Holy Cow and the Unholy Politics of Caste


Holy Cow and the Unholy Politics of Caste

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré


s Dalits in Gujarat express their rage at recent atrocities and the State’s indifferent response to them by leaving cow carcasses to

rot by the roadside, I am reminded of “The Cull”, a short story by the Marathi Dalit writer Amitabh. Written in the social realism style, the story documents the extreme alienation and despair of the Mahars in a typical Maharashtrian village. It begins with the news that the temple cow has died, which spreads through the Dalit basti like wildfire. The entire community leaps into action, grabbing their knives, pots, and rags and marching to grab their “rightful share” of the no-longer-holy corpse. In language reminiscent of tales of wartime glory, they attack the carcass in a bloody frenzy as jackals, crows, and other carrion-eaters wait on the sidelines.

It’s a heartbreaking tale, but Amitabh’s decision to make the deceased bovine the “temple cow” is an inspired one. It shines a light on the diametrically opposite relationship that caste Hindus and Dalits have with the country’s most politicised herbivore. In life, the cow is a symbol of piety and spiritualism, a realm which is off-limits to the village’s Mahars. In death though, caste Hindus think of it as profane, refusing even to bury it. But for the Mahars it becomes a means of survival, offering up its meat, skin, and hooves for the Dalits’ sustenance and livelihood.

So much of the Hindu caste system’s hierarchies of oppression and slavery can be mapped onto the carcass of a dead cow. Embodied in this one corpse are all the hypocrisies and circular logic of purity and karma that have enslaved the Dalits for millennia. It is a reminder of the level of debasement that Hindu society expects, and indeed forces on, its outcastes. And despite – or maybe because of – all this symbolic baggage, it is also one of the few avenues for food and work left open to them. Relationship status: It’s complicated.

This relationship is largely ignored in our recent debates about India’s increasingly violent cattle politics, especially by gau rakshaks and their political bosses. As it turns out, that might be a costly mistake, one that undermines the whole Hindutva project of drafting India’s millions of Dalits into their consolidated “Hindu vote”. The Una incident, and the massive protests it has sparked off, exposed the massive fault line that the Hindu right has been trying to paper over with its attempts to appropriate Ambedkar. The rotting smell on the streets of Gujarat should serve as a reminder – it’s not going to be that easy, boys.

The brilliantly disruptive move of refusing to scavenge has left hundreds of dead cows rotting across the state, especially in the Saurashtra region. Other protesters have been bringing in truckloads of carcasses and dumping them in front of government offices. According to one report, when government officials offered ₹200 per carcass in order to get the Dalits to start scavenging again, they received a cheeky counter-offer – ₹500 to each government officer who removes a carcass. I can imagine the fear and horror going through the minds of India’s bureaucracy and political class, as they contemplate the possibility of disenfranchised Dalits in other parts of the country picking up on this idea. The stench of casteism made corporeal, the hypocrisy of cow-worship and caste purity reflected in the sight and smell of rotting meat. The Situationists would have been so proud.

A second wave of Dalit militancy, at a time when Dalits are increasingly assertive and angry, could bring down the whole rotten, casteist edifice of Indian democracy.

But the more worrying factor for India’s political parties is the fact that this isn’t just a reaction to a one-off incident. Frustration among Dalits in India has been building for years. Crimes have been on the rise, showing an increase of more than 44 per cent from 2010 to 2014. In Gujarat, crimes against SCs and STs jumped by an incredible 163 per cent in 2015. The conviction rate for Dalit atrocity cases is an abysmal 5 per cent and falling.

The long litany of atrocities includes the Khairlanji massacre of 2006, Mirchpur in 2010, Bhagana in 2014, and Rohith Vemula’s suicide in January this year. Add to that a public discourse that promotes casual casteism under the euphemism of “merit” and heavy-handed state action against even slightly radical Dalit activists and intellectuals such as Kabir Kala Manch, and you have a powder keg that should have exploded long ago.

The Dalit political leadership, with a few exceptions, has been too busy forming splinter groups and scrambling to get ministerial seats to take up the fight, adding to the sense of anger and betrayal among Dalit masses. They see through the BJP’s naked efforts to appropriate Ambedkar while continuing to attack his legacy. And while the BJP might be the immediate loser here, with the UP elections looming in sight, this anger is not limited to a single target.

The Congress was the ruling party when most of these atrocities occurred, and has spent a lot of time and effort co-opting or neutralising any possibly effective Dalit politician. The CPM, for all of Sitaram Yechury’s high-minded rhetoric about this government’s casteism, has no Dalit politburo member (and was responsible the massacre of thousands of largely Dalit Bangladeshi refugees at Marichjhapi in 1979). The AAP’s politics-by-RWA has little space for an effective engagement with caste. There is a lot of resentment and disillusionment with the political class at large, fuelled by seven decades of betrayals. No amount of lip service to Ambedkar is going to make that go away.

For the Dalits of Gujarat, at least, Una was the last straw. This new Dalit uprising has seen echoes in Mumbai, where an estimated one lakh Dalits braved the rains last week to protest the demolition of the historic Ambedkar Bhavan and express their dissatisfaction with newly inducted NDA minister Ramadas Athavale, former IAS officer Ratnakar Gaikwad, and the BJP government in the state. The protest cut across organisational lines with even ally Shiv Sena taking part. And the sight of bête noire Kanhaiya Kumar leading this sea of people with chants of “Azaadi” will certainly give the BJP leadership sleepless nights. The party’s massive Dalit outreach programme now lies in tatters, even as the Left and the usually fractured Dalit parties are starting to unite in opposition.

The BJP and other mainstream parties ignore this uprising at their own peril. For a reminder of the risks, one only needs to look back to the last time such a long string of caste atrocities went ignored – the 1970s. Back then, the disillusionment with the government and the Dalit leadership led to the rise of the militant Dalit Panthers, whose street-fighting tactics and powerful rhetoric shook the political establishment. The movement was snuffed out by in-fighting and the imposition of the Emergency.

A second wave of Dalit militancy, at a time when Dalits are increasingly assertive and angry, could bring down the whole rotten, casteist edifice of Indian democracy. To quote the epigraph from a poem by Marathi poet and Dalit Panther Namdeo Dhasal, “Equality For All Or Death To India.” The warning signs are there. The political class needs to pay heed, or take responsibility for the consequences.