Cow vigilantism is at its peak and Dalits and Muslims are the main targets of the soi-disant cow protectors. Pawan Pandit, born in Haryana’s Bhiwani town is a software engineer by education. When questioned about his organization, Pandit does not hesitate to speak about it. The chairman of a group called Bharatiya Gau Rakshak Dal(BGRD), Pandit claims that there are 6000 full-time members consisting of mostly Brahmin men and functions across India, majorly in parts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat. It is an uphill task to keep a count of all the BGRD volunteers. A member may be a writer, businessman, shopkeeper, film artist or software engineer like Pandit himself but what ties them in unity is the fact that they all hold the same belief of carrying out the duty to protect cows.
However, the term Gau Raksha (cow protection) has found its way into the glossary of Indian politics and the self-named ‘gau rakshaks’ (cow protectors) have managed to become media’s center of attraction since the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre in May 2014.
The district of Una in Gujarat witnessed an unusual mobilisation of Dalits over protests regarding the inhuman scourging of a family of tannery workers by self-appointed gau rakshaks for allegedly skinning a dead cow. On July 11, seven men were stripped to the waist, tied to an SUV and taken to a nearby town and beaten with iron rods for four continuous hours as a sign of warning. The assaulters uploaded a video of the entire incident on social media which sparked outrage and compelled the state government to make a few arrests as a sign of the strong position of the state machinery. Hindutva which propagates the ideal of protecting cows, namely the VHP and Shiv Sena, whose banner was carried by that particular vehicle, said they had no association with the wrongdoers and this whole affair was condemned by the RSS.
But it is futile to perceive the Una incident as an isolated event cut off from the narrative of the cow politics. BJP-ruled states of Maharashtra and Haryana have banned the import of beef and political leaders have converted cow protection into a political campaign. Public lynching of cattle traders, particularly cows, mostly Muslims, have been reported from Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Haryana and U.P. The Hindu reported on 22 July, that in Gujarat alone, as many as 200 cow vigilante groups had sprung up.
But such vigilantism took a cataclysmic turn when it all started with the lynching of a 52-year-old Muslim man in the village of Bisara near Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. A violent mob stormed their house on the night of September 28, 2015 and lynched Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi for alleged possession and consumption of beef. Since then the gau rakshaks became frequent occupants of news headlines since that episode.
In March, Gurgaon alone witnessed eight cases against these self-styled cow protectors. In a video which went viral in June, showed few members of a group called the Gau Rakshak Dal in Gurgaon forcing two men to eat an amalgamation of cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee and curd, because they were transporting beef. Again, in Madhya Pradesh, a mob slapped, punched and mishandled two women, on the suspicion that they were carrying beef. Five days after the Una attack, a Bajrang Dal group of 50-odd people, victimised a Dalit family in Karnataka for consumption of beef.
That Dalits and Muslims were the targets of these vigilantes was conspicuous. Mayawati, leader of the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party, raised the issue in Parliament and left no gap to seize the opportunity of lashing at the BJP for its superficial bovine politics.
Going back to 1927, in order to abolish untouchability, Gandhiji advised Dalits to incorporate upper caste practices and give up “serious defects” such as beef eating, adultery and uncleanliness. BR Ambedkar realised this partisanship and held beef-eating as the root cause of untouchability.
In 1991, the rise of Hindutva politics degraded the scenario since the idea of cow protection was set in stone as a number of states drafted laws to criminalise cow slaughter. For instance, Gujarat government, under then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, passed a draconian law of seven years of imprisonment for cow slaughter.
In the wake of such atrocities, social activist Tehseen Poonawalla, has moved the Supreme Court seeking ban on such gau rakshak dals and directions to the Centre and state governments in adopting measures against such nefarious activities against Dalits and minorities on the pretext of cow protection.
The situation in the country can be compared to a boiling cauldron, especially in cases of violence against minority, which is a very sensitive issue. Not only that, the nation has never seen such a reaction from the Dalit community against the violence that they have been facing. Such an uproar may create a stir in the functioning of a democracy and so it will not be wrong to state the possibility of more protests coming in the ruling government’s way.