Political Churn in Gujarat is Backstory to Modi's Criticism of Cow Vigilantism

The prime minister’s measured comments on ‘gau rakshaks’ comes at a time when the Sangh parivar is desperately trying to consolidate in Gujarat and bring Dalits and other backward Hindu communities within its fold.


Narendra Modi. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: After nearly two years of studied silence on the illegal activities of mushrooming gau raksha dals (cow protection groups) across the country, Gujarat has finally got the prime minister talking.

Despite the negative impact cow vigilantism has had on communal harmony since 2014, the recent incidents of unrest in Narendra Modi’s home state have forced him to break his silence and publicly criticise these so-called ‘gau rakshaks’.

While distinguishing between ‘gau sevaks’ and ‘gau bhakts’ and in a way defending the bovine politics played by the Sangh parivar, Modi lashed out against “anti-social” elements masquerading as ‘gau rakshaks’.

More cows die of consuming plastic than by slaughter, he said in his attack on cow vigilantism, adding that those who want to serve the animal should work towards stopping cows from eating plastic.

Yet, he stayed away from commenting on the way the ‘gau rakshaks’ have acted as lynch mobs in various parts of the country over the past two years. While many would say his statements hardly addressed the concerns of the minorities and Dalits on the ground, the prime minister should be given some credit for at least raising the issue.

It is common knowledge that these gau raksha dals do not function independently, and are in fact aided and abetted, both monetarily and socially, by various wings of the Sangh parivar. Militant groups like the Hindu Sena and Bajrang Dal have become foot soldiers for the cow protection campaign.

In most places across North India – where the menace of this hooliganism has been acutely felt – members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) double up as ‘gau rakshaks.’ Many BJP leaders have used the rhetoric of cow protection as a polarising tactic.

Even though Modi urged state governments to prepare a “dossier” on these “anti-social” elements, he stopped short of saying what actions he would take against those who have wreaked havoc in India’s hinterland in the guise of cow protection.

The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri and similar incidents in Jharkhand and Rajasthan, which led to a fierce debate on civil liberties, did not provoke Modi enough to comment on the issue.

It was only after the brutal flogging of four Dalit members of Una, which triggered a widespread movement against the BJP, that Modi chose to break his silence, but he merely cited his observations instead of relaying a plan of action. Therefore, many political observers feel that his statements against gau rakshak dals are more a vain apology from the top that does not portend any punishment for the “anti-social” elements.

“If Modi would have questioned the impunity enjoyed by the gau rakshaks, he would have had to attack his own party’s patronage to the groups. To him, the priorities of the Sangh [RSS] comes before the nation, ” said a Lucknow-based political scientist who did not want to be named.

The obvious reason for the prime minister choosing to break his silence is clearly the social churning that is currently happening in Gujarat,which is a prestige state for both the BJP and the RSS.

If we go by the recent political developments in Gujarat, the BJP and its 18-year-old political edifice now stand on shaky ground.

The prime minister has ignored various calls from civil society and from political parties to intervene in the social tensions that have emerged during his tenure. For instance, Modi chose to remain silent during the communal clashes in both Jharkhand and Bihar ahead of the assembly polls, nor did he say anything to address the Jat agitation in Haryana earlier this year.

The only time he appealed for peace was during last year’s Patidar agitation in Gujarat. And after a gap of ten months, the growing Dalit unrest in Gujarat has elicited a response from him.

Gujarat is a common concern for both the BJP and the RSS. The party’s consolidation in the state is the reason for much of its recent national success. However, soon after Modi took over as the prime minister and appointed Anandiben Patel as Gujarat’s chief minister, social unrest gripped the state. Patidars, who form the core support group of the BJP, revolted.

The ongoing Dalit protests, which may have a long-term impact on the party’s electoral prospects throughout the nation, have unnerved the party. Patel’s resignation and the appointment of RSS loyalist Vijay Rupani to replace her as chief minister have been seen as damage control measures to the state’s crisis.

Patidars, who form almost 12% of Gujarat’s population, have supported the BJP in the state for a long time. In the last few years, BJP’s attempts to attract Dalits (almost 7% of the state’s population) have been successful to a large extent. With assembly polls looming in the state, the Sangh parivar has been devising ways to stem the growing dissent and consolidate its ground.

RSS strategy for state

According to BJP workers, the RSS pushed for the appointment of Rupani, a Jain leader from Saurashtra. Nitin Patel who was widely seen as the top most contender for the chief ministerial post was sidelined at the RSS’s behest. The RSS has always responded to crises in Gujarat with similar strategies. Jains, with less than 2% of the state’s population, are considered to be BJP supporters, but they hardly provide any electoral strength. Primarily for this reason, such electorally neutral caste groups like Jains, Ghanchis, etc., ally with the RSS to exercise indirect control over the state’s politics.

In 2001, when the state was reeling under a massive earthquake and political instability that arose out of financial scams, the Sangh parivar responded to the crises by nominating Modi from the electorally insignificant Ghanchi community at the helm of affairs. In 2016 as well, the RSS has chosen Rupani to mollify the powerful caste groups in the state without giving representation to any single group.

“The RSS has fallen back to the same strategy all over again. By appointing Rupani for the competitive CM’s post, it gave the message that BJP does not belong to the Patels. If Nitin Patel would have been appointed, the other big OBC groups like Kolis and Thakors would have swayed towards the Congress. Both these groups are influential in at least 40-45 assembly seats,” Sagar Rabari of Gujarat Lok Samiti, an organisation working for land reforms and land rights in Gujarat, and a keen observer of state politics, told The Wire.

“At the same time, the Sangh tried to placate the Patels by appointing Nitin Patel as the deputy CM. In all probability, it will appoint an OBC leader from either the Thakors or the Koli community as the new BJP state unit president vacated by Rupani,” he added.

To assuage different groups in times of crisis, the RSS has always resorted to unconventional tactics with the sole intention of pushing Hindutva to the forefront.

Prasad Mathew Chacko of the Ahmedabad-based Behavioural Science Centre told The Wire: “The Sangh has propped up its committed leaders in such times, those who have never been in the rat race for power. For instance, Devendra Fadnavis was nowhere in the political picture before he was chosen as the CM of Maharashtra. Similarly, Modi too shot into fame by directly taking over as the CM of Gujarat. Rupani’s appointment has to be seen in that context.”

Rupani is a first-time MLA who has only served as a corporator in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation. He was promoted as the BJP state unit’s president only three months ago. Although, seen as suave and affable, he is practically an unknown figure in the state’s politics.

The RSS has always tactically chosen leaders from Saurashtra in Gujarat to represent the state in crisis-ridden times. Modi was also elected from Rajkot after being chosen as the CM. Rupani, too, is the Rajkot (West) legislator. Political observers feel that since Saurashtra has always been the less prosperous part of the state – with irrigation being the main concern of the people there – choosing a leader from the region sends out a strong positive message to its people.

The prime minister’s measured comments on ‘gau rakshaks’ come at a time when the Sangh parivar is desperately trying to consolidate in Gujarat and bring Dalits and other backward Hindu communities within its fold. The BJP, which is at present on the back foot, will make every effort to mollify dissenting groups before the electoral race begins in several states next year. The bigger question here, however, is whether in doing so, it will be able to reach out to those groups, who according to the RSS, do not fall under the umbrella of Hindutva, and have been feeling the majoritarian pinch stronger than ever before.

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