The stinging condemnation of self-styled gau rakshaks by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though belated, has laid to rest speculation that had been building up due to his silence as well as that of the other top leaders of the BJP and the RSS.
The increasing atrocities against Dalits and minorities in the name of protection of cows by the so-called cow vigilantes was sending all the wrong signals, giving an impression that they had the backing of the Sangh Parivar. The repeat telecast of visuals showing a group of Dalit youth being mercilessly beaten up for allegedly skinning a dead cow at Una in Gujarat had shaken the conscience of all right-thinking people. Several other incidents of the self-styled protectors of cows unleashing violence on those suspected of transporting cows and beef had been highlighted in the media in the recent past.
Modi left no doubt in anyone’s mind when he said at a public function that these self-styled gau rakshaks run their dukan (shop) in the name of protecting the cow. He stated that some anti-social elements masquerade as protectors of the cow and extort money from the poor. “I feel very angry about the gau rakshak business. Some people engage in anti-social activities at night and are gau rakshaks by day…I want states to prepare dossiers against such elements and take action against them.”
The Prime Minister followed up his attack the next day too, saying, “We should put a full stop to it. You can shoot me rather than target the Dalits,” he thundered.
Surely it was common knowledge that most of the so-called gau rakshaks were either local goons or those trying to become local netas by projecting themselves as staunch followers of Hinduism and ‘protectors of the religion’. A particular television channel had also exposed some of these recently. One of those interviewed had no qualms in publicly declaring that he would continue to ‘fight’ for protection of cows even if he is described the biggest ‘goonda’.
The channel did well to expose how he and his associates followed ‘suspected vehicles’ and brazenly checked these at random. There had been several occasions when poor drivers were beaten up, even fatally, for their alleged crime.
Another expose showed how some of these ‘goondas’ charged money for providing protection and safe transit of goods, including cows and beef, for a hefty sum of money. They assured a decoy that the payment would guarantee safety not only in Haryana and Punjab but also in Delhi.
The growing highhandedness against Dalits and minority communities, particularly Muslims, has been seen as part of the BJP’s agenda to advance the Hindutva cause
The growing highhandedness against Dalits and members of minority communities, particularly Muslims, was seen as part of the BJP’s agenda to advance the Hindutva cause. Modi, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, had tightened the laws pertaining to cow slaughter and transport. Of late, BJP-ruled states Maharashtra and Haryana amended laws to provide for stricter punishment for those found guilty of transporting cows or indulging in cow slaughter. This, together with steps like change in academic syllabus and attempts to rewrite history, invited flak. With the Congress as well as Bahujan Samaj Party exploiting the situation, it was bound to become an election issue.
Resentment among Dalits was also growing across the country. At some places, they refused to skin dead cows and left carcasses outside the residences of officers. Dalits also organised a massive protest in Modi’s home state, where Patels have already raised a banner of revolt against the BJP-run government. Together, they could have an adverse impact on the party’s prospects in the Assembly elections due next year.
However, more important than the reaction against BJP in Gujarat, the Prime Minister must have been more worried of the impact it might have in the crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections next year. The BJP is desperate to win the elections in UP as it believes the state can propel it to secure victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The combination of Dalit and minority votes in Uttar Pradesh could tilt the scales. The BJP is particularly keen to wean away the Dalit vote from former chief minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Dalits command 20 percent of votes in that state, and unlike in Punjab and some other states, they tend to vote en bloc for their party of choice.
In Punjab, Dalits constitute no less than 32 percent of the population — the highest concentration in any state. In some of the Assembly constituencies in the state, particularly in the Doaba region, the Dalit population is as high as 45 percent. There have been clear signs of a Dalit resurgence in Punjab and elsewhere. CDs with songs of Dalit pride have flooded the market in Punjab, which too is scheduled to go for Assembly elections in February next.
These calculations may have also prompted Modi to come out with a strong statement. Whatever the compulsions or motives, he deserves credit for coming out with a loud and clear message. In doing so, he may have ruffled the feathers of some of the party’s fringe elements but obviously the scales would have weighed in favour of the stand he has taken. Even the RSS has come out in support of Modi’s stand. In a statement endorsing his statement, RSS condemned the attacks on Dalits, terming them “inhuman” and asked States to take action against elements trying to “disturb communal harmony and trust.”
The RSS further said, “Taking the law in one’s own hands to harass Dalits is not only illegal, but also inhuman.” RSS general secretary and second in command, Suresh ‘Bhaiyaji’ Joshi said, “Several political parties and leaders of various castes are trying to create a situation of uncertainty through half-baked information, which is not conducive to social harmony.”
Fringe Hindutva hardliners like Vishwa Hindu Parishad, however, reacted adversely to Modi’s condemnation, stating that cow protection was an activity it had been undertaking for a long time and that it would continue to do so. The Hindu Mahasabha also reacted strongly to Modi’s criticism, terming him “anti-Hindu.” Pawan Pandit, president of the Rashtriya Gau Raksha Dal, said Modi “must apologise to Hindus, for terming 80 percent of gau rakshaks as ‘goondas’. The BJP will see its support base shrinking in the next set of polls, after this anti-Hindu statement of the Prime Minister”. The RSS, however, dismissed such statements, saying these organisations were not part of the Sangh Parivar.
There is criticism that neither the BJP nor Modi had adequately condemned the attacks on Muslims. However, the spirit of his strong statements, which he repeated the next day, must be appreciated.
Modi did deflect the responsibility on state governments to deal effectively with self-styled gau rakshaks, but signals were required to be sent by him to such elements as well as state governments run by the BJP and its allies, as in Punjab and Haryana. Let him walk the talk by directing such state governments and prompt non-BJP states to initiate strict action if any such incidents take place in those states.