Gujarat is seeing unprecedented mobilisation of Dalits over the brutal assault on a family of tannery workers by self-styled gau rakshaks for skinning a dead cow. The vigilantes reportedly uploaded a video of the assault on social media — seven men were stripped, tied to a vehicle and dragged to a nearby town and beaten for hours — as a warning. When protests erupted, the state government made a few arrests. Political groups that champion cow protection, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and the Shiv Sena, whose banner was on the vehicle the vigilante group travelled in, have disassociated with the criminals and the RSS has condemned the attack. Home Minister Rajnath Singh even issued a statement that Prime Minister Modi is “upset about the attack on the Dalits”. The quick response from the government to the incident is understandable, considering the universal condemnation of the incident and the electoral fallout of Dalit anger.
However, it is pointless to see the Una attack as an isolated incident removed from the larger context of the political narrative the Sangh Parivar has built around the cow in the past couple of years. BJP-ruled states like Maharashtra and Haryana have banned trade of beef and second-rung leaders have turned cow protection into a political campaign. The campaigns had forced communal polarisation across northern India. Public lynchings of alleged cattle traders — all of them Muslims — by vigilante groups have been reported from UP, Jharkhand, Haryana and Rajasthan. Even the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, who was accused of consuming beef, and two young men in Jharkhand, one of them a 15-year-old boy, didn’t lead to a let-up in vigilantism.
Sangh Parivar leaders are unwilling to unequivocally condemn and disown the vigilante groups and state governments reluctant to act against them. Not surprisingly, the tepid response of the ideological brotherhood and state governments to their acts of criminal lawlessness have emboldened the vigilantes to police the street and impose their diet code on the society. If there is a violation of any of the cattle laws, the task of taking action is the responsibility of the state. The government has to clearly and loudly state this elementary aspect of governance to sections that threaten to take over the functions of the state. The political, social and economic cost of communal and caste polarisation triggered by this cattle fetish can be massive.