Last weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned self-styled cow ‘protectors’ as “anti-socials by night and cow saviours by day”. A day later Modi told them, “Shoot me, not Dalits.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), parent of the BJP and dozens of Hindu revanchist outfits, has officially backed Modi against ‘gau rakshaks’. But party spokesman Manmohan Vaidya told media that the Prime Minister should not have condemned cow ‘protectors’ in public.
Here is a fundamental contradiction. Since 1966, when a mob of nearly 10,000 tried to storm Parliament demanding a ban on cow slaughter, Sangh organizations made it a plank to set Hindu against Muslim. But massive collateral damage has been taken by Dalits, outside the pale of the varna system. According to Hindu pollution-purity norms, they are the only caste that handles animal carcasses, including cattle.
Dalits are an increasingly assertive political bloc: Mayawati, a Dalit herself, has been chief minister of India’s largest state (Uttar Pradesh) four times, most recently in 2012. The BJP wants Dalit votes, but the Sangh privileges cattle over scheduled castes (SCs).
Since October 2015, a media archive search shows there’s been a spike in attacks by cow vigilantes. Victims are overwhelmingly Dalit or Muslim. Of 18 cattle-related attacks reported between October and August, 16 have taken place in states where the BJP is in power.
Madhya Pradesh, with four reported attacks is the worst offender, followed by Haryana and Punjab (three each), Gujarat and Rajasthan (two each), Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand (one each). In J&K and Punjab, the BJP rules with allies PDP and Akali Dal, respectively. Almost exclusively, victims of these attacks have been Dalit or Muslim.
But everything boiled over on July 11, in Una, Gujarat, where four SC men were stripped and flogged by cattle vigilantes. The perpetrators videotaped the flogging and it went viral, sparking massive protests by Dalits across India. Modi tried to control the damage by sacking Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel on August 3; his public displays of anger came on August 6 and 7. But cow-related attacks haven’t stopped. On Wednesday, August 10, three Dalits were tied to a tree and thrashed in Godavari, Andhra Pradesh.
Munna Kumar Sharma, a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha told TOI recently, “Gau rakshaks will continue doing the good work. Modi will find out how much his remarks will cost him in the next Lok Sabha elections.”
Those elections are slated for 2019. But Modi’s recent remarks of concern about Dalits are an attempt to cut losses before assembly polls in Punjab and UP next year.
At 32% of the population, Punjab is home to the highest SC percentage in India. In 13 of its 21 districts, the Dalit population is higher than the statewide average; 34 of its 117 assembly seats are reserved for SC candidates. In the 2012 elections, Congress polled a little over 40% of total votes; the Akalis, around 35% and the BJP 7%.
With only two percentage points separating the Congress and Akali-BJP, 2017 will be too close to call, even if the Aam Aadmi Party steps in as a strong contender. In six districts, the SC vote can swing outcomes: these include Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar, where Dalits are 42.5% of the population, Muktsar Sahib (42.3%), Firozpur (42%), Jalandhar and Faridkot (39%) and Moga (36.5%).
Uttar Pradesh is an even more formidable challenge. The ruling Samajwadi Party is on the wane. The BJP desperately wants to capture India’s electorally most significant state, which it last ruled 14 years ago. Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, which furthers the interests of Dalits and often combines with upper caste and Muslim concerns, is again a formidable contender. News of atrocities on Dalits — and Muslims — on the issue of cattle, has given wings to her campaign.
Dalits are 21% of UP’s population. This is important, because in a multi-cornered poll fight, a party can sweep with less than 30% of total votes. In 2012, for example, SP won 224 seats (of 403) with only 29% votes.
In several districts, Dalits alone can swing it for Mayawati. These include Sonbhadra, with a 42% Dalit population, Kaushambi (36%), Sitapur (32%), Unnao and Hardoi (31%), Rae Bareli (30%), Jhansi and Auraiya (28%). In 34 of UP’s 70 districts, the Dalit population is higher than their statewide average.
These numbers have forced Modi’s hand-wringing. Yet, on Thursday, when Lok Sabha debated attacks on Dalits, the PM stayed away. Meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad promised to launch a cow agitation in Delhi on November 7, the 50th anniversary of the 1966 cattle movement. How the RSS manages this is its headache. The final arbiter will be the voter.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.