FOR the past several years, ‘cow-protection’ vigilantism has been the pretext for casteist and communal violence. Akhlaque was killed in Dadri by such a mob; two Muslim cattle herders were lynched and hung from trees in Jharkhand by such mobs. Such mobs, acting closely with RSS outfits, have routinely stripped, paraded and thrashed their victims in the presence of police, and uploaded videos of the violence online. But they have done so once too often in Una in Gujarat’s Somnath District.
The job of skinning and tanning cow leather and disposing of cow carcasses is assigned by the oppressive caste system to Dalits, who face untouchability for doing this work that is considered ‘dirty.’ On July 11th, a Shiv Sena ‘cow protection’ mob caught hold of four Dalit men who had been called by a farmer to dispose of a dead cow. Accusing the Dalits of being ‘cow leather smugglers,’ the cow-vigilantes brutally stripped and thrashed them for four hours, and released a video of the atrocity as a ‘warning’ to ‘cow smugglers.’ The Gujarat police, far from intervening to prevent the violence and arrest the perpetrators, detained the victims and questioned them. This is reminiscent of the shocking manner in which a UP Court has ordered that a FIR of ‘cow slaughter’ be registered against the family of the Dadri lynch-mob victim Akhlaque.
The Dalits of Gujarat have erupted in protest against the atrocity. They have adopted an innovative means of protest: they are dumping cow carcasses at Government offices, saying that Dalits refuse to dispose of cow carcasses any more. They have declared that those of the RSS, Shiv Sena and other ‘cow protection’ outfits who claim the cow to be their mother, can in future take on the responsibility of conducting the ‘last rites’ of their ‘mother’. This form of protest has most effectively exposed the sheer hypocrisy of the casteist and communal ‘cow protection’ groups that refer to cows as their ‘mother’, but consider the ‘mother’s’ carcass to be too ‘polluting’ to be handled by anyone except Dalits.
A spate of attempted suicides by Dalits of Gujarat are happening in the wake of the atrocity, reflecting the sense of outrage and humiliation felt by Dalits in the State. The Gujarat Government, in an attempt to contain the protest, has suspended some of the concerned police personnel. But suspension is far from adequate: all the perpetrators, identified on the basis of the videos, must be arrested and the responsible police personnel arrested and prosecuted for their complicity in an atrocity against Dalits.
Rajnath Singh’s attempt in Parliament to say that atrocities against Dalits have reduced since Congress rule is laughable, given the fact that the BJP has ruled the State for the most part since 1995, and Modi himself touted the state as his ‘model’ for the nation, nurtured by him as Prime Minister between 2001-2014. A study titled “Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages”, conducted in Gujarat by the Navsarjan Trust between 2007-2010, had found evidence of widespread untouchability, tacitly approved and encouraged by the Government, in 98% of the villages. And Gujarat is unlikely to be an exception – untouchability and anti-Dalit atrocities are common all over rural and urban India.
What needs to be emphasized is the fact that casteist anti-Dalit discrimination and violence is joined at the hip to communal discrimination and violence. Strategies used to stoke hatred and violence against Muslims today, have long been used against Dalits. Both Dalits and Muslims are the targets of organized violence in the name of ‘cow protection’; Dalits, like Muslims, do not share the taboo on consumption of beef imposed by caste Hindus. Dalit communities face violence when Dalit men marry ‘caste Hindu’ women; Muslim communities face violence when Muslim men marry Hindu women. In other words, ‘cow protection’, as well as inter-caste and inter-faith marriage are common pretexts for casteist and communal politics as well as mob violence. Modi himself, during the Parliamentary and Assembly election campaign speeches in Bihar, repeatedly used the ‘cow protection’ motif in a vain attempt to stoke communal hatred and consolidate caste and religious vote-banks in Bihar.
Today, the BJP and Sangh Parivar are caught in a wedge. They are the champions of the ‘cow protection’ politics and the casteist and communal violence that go with it. At the same time, they seek to woo Dalits to identify with communal, anti-Muslim politics. Their ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) campaign is essentially a campaign to ask Dalits to embrace their subordinate position in the Hindu casteist status quo, without complaint. They also seek to appropriate Ambedkar, minus his radical anti-caste and anti-communal democratic politics. But time and again, actions and words of the BJP, Sangh and Hindutva leaders and groups reveal them to the Dalits to be ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’
When Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister, he referred in a book titled ‘Karmayog’ to manual scavenging as a ‘spiritual activity’ done voluntarily by Dalits to serve society. After facing huge protests, he has since changed his tune. But his original remarks throw light on the Sangh’s own ideology that disguises and glorifies anti-Dalit atrocities as part of a desirable social order.
Even as the Dalits of Gujarat – Narendra Modi’s supposedly ‘model’ home state – are up in arms against a shamelessly casteist administration and Government, Mumbai has witnessed a massive rally of Dalit and Left groups against the BJP Government’s shocking demolition of Ambedkar’s historic office at Dadar.
The Dalits’ protests in Gujarat must resonate across the country. Democratic groups all over India must unite to demand a ban on cow protection vigilantist outfits that indulge in, promote or glorify mob violence in the name of ‘cow protection.’ We must also demand that laws banning the consumption of beef or cow slaughter must be scrapped since such laws, in the name of protecting cows, tacitly provide cover for discrimination and violence against the diet, culture and lives of Dalits and minorities.
Dr Ambedkar traced the taboo on beef eating as the root of untouchability. In his treatise on ‘The Untouchables - Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables ?’, he draws on historical material as well as contemporary census data to make a compelling argument. Today as the Dalits of Gujarat have spearheaded a revolt against the caste system itself, re-reading Ambedkar on this subject is a must. Below are some excerpts from his treatise,
The Census Returns show that the meat of the dead cow forms the chief item of food consumed by communities which are generally classified as untouchable communities. No Hindu community, however low, will touch cow's flesh. On the other hand, there is no community which is really an Untouchable community which has not something to do with the dead cow. Some eat her flesh, some remove the skin, some manufacture articles out of her skin and bones.
From the survey of the Census Commissioner, it is well established that Untouchables eat beef. The question however is: Has beef-eating any relation to the origin of Untouchability? Or is it merely an incident in the economic life of the Untouchables? Can we say that the Broken Men came to be treated as Untouchables because they ate beef? There need be no hesitation in returning an affirmative answer to this question. No other answer is consistent with facts as we know them…. if there is anything that separates the Untouchables from the Hindus, it is beef-eating.
… when the learned Brahmins argue that the Hindus not only never ate beef but they always held the cow to be sacred and were always opposed to the killing of the cow, it is impossible to accept their view.
… That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows for purposes of food and ate beef is abundantly clear from the Rig Veda itself. In Rig Veda (X. 86.14) Indra says:- 'They cook for one 15 plus twenty oxen". The Rig Veda (X.91.14) says that for Agni were sacrificed horses, bulls, oxen, barren cows and rams. From the Rig Veda (X.72.6) it appears that the cow was killed with a sword or axe. ... Among the Kamyashtis set forth in the Taittiriya Bramhana, not only the sacrifice of oxen and cows are laid down, but we are even told what kind and description of oxen and cows are to be offered to what deities. ...
... Among the Aryans the etiquette for receiving important guests had become settled into custom and had become a ceremony. The most important offering was Madhuparka.the essential element in Madhuparka is flesh and particularly cow's flesh....
... Coming to Manu there is no doubt that he too did. not prohibit the slaughter of the cow. On the other hand he made the eating of cow's flesh on certain occasions obligatory.
Why then did the non-Brahmins give up eating beef? There appears to be no apparent reason for this departure on their part. But there must be some reason behind it. The reason I like to suggest is that it was due to their desire to imitate the Brahmins that the non-Brahmins gave up beef-eating.... This, of course, raises another question: Why did the Brahmins give up beef-eating?
... In a period overridden by ritualism there was hardly a day on which there was no cow sacrifice to which the Brahmin was not invited by some non-Brahmin. For the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day. The Brahmins were therefore the greatest beef-eaters.... the Brahmins were not merely beef-eaters but they were also butchers.
... To my mind, it was strategy which made the Brahmins give up beef-eating and start worshipping the cow. The clue to the worship of the cow is to be found in the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism and the means adopted by Brahmanism to establish its supremacy over Buddhism. ...
Buddhism was against animal sacrifice in general. It had no particular affection for the Cow. Asoka had therefore no particular reason to make a law to save the cow. What is more astonishing is the fact that cow-killing was made a Mahapataka, a mortal sin or a capital offence by the Gupta Kings who were champions of Hinduism which recognised and sanctioned the killing of the cow for sacrificial purposes....
... As has been said, the Brahmins made the cow a sacred animal. They did not stop to make a difference between a living cow and a dead cow. The cow was sacred, living or dead. Beef-eating was not merely a crime. If it was only a crime it would have involved nothing more than punishment. Beef-eating was made a sacrilege. Anyone who treated the cow as profane was guilty of sin and unfit for association. The Broken Men who continued to eat beef became guilty of sacrilege.
Once the cow became sacred and the Broken Men continued to eat beef, there was no other fate left for the Broken Men except to be treated unfit for association, i.e., as Untouchables...
If the Brahmins gave up beef-eating and the non-Brahmins imitated them why did the Broken Men not do the same?...when eating beef was a common practice the Mahars ate dead beef and the Hindus ate fresh beef....
... The law made by the Gupta Emperors was intended to prevent those who killed cows. It did not apply to the Broken Men. For they did not kill the cow. They only ate the dead cow. Their conduct did not contravene the law against cow-killing....
... As to why they did not imitate the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins the answer is twofold. In the first place, imitation was too costly. They could not afford it. The flesh of the dead cow was their principal sustenance. Without it they would starve. In the second place, carrying the dead cow had become an obligaton though originally it was a privilege. As they could not escape carrying the. dead cow they did not mind using the flesh as food in the manner in which they were doing previously...
...Can we fix an approximate date for the birth of Untouchability? I think we can, if we take beef-eating, which is the root of Untouchability, as the point to start from. Taking the ban on beef-eating as a point to reconnoitre from, it follows that the date of the birth of Untouchability must be intimately connected with the ban on cow-killing and on eating beef. If we can answer when cow-killing became an offence and beef-eating became a sin, we can fix an approximate date for the birth of Untouchability. When did cow-killing become an offence? We know that Manu did not prohibit the eating of beef nor did he make cow-killing an offence. When did it become an offence? As has been shown by Dr. D. R. Bhandarkar, cow killing was made a capital offence by the Gupta kings some time in the 4th Century A.D.
We can, therefore, say with some confidence that Untouchability was born some time about 400 A.D. It is born out of the struggle for supremacy between Buddhism and Brahmanism which has so completely moulded the history of India and the study of which is so woefully neglected by students of Indian history.