AIJAZ ZAKA SYED | Caravan Daily
Modi is seldom known to lose his cool. Indeed, this one quality, the unruffled serenity in the face of multiple storms, often has the combined opposition and pundits all worked up but to little effect. So if the Prime Minister has lost his famous composure, there must be a good reason for it — and there is.
Addressing his first US-style town hall meeting in New Delhi this week, Modi blasted the raging vigilantism in the name of cow, saying he feels “infuriated at some people who have opened shops in the name of cow protection.” He condemned the cow vigilantes as people “who commit anti-social activities through the night, don the mantle of cow protectors by the day.”
In his first public denouncement of the vigilantes perpetrating brutalities in the name of cow protection, Modi advised the state governments to go after “such self-proclaimed volunteers and big cow protectors.”
Commenting on Modi’s rare outburst, India’s legendary former top cop Julio Ribeiro wrote in Indian Express that he has never seen the prime minister so angry. And clearly it is not an act and characteristic doublespeak that Hindutva has mastered. The PM appears genuinely furious.
So what makes Modi angry? After all, what the self-anointed cow protectors have been doing across the country in the name of Hindu sentiments is not something entirely new and has always enjoyed the blessings of the Sangh Parivar. Indeed, these elements form the critical support base of Hindutva.
This week, Reuters quoted a senior Modi aide as saying that while the leader is aware of the social and economic implications (of cow vigilantism), “we cannot do much to stop cow protection forces…cow protection is integral to our core support base.”
As Ribeiro points out, Modi himself has long been a champion of the protection of the cow, probably to harvest the votes of devout Hindus.
Who can forget his fiery speeches in the run up to the 2014 Elections, attacking the ruling Congress and accusing it of leading a “pink revolution” in the country with its alleged support to beef trade and ‘cow killers’. (It’s a different matter altogether that some of India’s biggest beef exporters — by the way under this government the country has become the world’s largest beef exporter! — happen to be Hindu.)
To quote an Indian Express editorial, “Bigotry and blackmail, lumpenism and violence in the name of the cow have picked up pace ever since the Modi government came to power in 2014 armed with a huge mandate.”
Last year, Mohammad Akhlaq, a 52-year old ironsmith and father of a young Indian Air Force engineer was dragged out of his home and beaten to death by a mob in Dadri, barely 30 kilometers from the seat of power in Delhi, accusing him of eating beef.
The mob was led by the local BJP leadership. We are yet to hear the ruling party condemn the killers of Akhlaq and others like him who have subsequently been targeted. Indeed, as absurd as it sounds, instead of going after Akhlaq’s killers, UP police have registered a case against his family for cow killing! Evidently, in the words of Sandip Roy, the state is more concerned about what Mohammed Akhlaq was eating, rather than who killed Mohammed Akhlaq!
So what has changed? Why is the ruling BJP and its leadership all agitated now? Clearly, when the Sangh unleashed its hunting dogs, they were meant to target the easy prey, that is, India’s silently suffering, voiceless Muslims. That they may turn on the Dalits, the dispossessed of low birth who have for centuries been the victims of discrimination, oppression and worse at the hands of upper caste Hindus, next was something that the Parivar did not see coming.
As noted in my recent piece on the issue, (Dalits, Muslims and the Holy Cow) Hindutva has been assiduously trying to woo and cultivate the Dalits, cleverly portraying them as the ‘defenders’ of Hindu society. Indeed, the Right has successfully and repeatedly used the Dalits in successive communal riots and pogroms, including in Gujarat 2002, against Muslims.
The Dalits are also critically important from BJP’s electoral perspective. Unlike the politically and economically irrelevant Muslims, the empowered and informed Dalits could make and break governments in states with huge stakes like Uttar Pradesh (with a population of more than 204 million — three times the size of France) and Punjab and Gujarat.
All three battleground states go to polls next year. And what happened recently in Una in ‘vibrant’ Gujarat, the prime minister’s home state, in full view of the world may have cost the BJP the election and power in these states.
The recent merciless whipping of four Dalit men — shirtless and chained to the bumper of a truck like animals – with iron rods in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow has the underprivileged community across India up in arms. And they cannot wait to teach the BJP and the Parivar it represents a lesson in the upcoming elections, especially in Gujarat and UP.
The unprecedented rally on July 31 saw tens of thousands of Dalits – at least 30 Dalit groups supported the call — storm Ahmedabad in Gujarat, putting the BJP government in the state and in Delhi on notice. And it was as much the power of strident Dalit voices as it was the growing panic in the saffron camp that the day after the Ahmedabad rally Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel, who was picked up as his successor by Modi himself, was forced to quit.
There is disquiet and palpable panic in the BJP ranks in UP as well where it was hoping for a cake walk in 2017, given the increasing unpopularity of Samajwadi Party government and the clean sweep that the saffron party had made in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
No wonder Prime Minister Modi is beside himself with rage at fellow travelers of the cow brigade who seem hell-bent on spoiling his party.
So welcome as the Prime Minister’s belated rebuke to the cow vigilantes is, it is far from reassuring and does not inspire excessive confidence. His outrage unfortunately remains selective and is not motivated by a sincere concern for the wellbeing and security of all Indians but the deepening anxiety about the fast disappearing Dalit votes.
While this fury over the atrocities against Dalits is heartening, one wonders why we did not see the same anger at the brutal lynching of Akhlaq and other Muslims. Of course, Dalit lives matter. But shouldn’t Muslim lives matter too? Is it because Dalit votes count and Muslim ones do not for the BJP?
If this government genuinely cared for all Indians and their wellbeing, it would have swiftly dealt with the killers of Akhlaq and cracked down on all those who have been running a reign of terror in the country in the name of cow and other holy excuses and absurdities.
In any case, the physical violence by the cow brigade is only the visible part of it. The silent war that Hindutva has unleashed on the Indian constitution and the idea of an inclusive and tolerant India is far more dangerous and damaging than what the so-called defenders of cow have visited.
What will it take for this government to see that its facile electoral slogan of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (Progress for all) is possible only when all Indians – Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians and Sikhs — are safe and at peace with one another. There’s no progress without peace.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is an award winning journalist and commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs. He tweets @aijazzakasyed and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org