The images were so haunting that you did not need to be Dalit to be horrified. When I saw the video of the skinny, half-naked men with their hands tied to a car being beaten with iron rods by fat, ugly cow vigilantes, I was sickened to the core. And yet I felt compelled to watch the video again and again to assure myself that this was actually happening in my country. Many horrible things happen daily in our land of ancient hatreds, but when is our ruling class going to understand that they cannot happen any more? Social media and very vigilant TV reporters have made it impossible for such things to occur and remain hidden as they did in older times.
Violence against Dalits is not something that began in the past two years as the tenor of the debate in Parliament would have us believe. The list of atrocities on Dalits is shamefully long. Dalit bridegrooms have been stoned if they have dared to ride a horse on their wedding day, Dalit girls are nearly always the main victims of rural rapists. And in rural India, Dalit workers are often killed if they get uppity enough to demand fair wages. The only thing that has changed in the past two years is the advent of cow vigilantes.
This column has pointed out often that cow vigilantes were out of control and that the Prime Minister must intervene if they are to be stopped. It harms him personally to not have spoken even after this latest atrocity in his home state. Had he stopped his chief ministers from making a noise about beef, the cow vigilantes may not have become so emboldened as to commit murder in the name of saving cows. Victims included a young Kashmiri boy who was traveling out of the Valley for the first time. Zahid Rasool Bhat, 16, was burned alive by Hindu fanatics in Udhampur for the ‘crime’ of travelling in a truck that was transporting cattle. News of his murder spread throughout the Kashmir valley, giving ordinary Kashmiris yet another reason to hate India.
The Prime Minister should have spoken after Mohammad Akhlaq became the first victim but chose not to. So the violence continued. Now Dalit communities who depend on the leather business to earn their livelihood have become new targets. The irony is that although Hindus do not kill cows or eat beef, it is mostly Hindus who are involved in the leather business and the cattle trade. But cow vigilantes appear not to know this. Last year the Pushkar fair reported a drop of 94 per cent in cattle sales. It is insane to believe that only Muslims were affected. From Kolhapur which makes the most famous of India’s slippers there have been complaints of leather shortages, but for reasons unknown, senior BJP leaders remained oblivious to the depredations of murderous vigilantes.
The BJP today faces a serious Dalit problem. This has been compounded because of a BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh choosing the exact moment of the debate in Parliament on the Gujarat atrocity to compare Mayawati to a prostitute. Inevitably there has been an explosion of Dalit rage across the country. This may not have happened if the Prime Minister had spoken earlier and if his handpicked Chief Minister of Gujarat had shown more sensitivity. She appeared not to notice what had happened till angry, violent mobs of Dalit protesters took to the streets 10 days after the Una incident. Then she put on a crisply starched blue sari and made a perfunctory visit to the homes of affected families. Her stiff, implacable demeanour gave every indication that she was making this visit on instructions from above.
So in one of the ironies of Indian politics, the BJP could have lost the most important cow-belt state on account of its inordinate reverence for our holy cows. It is unwise to predict election results in advance, but I am going to stick my neck out and say that whatever chance the BJP had of winning in Uttar Pradesh is now gone. It was because Uttar Pradesh gave the BJP 71 Lok Sabha seats that Narendra Modi became the first prime minister in 30 years to get a full majority, which will make the loss of this state early next year even more painful. The mandate was for change and development not Hindutva, but it seems to have been misread by too many BJP leaders and the RSS.
If the Prime Minister had paid more attention to the atrocities being committed by cow vigilantes, he may not today be staring at what could be the most significant political defeat of his career. It is however not too late to reverse an ugliness that is spreading across India in the name of our
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