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The atrocities committed on four Dalits in Una, Gujarat, for skinning a dead cow has several layers of overlapping meanings. But perhaps none is as stark as the one that conveys to us the dangers of allowing anti-cow slaughter vigilante groups to operate with impunity.

These vigilante groups have mushroomed around the country. They are prone to taking over the role of law-enforcers, and meting out instant justice to whoever they apprehend ferrying cattle, regardless of whether these were sold and purchased legitimately. The Una incident tells us that vigilantism is a contagious disease spread by the viruses called suspicion and self-righteousness.

Balu Sarvaiya and his sons – who were stripped, tied and beaten mercilessly in Una – are cow-worshippers. Balu even owned a bovine. It is their job to dispose of dead cows, to harvest from them the skin used for leather – for instance, to make cricket balls. It is traditionally considered a polluting job no high caste would undertake.

Atrocities were committed on Balu, his sons and two labourers because Hindutva foot-soldiers presumably suspected the cow had been killed surreptitiously, or they believed that even skinning a dead bovine was sacrilege. It is impossible for them to conceive that a person could worship the cow and yet, on its death, harvest from it body parts for which there is an industrial demand.

This should tell you about the mindset of activists engaged in cow protection.

Over the last two years, cow vigilante groups have spread terror on the roads crisscrossing north India. But the police haven’t sought to curb their activities. Instead, those whom cow-protection groups injure grievously often find themselves detained and entangled in police cases.

Killers of the cow should be hanged, says graffiti on the walls of Gurgaon.

Hindutva hardline

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has described the atrocities against Dalits in Una as a “social evil” which must be tackled and eradicated. But this social evil will continue until the Gau Raksha Dal is banned, which is one of the demands Dalit leaders from Gujarat have voiced.

There can be no doubt that Sarvaiya has become the Rohith Vemula of 2016 – the Hyderabad Central University student who committed suicide in January this year to protest against the alleged discriminatory policies of the authorities. He is the new symbol of discrimination and injustice inherent to Hindutva in ascendant. And he will haunt the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has tried to assiduously woo the Dalits to ensure they vote for the party in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.

Modi and Singh will rue that all their hard work to win over Dalits has been thrown into disarray because of the over-enthusiasm of a handful of cow protectionists. But this diagnosis would be flawed. Not only does Una underscore the inherent limitations of Hindutva as a unifying force, but also that it only widens social chasm in the long run.

Indeed, Hindutva lacks the capacity to paper over caste disparities because it is sneeringly disrespectful of cultural practices of lower castes and their economic pursuits. It is a Brahminical imposition. This is why a vigorous Hindutva sharpens caste contradictions instead of reconciling them. It rhetorically propagates the idea of equality among Hindus, but is deeply dividing in practice.

Hindutva’s own sense of its limitations is why its proponents have invented tools to create the “other”, the “enemy” of Hindus to unify them. It is as cynical in its use of the cow for this purpose as it is about history and disputes over places of worship.

For decades, the proponents of Hindutva – particularly those belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – have been claiming that since Hindus revere the cow as holy, its slaughter should be prohibited to respect their religious sentiments. They made this demand on the Indian state, which was projected as being disinterested in protecting the cow to mollycoddle Muslims and, to an extent, Christians, in whose food culture beef isn’t a taboo.

Supporters of Hindutva wanted a complete ban on cow-slaughter, regardless of the age of the bovines, even those no longer economically useful. They also demanded protection for bullocks and bulls, claiming any conditional ban would encourage illegal selling of cows to slaughter-houses. In their imagination, the only use of cows past the age of giving milk is their meat.

From this perspective, the cow is perceived as a holy but helpless creature trapped between Hindus who are its protector and Muslims who have an insatiable appetite for beef. There is thus a perpetual, unannounced war between Hindus and Muslims over the cow. The intensity of this war is heightened every time Hindutva grabs power, whether in states or at the Centre, as has been happening ever since Modi became Prime Minister.

Busting the myth

Una has busted the myth about the cow that Hindutva has created. For one, it has portrayed to the nation that the cow has more use than just providing milk, that there are marginalised Hindu communities dependent on it for their sustenance. We all know its skin has several uses, as do its bones and fat.

Priced lower than mutton and chicken, cattle meat is also the cheapest source of protein for the poor. Balu Sarvaiya has claimed he can’t think of slaughtering the cow, but there are others who do consume beef. Social scientist Kancha Ilaiah told Scroll in an interview last year that during his childhood he remembered Dalits of south India eating meat of even dead or diseased cattle. He also claimed that young, urbane upper castes consumed nearly half of beef haleem that restaurants in Hyderabad prepare during the month of Ramzan.

All this would be known to Hindutva proponents. To impose their cultural sensibilities on lower caste Hindus, the debate on the cow-slaughter has been placed in the frame of supposedly irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims. In other words, Hindus should refuse to partake of beef not only because the cow is revered, but also because Muslims – the other – consume it.

Unification of Hindus is a longterm project to be achieved by triggering communal mobilisation over various issues, including cow protection. Una is decidedly a setback to Hindutva. It has sharpened the schism between castes. It has communicated to Muslims and Dalits that they are united in their suffering because of the rampaging Hindutva, evident from media reports which claim Muslims joined Dalits in petitioning authorities at several places to demand justice for the victims of atrocity in Una.

There is an irony that the caste contradiction has come to the surface so ferociously in Gujarat, which has been long touted as a veritable Hindutva laboratory. It is even more ironical that this has happened over the cow. This is the state where under the chief ministership of Modi a stringent cattle-protection law was passed, prohibiting the slaughter of not only cows of all ages but also bullocks and bulls.

Till then, the Supreme Court’s position had been that a total ban on bullocks and bulls, despite being of old age and no longer economically useful, amounted to imposing unreasonable restrictions on the butchers – and was, therefore, ultra vires of the Constitution. This the Supreme Court reversed in 2005, through a judgement upholding the Gujarat government’s legislation. It declared bullocks and bulls are useful even in old age because their urine and dung are alternative sources of energy.

The judgement inspired both Haryana and Maharashtra to adopt the Gujarat model and pass stringent laws imposing harsh punishment on those found guilty of slaughtering cattle, once the BJP came to power in these states. Obviously, vigilante groups don’t wait for the court to pronounce an alleged violator guilty – they decide on the evidence of traders ferrying cattle to mercilessly beat and, at times, lynch them.

Muslim fears

Most of these victims have been Muslim. In Jharkhand, for instance, two Muslims, including a minor, were hanged when they were apprehended on their way to sell cattle in a fair. There wasn’t a squeak to ban the Gau Raksha Dal then, even from the Muslim community, in contrast to what we have witnessed following the reprehensible Una episode in Gujarat.

Nor did the Muslims agitate against the injustices meted to their community members by vigilante groups, as has been the case in Gujarat. This tells you about the fears of Muslims, their belief that an expression of anger even over genuine grievances – and peacefully at that – will boomerang on them. That it will only enable the Hindutva brigade to consolidate the Hindus against Muslims.

No doubt, the nation, including the political class, was outraged at the Dadri incident, in which Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched last year on the suspicion of consuming and also stocking beef. Different political leaders made a beeline for Dadri, including Rahul Gandhi.

However, the Congress subtly shifted its stance thereafter, perhaps apprehensive that a show of support for Akhlaq would alienate the Hindus. Perhaps this was the reason why Congress leader Digvijaya Singh tweeted boasting that it was the Congress government in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh which banned cow-slaughter all the way back in the 1950s!

As Rahul Gandhi and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal make a beeline for Una, it has to be seen whether they will demand a ban on vigilante groups seeking to protect the cow or seek a revision of laws which have imposed a complete ban on cattle-slaughter. It is perhaps imperative for the nation to revert to the pre-2005 position on cattle slaughter, as Una has tragically demonstrated that there are social groups whose livelihood depends on the cow.

The outrage over Una has seen as many as 17 Dalits attempt suicide in protest against the despicable activities of cow protectionists. It is a symbolic action aimed at arousing the conscience of the nation, particularly those who subscribe to Hindutva. Let us see whether the conscience of our leaders is pricked and they are able to overcome their upper caste sensibilities to demand a ban on Gau Raksha Dals operating in several states.

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