Cowing down

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Cow politics copyIn the dead of the night, a group of young boys armed with rods and lathis, patrols the Delhi-Mathura highway. They identify themselves as ‘gau rakshaks’ or cow protectors. They stop vehicles one by one and search them for cow meat. Our car too is stopped at their checkpoint, set up by blocking the road by a truck.

After some verbal exchange, the vigilantes tells us that it is their daily routine. They avoid divulging the name of their organisation or its leader, but admit that they are paid for their vigil. They also deny having any information about who pays them. “Ye sab to upar ke log jantein hain (only the high-ups know this), We are only foot soldiers who are obliged to do our duty of protecting the cow from Muslim butchers,” says Amit, a group member.

On being asked what they do with travellers carrying meat, the reply comes after a bit of hesitation: “We beat them up, humiliate them and hand them over to police.” The man standing next to Amit, quickly make amends, “We only hand him over to the police.” He probably intends to be politically correct.
But Amit brushes aside his claim, saying, “We do what should be done to these m**********.” Invectives fuel hatred.

Further on, we stop at a roadside dhaba and meet truck drivers who are victims of this daily ordeal. One of them says, on condition of anonymity, “The terror is such that we don’t carry any meat, even for our own consumption. When they find nothing in our vehicles, they demand money. We are helpless, and give them what they want to avoid any altercation.”

Since the Modi government came to power at the Centre, there has been a sudden upsurge in the number of gau rakshaks all over the country, flaunting power and muscle. They brush aside every principle of the Indian Constitution, uncaring of the dreams of those who envisioned it.

Cow protection groups had their roots back in the 1880s, when Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, travelled across the country to form gau raksha societies. He and his followers mobilised public opinion on the issue. Arya Samajists collected thousands of signatures on petitions to the colonial government.

Most recently, two Dalits were thrashed by cow vigilantes in Andhra Pradesh; this, in spite of the appeal made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop hounding Dalits in the name of cow protection. The emotionally loaded statement, “If you want to attack, attack me, not Dalits; if you want to shoot, shoot me” came after the uproar in Parliament and streets of Gujarat against the beating of Dalit youths in his home state by members of gau rakshak committees.

Zafarul Islam Khan, a prominent Muslim scholar and one of the founders of the All India Majilis-e Mushawrat, is of the view that by giving such emotional statements the Prime Minister is misleading the people of this country. “The Prime Minister has no mercy and no regret for all that has happened in the name of cow protection. If he had been really concerned about it, he would have not just talked about the attacks on Dalits but also Muslims, who have largely been the victims of these vigilante groups,” says Dr Khan. To date, at least four Muslims have died at the hands of gau rakshaks: one in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, two in Jharkhand and one in Madhya Pradesh. Several others have been assaulted and thrashed. Recently, one person was forced to eat cow dung in Mewat.

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Meaty issue: Protesters demand ban on private armies taking the law into their hands in the name of cow protection (Photo: Viajay Pandey/Tehelka)

To date, at least four Muslims have died at the hands of gau rakshaks: one in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, two in Jharkhand and one in Madhya Pradesh. Several others have been assaulted and thrashed. Recently, one person was forced to eat cow dung in Mewat.

Questioning the Prime Minister’s silence, Dr Khan asks, “Are Muslims second class citizens of the country that crime like this against them does not even draw a word of criticism from the Prime Minister ?’’

Similar arguments are put forward by Salim Engineer, general secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, who is of the view that Modi did not mention Muslims being targeted by these groups because he knows that they will not vote for BJP in any case, in light of the community’s hostility towards its agenda of building a Hindu nation.

Lamenting the Prime Minister’s remark, he said, “What would have happened if the Prime Minister had added Muslims along with Dalits in his speech? This tells us he is not representing 125 crore people of this country.”

It is also true that attacks on Muslims do not draw widespread protests or ire of society, although, after the lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri, a debate around intolerance was initiated among the intelligentsia. However, it hardly translated itself in the form of street protests as it did in the case of the attacks on Dalits.

Engineer cites the reason for this as lack of an assertive Muslim political force in this country — like what the Dalits have.

“We are proud citizens of this country; it is heartwarming to see that a big section of the country comes out and condemns such attacks unleashed on Muslims too. However, it’s time that Muslims themselves come out and protest on the streets against such attacks on members of its community. And for that they need a political force.“ It has also been noted that the Prime Minister, while speaking in favour of the most suppressed communities, has not taken any stringent action against those involved in crimes against them.

Dilip C Mandal, a prominent Dalit writer and journalist, tells Tehelka there are people challenging the principles of the Constitution and it’s time the Prime Minister translate his words into action. Commenting on his silence over the attacks on Muslims, Mandal says, “He should act like the Prime Minister of the entire country and not just a section of the society. You cannot be Brahminical and democratic at the same time.”

If the PM’s Hyderabad speech was intended to retain its Dalit votebank, experts believe that this will not have any positive impact on the electoral fortunes of the BJP.

Abhay Kumar Dubey, faculty member at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, holds the view that attacks on Dalits in the recent past have jeopardised the relationship of the community with the party. “Modi has taken too long to utter these words; had this come a bit earlier, it might have doused the fire. He will have to bear the electoral consequences,” Dubey says.

He also dismissed the advisory sent to the home ministry directing stringent action against cow vigilante groups, saying there was nothing substantial in it.
Cow protection, argue prominent social scientists, has always been a divisive tool in the hands of right-wing outfits to polarise society on communal lines.

Neera Chandhoke , former professor of political science at the University of Delhi writes, “The issue, however, is not whether the so-called protectors are genuine or fake. The issue is that the agenda of cow protection has been, since the 1880s, embedded in communal imaginaries, position of non-Hindus The history of movements for the protection of cows in India is a sordid one. It has nothing to do with religion. This history recounts two overlapping tales of cynical politics. The first tale is that of unifying deeply divided and hierarchically ordered Hindu community under the banner of cow protection.

Whether the so-called lower castes, who not only consume beef but are also fated to skin dead cows, bought into this upper-caste agenda is still a matter of debate among historians. But the project, fashioned by cultural entrepreneurs and innovators in late 19th century north India, succeeded in achieving the second objective, that of identifying and metaphorically crucifying Muslims as beef-eaters, and as killers of cattle…”

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