Nearly 11 months after a mob lynched Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh on suspicion of having killed a cow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finally broken his silence on the violence that ‘gau rakshaks’ – ‘cow protectors’ – have unleashed in different parts of the country.
“I feel really angry at the way some people have opened shops in the name of cow protection. I have seen that some people commit anti-social activities through the night, but act as cow protectors by day”, the prime minister told an audience at a ‘town hall’ style interaction with an invited audience in Delhi on Saturday.
While Modi was careful not to refer to any one incident in particular, the trigger for his remarks appears to be the recent shocker in Una, Gujarat, where a group of Dalit men were brutally flogged by upper caste vigilantes for skinning a dead cow. A video recording has relayed the crime to every home across the country, to devastating effect. It has stoked Dalit anger and upset efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party to attract Dalit votes in the run up to crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
True to form, Modi stopped short of saying that the vigilantes ought to be prosecuted and punished, instead urging state government to prepare “dossiers” on these “cow protectors” and keep them under control. “It will be found that 70 to 80% are people who commit the kind of bad deeds which society does not accept. To hide their bad activities, they don the mantle of cow protectors,” he said.
Volunteer organisations, said Modi – using the word ‘swayamsevak‘ for volunteer – are not meant to “terrorise and brutalise people” and should concentrate instead on social work. More cows died from consuming plastic than from slaughter, he said, adding that those who want to serve the animal should work towards stopping cows from eating plastic.
The point he made is an important one, so important, in fact, that one wonders why he has never made it before.
The documentary Plastic Cow, made in 2012 by Kunal Vohra for the Karuna Society for Animals and Nature has captured in graphic detail the horrible fate that cows in India are condemned to once they stop producing milk. “The recent comments of politicians and others in TV debates and newspaper reports on the need to protect the cow in India make me laugh at their hypocrisy. It is the poor animal that has become a pawn in these discussions. The biggest loser on the issue is the animal; nobody seems to really care,” Rukmini Shekhar, associated with the documentary, told my colleague Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty last year when The Wire wrote about Plastic Cow.
Now, Modi has delivered several fiery speeches since 2014 on how slaughter for meat is a major threat to cows in India. He attacked the Congress during the Lok Sabha election campaign for introducing a ‘pink revolution’ in India based on cow slaughter. He raised the beef issue again during the October 2015 election campaign in Bihar, and the BJP took out newspaper advertisements in that state on the eve of polling to urge voters to back the party if they wanted to save cows from slaughter.
I don’t recall any speech Modi made at a rally on the threat plastic poses to cows. Indeed, a Google search produces no examples of statements by Modi – before his ‘town hall’ on Saturday, that is – about the need to save cows from eating plastic.
Speaking about his own work in the service of cow, the prime minister claimed that at a camp he had organised for bovines, “at least two buckets full of plastic were removed from the stomach of one of them.”
Modi did not say when and where he had organised this camp but his description of the amount of plastic removed from a cow sounds suspiciously similar to the surgery shown in the Plastic Cow documentary film.
Be that as it may, if today Modi is upset that cow protectors want to save cows from slaughter and not from plastic, he has only his own toxic words to blame. Go online and read his speeches. You will find him speaking darkly about a ‘pink revolution’ and not a plastic one. The reason is obvious. When you talk about cow slaughter, you are polarising the electorate on religious lines. Talking about the dangers of plastic is not so useful when the idea is to divide and rule.
What the BJP’s priorities are
Vigilantes also have a way of picking up signals from the laws that Modi and his colleagues have passed on cow slaughter. No law has even been considered by Modi and the BJP to help protect cows from plastic. A 2012 PIL by the Karuna Society to ban plastic bags and save the cow was finally disposed by the Supreme Court last month. Accepting that the situation is ‘very alarming’, the court directed the central and state governments to consider banning the use, sale and disposal of plastic bags. Till now, there is no sign the Modi government is prepared to act.
Since the BJP came to power in the Centre and in states like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, not only have party-run governments tightened laws against cow slaughter but senior leaders have often used the beef issue as an emotive political tool without being censured by the prime minister.
Apart from Akhlaq, several Muslims have been murdered or attacked by cow vigilantes, including a man and boy in Jharkhand, and a Kashmiri truck driver near Udhampur. On none of these occasions did Modi make a public statement condemning the violence. Indeed, senior BJP leaders, including Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma, the chief ministers of Jharkhand and Haryana, minister of state Sanjeev Baliyan and others, have either soft-pedaled these crimes or provided oblique justifications for them.
However, ever since the vigilantism of the ‘gau rakshaks’ started affecting the Dalits – who are an important voting group that the BJP hopes to tap in the upcoming elections – Modi and his advisors have moved to limit the political fallout from their campaigning over the beef issue. The sacking of Anandiben Patel as chief minister of Gujarat was the first indication of damage control; though her exit was the product of internal wrangling within the BJP, the timing was such that Dalits could be told the the CM was being punished for the Una incident.
Modi’s angry comments are a desperate attempt to placate Dalits and send a message to the vigilante groups – whose ‘anti-social’ foot-soldiers are drawn from the same political eco-system that the sangh parivar inhabits – that they should be more careful about their actions lest they end up hurting the BJP politically.
After his ‘town hall’ event, Modi took to Twitter to say: “The sacred practice of cow worship & the compassion of Gau Seva can’t be misused by some miscreants posing as Gau Rakshaks… There is absolutely no need for anyone to take the law in his or her hands & disturb the spirit of harmony & togetherness.”
In June, Baliyan, who is a member of Modi’s council of ministers, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath and BJP MLA Sangeet Som batted for the killers of Akhlaq by demanding action against the dead man’s family for the ‘crime’ of eating beef. “A cow weighs nothing less than 150 kg and one person alone cannot consume it. There should be a probe into what happened and who were involved in the crime,” said Baliyan.
The prime minister did not say or do anything to condemn them for their endorsement of vigilantism. And today, when the worst that thugs who attack Dalits have to fear is to be part of a “dossier”, I don’t expect the lumpens who’ve been baiting Muslims in the name of the cow to feel the least bit unnerved.
Note: The article has been edited to include details of the July 2016 Supreme Court judgment on the need to ban plastic bags