Sunday, August 07, 2016

Cow Calculus: What Modi Stood To Lose By Keeping Silent On 'Gau Rakshaks'


The prime minister deserves praise for criticising cow-protection vigilantes. Now he must walk the talk.

Regardless of whether you endorse the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology, one cannot but appreciate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to belatedly emerge from the cocoon of silence to condemn cow-protection groups.

At an event on Saturday, Modi described gau raksha dal activists as criminals who masquerade as cow-protectionists and run “shops” to extort money from people. It must be remembered that the media often adds the prefix self-proclaimed to the grand designations take by non-state actors – for instance, militants who call themselves generals or commanders.

In his choice of words, therefore, Modi sought to underline the sheer illegitimacy of cow vigilante groups. It should be a message to law enforcing agencies that the cow-protectionists do not have the BJP government’s endorsement; that action should be taken against those who attempt to challenge the state’s monopoly of coercive power – which is indeed the very essence of vigilantism of any kind.

For just too long, Modi had been silent as gau raksha dals across the country ran amok, accosting people on the mere suspicion of carrying or eating beef, beating them severely, even killing a few. These groups patrol highways, extort money from those involved in the cattle trade, at times seizing animals and refusing to return them to the rightful owners.

That all this should be happening even around Delhi conveyed the impression that the Modi government was either tacitly encouraging these criminal actions or had simply lost control over the administrative machinery. It also conveyed the perception that the Modi government was unmindful of the socio-economic consequences of cow vigilantism only because the victims largely happened to be Muslims.

A strong statement
Some of these perceptions have been dispelled by the prime minister’s unequivocal condemnation of cow protection vigilantism. In doing so, Modi has reiterated that no one can invoke the claim of hurt religious sentiments to mete out instant justice or impose their cultural norms on others.

About the latter proposition, though, we cannot still be certain. This is because impositions need not always be extra-legal, but can also be achieved through enactment of patently unjust laws.

For instance, till 2005, the anti-cattle slaughter laws in most states excluded ageing bulls and oxen and, in a few, even cows well past their economic use. However, these exceptions were deleted in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2005, inspiring Haryana and Maharashtra, as soon as the BJP came into power in those states, to follow the Gujarat model.

The new laws have hit the cattle trade hard, as also farmers and dairy owners, whose economic health rests on the ability to sell off animals no longer useful to them. With the trade imperilled because of the hooliganism of the protectionists, the price of cattle has dipped sharply. Cows are now abandoned, to die on their own.

This isn’t to say that devout Hindus who consider the cow holy should forsake their religiosity. But what needs to be questioned is the tendency to forever expand the ambit of religiosity, as the Gujarat anti-cow slaughter certainly does, even at the expense of livelihood of marginalised social groups, such as Dalits and Muslims. To the extent such laws exist, they constitute a cultural imposition on others.

Obviously, in the manner of all politicians, Modi has calculated his gains and losses before criticising the cow-protectionists. After all, they are also Modi supporters and double up as Sangh footsoldiers.

Yet the prime minister’s compulsions to keep them happy was probably offset by the outrage among Dalits over the flogging of four members of their community in the Gujarati town of Una last month as they were skinning dead cow. The outrage spread around India, most crucially in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls next year.

For over two years, Modi has been trying to lure Dalits into the BJP’s fold. Una undermined this strategy overnight, as is evident from the poor response to the yatra that a clutch of Buddhist monks has organised to garner support for Modi in Uttar Pradesh.

Ripples in Uttar Pradesh
Una also consolidated the fractious Dalit subgroups behind Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, reviving her flagging fortunes. Alarmingly for Modi, there are signs of Dalits and Muslims coming together, not only in Gujarat, but also in Uttar Pradesh.

A strong Dalit-Muslim social alliance can become a bulwark against the BJP in western Uttar Pradesh, where, as of now, the party’s most favoured strategy is to communalise and consolidate Hindus against Muslims. Should Dalits become insulated from the attraction of Hindutva, it is indeed debatable whether the BJP can win Uttar Pradesh in 2017 – and Modi the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

From this perspective, it had become imperative for Modi to reach out to Dalits, to provide salve to their hurt pride. He did not have any time to lose – after all, the Dalit-Muslim alliance has yet to take a definite shape or gather momentum. Modi’s belated statement isn an attempt to recover lost ground and to convey the message that the Hindutva idea isn’t intended to benefit only the upper castes.

Nevertheless, in speaking out against cow vigilantism, Modi has taken the risk of alienating Hindutva hotheads, many of whom are members of gau raksha dals and owe allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As such, the hardline Hindu Right has been a tad disappointed with Modi ever since he became prime minister. They had expected a more ferocious response to Pakistan and had hoped that Muslims in India would be truly penned in.

For these hardliners, Modi’s criticism of cow vigilantism would seem a betrayal. But they would also wonder whether Modi is merely playing to the gallery, merely indulging in vote-banks politics before the next round of Assembly elections, or seeking to calm down Gujarat as the state’s new (but inexperienced) chief minister takes the reins of office.

It is possible the cow-protectionists will seek to test Modi’s conviction through a show of greater fervour for vigilantism. Will he come hard against them? Or was his August 6 speech an exercise in gimmickry? Once they have their answer, the cow-protectionists will chart out their next step.

From the prime minister’s perspective, he cannot but come down hard on them. Otherwise his authority will stand diminished. He will have to act at the risk of incurring the wrath of the belligerent among the Hindu Right – but without the certainty of having won new supporters. Does Modi have it in him to play such a high-stakes game?

RSS position
Much will depend on the RSS’s position on the vigilantism of cow-protectionists. It could try to rein in the Hindutva footsoldiers or counsel them patience. But it isn’t likely to undercut Modi’s authority in any way until the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, accustomed as it too has become to the benefits that accrue from the BJP being in power. Thereafter, though, another story will unfold, in case Modi is unable to win Uttar Pradesh.

It is also possible to see Modi’s criticism of cow vigilantism as an attempt by OBCs, of which he is the most eminent luminary, to dilute the ideology of Brahminical Hinduism. Nor can we tell whether this statement signals an effort to reform or modernise the ideology of Hindutva.

This is because you simply cannot read Modi’s plans on the basis of one statement. However, Modi did speak the reformer’s language when he asked cow worshippers to dissuade people from throwing plastic around. Eating this substance accounts for the death of many cows.

It is also possible Modi spoke against vigilantism because of the compulsions of internal security. Given the mushrooming of cow-protectionist groups and their increasing belligerence, it is indeed a matter of time before those dependent on the cow for their livelihood begin to organise themselves for retaliating against the cow-protectionists.

Obviously, we will have to wait to see whether Modi will or can walk the talk. For the moment, though, it must be said: he has, for a change, measured to the moral standard expected of the prime minister, who is required to uphold rajdharma.

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