacked Dalits. Dalits are not rich enough to run dairy farms and breed milch cows, which, incidentally, in Punjab alone was estimated to be a 400 million dollar (Rs 2,500 crore) business in 2014. To earn a small livelihood, many Dalits have for centuries skinned dead cows for leather, and have been central to leather trade in much of India. If cow protection vigilantes are not restrained, they have the potential to hurt Dalits all over India in large numbers.
This raises two sets of issues for Modi. The first is electoral, the other ideological. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP received more Dalit votes (24 per cent) than the Congress (18.5 per cent) for the first time. Ever since its birth in 1980, but especially after the Mandal agitations of the early 1990s, the BJP has been striving to build a multi-caste platform for electoral success. The upper castes have been the BJP’s natural allies: The party received 54 per cent of upper caste vote in 2014. But, estimated to be no more than 16-18 per cent of the country’s population, one can’t win elections on the basis of upper caste vote alone. Votes of the far more numerous lower castes, including the Dalits, are crucial for electoral success. Dalits, 16.8 per cent of the national population, roughly match the population size of the upper castes.
More specifically, of the three major states going to the polls next year, two have Dalits in excess of their national average. At 31 per cent of the population, Punjab has the highest proportion of Dalits of any state and in Uttar Pradesh, too, Dalits constitute 20 per cent of the electorate. In Gujarat, at seven per cent of the population, Dalits are numerically small (Adivasis are twice as large). But with the ongoing Patel revolt against the BJP, even smaller communities can be decisive in the state elections next year.
Equally important, India has over 400 million Internet users by now and many more television viewers. Local acts of violence, visually presented on the media, can’t be regionally or locally bottled up any more. National ramifications are quick and immense. The Una flogging of Dalit youth can alarm Dalits all over the country. The BJP may not need, or desire, the Muslim vote, but it can’t afford to lose large chunks of the Dalit vote, which it managed to acquire in 2014.
Going beyond the elections, the problem is also ideological. For decades, Hindu nationalists have coveted Hindu unity as a cultural, social and political objective. That pursuit has always run into conflict with their ideological view, which privileges the proverbial doctrinal tolerance of Hinduism but radically under-recognises an equally true historical phenomenon: That traditional Hindu society has practised caste oppression for centuries, reserving severe indignities for Dalits.
The RSS, always led by upper caste functionaries, relies on a model of Hindu assimilation that the late sociologist M.N. Srinivas would have called “sanskritisation” of lower castes. But millions of Dalits can’t join a Hindu unity platform that ignores or gravely undervalues the truly shabby treatment they have historically received from castes ranked higher on the traditional hierarchy. For them, an explicit recognition of their suffering has to be the starting point of their inclusion. A seamless assimilation is not possible.
Cow protection, paradoxically, poses a threat to the project of Hindu unity. For the Hindu nationalist ideologues, the cow is a symbol that can potentially unite all Hindus. But until opportunities are created for Dalits to leave some of their traditional occupations, many can’t possibly support the cow protection platform. It will only alienate them further.