Cow Vigilantism Is Tearing Apart India's Social Fabric

Banning cow slaughter is a goal of the RSS and this has led to the emergence of hundreds of groups that go around attacking Dalits and Muslims.

Screengrab of the Dalit men being hit with iron rods in Una

Screengrab of the Dalit men being hit with iron rods in Una.

It took the Supreme Court two months to agree to hear a petition asking for a directive to states to take stern action against vigilante groups seeking to enforce bans on cow slaughter. In the meantime, thousands of such groups, armoured by self-righteousness and the covert protection of the state, have continued to prey upon Muslims and Dalits across the length and breadth of the country. In the process, they have begun to tear apart the social fabric of the country, built painstakingly over two millennia.

Muslims who live in the rest of India have no secure haven to which they can flee, so they have to grin and bear it. Dalits and sections of the OBCs, who have traditionally lived on skinning dead cattle and selling the hides to the leather tanneries, are in a similar plight. But Kashmiri Muslims do have a haven, so their recent actions provide a barometer for the stress that these communities are under.

A respected writer and publicist, who had purchased a flat in Haryana as a refuge from the harsh Kashmir winters, confided to me that he did not intend to come this year because he “no longer feels safe”. He went on the ask me, “Suppose I have a dispute with my neighbour and he reports that I am keeping beef in my home, who will come to my rescue?”. A successful young industrialist told me: “We were living in Delhi during the militancy, and my son was studying in the Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. In 2012 we believed that normality had returned, and came back to Kashmir. Today my son, who is 12, is asking me questions about our association with India that I do not know how to answer”.

It does not need much knowledge of history to understand why the RSS’ obsession with banning cow slaughter is a short cut to national suicide, for Indian history is replete with examples of how rulers’ attempts to interfere with the cultural, religious or social practices of their subjects has led to the fall of empires.

Most historians agree that the centralisation of power necessitated by Emperor Asoka’s attempt to enforce his edicts banning animal slaughter, and a variety of other localised social practices, laid the ground for the revolts that ended the Mauryan empire less than half a century after his death.

Aurungzeb, the last of the great Moghuls, learned this lesson 400 years ago when his largely Rajput army began to melt away after he introduced discriminatory taxes and other measures aimed at the Hindus. That proved to be the beginning of the end of the end of the Mughal empire.

The British too learned to leave this fabric intact the hard way when Lord Dalhousie’s Doctrine of Lapse, which denied the right of succession to the adopted children of Hindu rulers, helped to trigger a nationwide revolt in 1857.

This understanding was ingrained in the DNA of the pre-independence Congress party. It explains why the party withdrew its opposition to partition in March 1947. As it said poignantly in its Lahore resolution that year, it considered this to be the only way to stop the spread of the insidious poison of communalism that was ‘tearing the social fabric of the country apart’.

And, finally, it explains why the NDA under Atal Behari Vajpayee never raised the issue. Why, then, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP bent on taking India to collective suicide? The knee-jerk explanation is that Hindus worship the cow. But the real answer is to be found in the quiet retrogression into ignorance, dogma and prejudice that has occurred within the Sangh parivar after Vajpayee’s defeat in 2004.

As has happened within European ideological movements that have sought power through the ballot box, the Sangh parivar had been racked by a struggle between its parliamentary wing, which is the BJP, and its organisational wing, which is headed by the RSS. In 1998-2004, the parliamentary wing, under Vajpayee and his deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, was very much in the ascendant. Today it is the RSS that is calling the shots.

Banning cow slaughter had been a major goal of the RSS since its inception in the 1920s. But until Modi became prime minister it had failed to find a leader in the BJP who would make it a part of his national policy. This was because of the relentless pressure exerted by the simple majority voting system upon the party to dilute its ideology in order to broaden its voter base sufficiently to win a majority in the Lok Sabha.

The need to do this became apparent in 1991 when, even after eight years of relentless stoking of Hindu chauvinism over the need to shift the Babri Masjid and build a Ram temple on the site where it stood, the BJP secured only 20.4% of the national vote and won only 120 out of 544 seats in parliament.

Vajpayee and Advani, therefore, set out to ‘secularise’ the BJP by inducting retired civil servants, army officers and able politicians from other political parties, and to enter into coalitions with political parties opposed to the Congress.

This strategy brought the NDA to power in 1998 and again after a snap election in 1999. On the pretext of having to accommodate the BJP’s coalition partners, Vajpayee kept diehard Hindu ideologues favoured by the RSS out of the cabinet. But the latter did not take this lying down.

Within weeks of the formation of the government in 1998, they raised a hue and cry against conversions to Islam and Christianity, and began a campaign to re-convert Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism. Two RSS-offshoots, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, began to attack Christian priests and nuns, and burn or vandalise village churches, daring Vajpayee to take action against them.

Vajpayee roundly criticised the lawlessness and even undertook a fast to force state governments to take stern action, but fought shy of criticising the RSS directly. The conflict came to a head when cadres of the Bajrang Dal set fire to the SUV in which Graham Staines, a greatly loved missionary, and his two sons were sleeping, roasting them to death.

Vajpayee took immediate and severe action. Mass arrests followed and within three years the main culprit was in prison for life while his accomplices had received lesser sentences. He also called a conclave of the BJP’s coalition partners and set up a National Coordination Committee supposedly to coordinate policy across the country but in reality as a counterweight to the RSS. The stratagem succeeded and gave India one of its best governments since independence. But the radical elements in the RSS never forgave Vajpayee for his “treachery”.

They took their revenge when the NDA suffered a surprise defeat in 2004. As two of the BJP’s coalition partners later conceded, the single main cause was the 2002 communal carnage in Ahmadabad that Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, had been either unable or unwilling, to prevent.

But the RSS insisted that the cause was Vajpayee’s betrayal of the ‘Hindutva’ ideology. A host of second-tier leaders of the party, who had resented being sidelined by the persons inducted from the outside, also joined in the attack.

Nine years later they unceremoniously pushed aside Advani and chose Modi to lead them into the 2014 election.

After his victory, Modi ended the schism between the parliamentary and organisational wings of the Sangh parivar by making Amit Shah, a staunch RSS man, the president of the BJP. He also ordered his ministers to meet party committees, composed of the BJP’s rank and file and the RSS to “inform” them of the initiatives and achievements of their ministries.

Significantly, Modi did not include a single one of Vajpayee’s seasoned cabinet members in his government. From then on it is the RSS that has set the agenda for the country.

In the past two years, this message has filtered down to every branch and cell of the Sangh parivar in the country. Within days of Modi’s victory, RSS cadres had resuscitated ghar wapisi and love jihad and begun to encourage Jats in Muzaffarnagar to “take revenge” on another community for “raping their sisters”. Modi chose to remain silent. Then, during the run-up to the state assembly elections in Bihar in October 2015, the RSS turned the cow vigilantes loose on the country. It gave no central directive – just a quiet nod to ‘do what comes naturally’. The results were bizarre: in one UP town, a bespectacled male RSS activist, covered head to toe in a Muslim woman’s burkha, was caught running away after he had thrown beef into a temple. In Ranchi, pork was thrown into a two mosques and beef into two temples on the same day. Only a prompt announcement by the police chief that these were the acts by agents provocateurs prevented a backlash.

In the last one year, gau raksha has become a state gifted passport to tens of thousands of lumpen goons to vent their sadism upon the poorest and most helpless people of this country. In towns and villages across the country groups of young men have begun to roam the streets and country roads looking for people transporting meat, live cattle, or the hides of cattle that have died of starvation. An estimated 200 such groups are believed to be active in Delhi alone. Another 200 or more have sprung up in Gujarat.

Their usual mode of operation is to stop trucks carrying livestock or hides, accuse the owners of having slaughtered cattle, beat them up and release them after they hand over all the cash they possess.

These gau rakshaks take pride in their work. Like ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in Iraq and Syria, they have taken to posting videos of their beatings on the internet. One beautifully shot clip shows jeans and T-shirt clad young men mercilessly beating bare-backed, dirt poor men and boys who are on their knees begging for mercy first on a busy thoroughfare, and later beating them even more savagely at a secluded place outside the town. The video, which was shot at Una in Gujarat, is silent, so one can see the victims begging for mercy but not hear their screams and begging voices lest this make them human. Instead, we are soothed by soft western piano music as we watch.

Till barely a month ago all but a few of the victims of cow vigilantism were Muslims. So, perhaps not coincidentally, Modi maintained a studied silence. He made an exception only when the murder of a Muslim plumber, Mohammad Akhlaq, by a mob led by the sons of the principal election agent in the constituency of union tourism minister, just 40 kms from Delhi, made national headlines. But he did so only after eight days of silence, at an election rally in distant Bihar that attracted next to no attention. He did not visit the family of the deceased and did not chide his minister for dismissing Akhlaq’s death as an “accident”, i.e not a crime. Not surprisingly in most of the publicised cases of vigilantism that have followed, the police has booked the victims for breaking the ban on beef and not the vigilantes. Akhlaq’s family has not been spared either.

Modi broke his silence and condemned the cow vigilantes unequivocally only after the Una video went viral on Youtube. He did so because the victims in it were not Muslims but Dalits, who make up a seventh of India’s population and because the incident had aroused a wave of anger in the Dalits of Gujarat, that was threatening the BJP’s base in Modi’s home state.

“Criminals have turned cow protection into a business, and have given this noble task a bad name”, he said to a packed hall in Delhi a week after the incident. Two days after that he repeated his charge and said “Shoot me if you must but do not shoot my Dalit brothers”. But in neither speech did he make a single conciliatory gesture towards the principal victims of the vigilantes, the Muslims.

More recent remarks by him and home minister Rajnath Singh show that he has begun to have second thoughts about the utility of cow vigilantism. Instead of mobilising Hindus behind the BJP, it is causing a consolidation of lower caste Hindu and Muslim opinion against the government, which could cost it dearly in two important state assembly elections next year.

But his disapproval has come far too late to mend the tears the vigilantes have made in the social fabric of the country. The genie of communalism is out of the bottle and the country will have to live with it.