Gujarat’s ‘frontier’ districts at its remote margins may be the vanguards of change.
The Sangh parivar’s project of ‘Hindu unity’ is crumbling in Gujarat. The Patidar community – a middle-peasant caste that was once the Bharatiya Janata Party’s loyal base – has spurned the party. Patidar leader Hardik Patel has parlayed with the Congress. The Patidars – like other groups but more vociferous and better-off – have seen economic progress become a chimera. Corporate-driven, anti-farmer policies have unfolded relentlessly in Gujarat for over two decades. The BJP’s vicious anti-Muslim vitriol worked its magic for 30 years, but is seeing its limits. The glee from ‘teaching Muslims their place’ is wearing off as people’s own place in society is corroding.
With the economy failing them, the Patidars have set their sights on diminishing government jobs and eroding public education. The Sangh, which has loudly denigrated affirmative action, is squirming at the Patidars’ demand for reservations. Also worrying the BJP is the Dalit agitation pulsating from Una in Saurashtra, a place with a vaunted history in Gujarati culture. Led by Jigensh Mewani, Dalits have demanded land so that they can quit degrading work that the caste Hindu order itself has imposed on them. The BJP is cornered. Land reforms are against its Savarna, pro-corporate ideology.
The Patidars’ and Dalits’ demands hit the BJP where it hurts the most. Whether the two groups align politically is not known, but their common intent is clear.
What might beleaguer the BJP even more are its gau rakshaks – the mobs on a rampage across cities, towns, highways and rural roads – killing people in the name of the cow. These largely urban groups have no stake in the cattle economy. But they threaten the livelihoods of those who actually – unlike them – tend to, rear, care for and work with bovines. In Gujarat, these groups include Kolis (an OBC cultivator caste), Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims. These groups are economically linked through a complex bovine economy, and culturally connected through non-Hindutva meanings of bovines in their lives. For these groups, livestock are critical for economic security because they can be sold in an emergency without having to sell or mortgage land. For sales to be viable, cattle’s afterlives as meat and hide are crucial.
During a long-term fieldwork to study how people responded to market-driven development, I lived in Mahipura, in the home of my Koli friend Savitaben. Savitaben’s day began at 4 am when it was still dark. She led out her two bulls, a cow and calf from the indoor tether, where they were tied to protect against predators. She set out fresh fodder and water for them. She returned indoors to clean the holding area. The floor is cratered by bovine hooves, and manure mixed with urine must be scooped by hand. Savitaben spent two hours each morning scooping slushy manure across the pitted floor. This chore was repeated in households across Mahipura, Dahod and rural districts across western India. Women in smallholder households like Savitaben’s spent four to six hours every day grazing, lopping fodder and gathering water. The local cattle trader, a Muslim, was a valued part of Savitaben’s family’s network, and his visits to inquire about cattle sales saved people a costly trip to the market. During my first research project in Dahod, eastern Gujarat, the Koli-dominated community I was living in experienced its first cattle death. There were no Dalits in the village, so Dalits from a neighbouring village were summoned to dispose the body. People watched furtively as the ‘dangerous’ carcass was carried away. In another village, Dalits, who are denied adequate homestead plots, used the cramped spaces outside their houses to dry cattle hides. The work of landless Dalits makes cattle rearing possible for other groups. Those who live in intimacy with bovines value them as growing assets, milch animals, breeding animals, plowing animals, wealth, income, livelihood support, and food, and refuse to reify bovines.
The Sangh’s stakes in the majoritarian project of ‘cow protection’ are clear. Those who work with and dispose bovines’ bodies, treat their hide and process beef are largely Dalits and Muslims. The ‘sacred cow’ is a potent symbol for the Hindu right to impose upper-caste norms on the Indian society and deepen religious and caste-based inequalities in the country. But the BJP’s bovine politics threatens to alienate not only Dalits and Muslims, but also Kolis and Adivasis, who the party has wooed for over decades in Gujarat.
The BJP promised Adivasis upward mobility through Hinduisation. From the 2000s onwards, Adivasis in Dahod began referring to themselves as ‘Adivasi Hindu’ rather than simply ‘Adivasi’. Kolis have been fed a regular diet of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and a range of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisations are active in Dahod. But Hindutva’s cow politics threatens to unravel the affinity that Kolis and Adivasis – themselves livestock owners – feel with the BJP. A chasm is opening between the way urban upper castes see bovines, and the way small and marginal farmers who own bovines, relate to them. Interestingly, India is the world’s third-largest beef exporter, seeing this rise under the BJP’s rule. Beef exports embody the BJP’s twin pro-corporatism and Hindutvavaad. The party has feted corporate meatpacking houses owned mostly by Savarna owners, while small-scale slaughterhouses operated by Muslim and non-Savarna groups are clobbered, accompanied by violence that is legitimised in the public sphere.
Gujarat doesn’t yet have the reckless cattle slaughter bans that Maharashtra or Himachal Pradesh do, but the BJP’s signal is clear, and rural voters have a good reason to punish the party.
Majoritarian violence has the potential to create unexpected alliances among the oppressed. Indeed, the common experience of subordination among Dalits, Adivasis, Kolis and Muslims stitched the Congress’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) alliance.
Perhaps no regions in Gujarat are collectively as antagonistic to the BJP as Gujarat’s resource-poor districts which are dominated by Kolis and Adivasis, of which Dahod is an exemplar. In the 2007 state election campaign, Narendra Modi referred to Dahod as a sarhad (border), which ended up being a frontier metaphor of more kinds than he would have liked. Dahod became the frontier of the BJP’s electoral victory in Gujarat. The party won the assembly election by the smallest margin in this district. Perhaps people’s revulsion with the 2002 carnage which played out in Dahod and the neighboring Panchmahal district – home to Godhra – was a contributing factor.
In the 2006 panchayat elections months before the assembly election, Modi launched the samras campaign, promising monetary rewards to panchayats that chose their sarpanch through consensus rather than an election. The offer of monetary incentives to undermine electoral democracy was itself arguably unconstitutional. Panchayats and municipalities rightly saw this scheme as an attempt to quash dissent. Samras met with the lowest success in Dahod, where the fewest panchayats adopted ‘consensual selection’. A common refrain was ‘Why doesn’t Modi adopt samras for his own seat?’ Districts dominated by Kolis and Adivasis, supplemented by Dalits and Muslims, include, apart from Dahod, Panchmahal, Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, the Dangs, Kachchh, Vadodara, and Junagadh. The collective numerical strength of these groups is significant. Adivasis alone are 15% of Gujarat’s population, nearly double the country’s average of 8%.
2017 in Gujarat is redolent with many possibilities, and Gujarat’s ‘frontier’ districts at its remote margins may be the vanguards of change. The possibility of non-Savarna groups – Kolis, Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims – forging a new political project ignited by Una, and finding common cause in non-Hindutva imaginations and material economies, including those related to bovines, may emerge. The Patidar agitation might find common cause with these groups in the shared way in which the BJP’s economic model has cast ordinary people and the marginalised by the wayside. The BJP is nervous, and with good reason. Gujarat’s many margins seem to have a habit of giving the party nasty surprises and emerging center-stage in politics.
Dolly Daftary is an assistant professor of international development at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.