For a Nervous and Angry Modi, the Cow Is Now a Political Animal

As prime minister, Narendra Modi must act and not express anger against cow vigilante groups, writes Abheek Barman.

4 min read
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On Saturday, August 6, in a televised address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned gau rakshaks, self-styled ‘cow protectors’. He called them “anti-socials by night and cow-saviours by day” and said no society could condone attacks on Dalits, a target of cow ‘protectors’.

He was presumably referring to the incident in Una, Gujarat, where four Dalits were stripped and flogged by cattle vigilantes on July 11. The video went viral, sparking massive protests by Dalits across India.

On Sunday, August 7, Modi laid into cow vigilantes again in Hyderabad, asking them to “shoot me, not my Dalit brothers.”


PM’s Angst

But will public displays of angst stop attacks against Dalits and Muslims by cow vigilantes? Is Modi, believed to be a near-omnipotent PM, too nervous to act?

The maintenance of law and order – and that includes policing vigilantes – is the responsibility of state governments. New Delhi should, ideally, stay aloof. This has led to some historic blunders.


Rao’s Babri Moment

The biggest was Narasimha Rao’s decision, in late 1992, to do nothing when he knew the Hindutva fraternity was about to demolish the 15th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

In Half Lion, a recent biography of Rao, author Vinay Sitapati says the then PM had been warned by officials like Amar Nath Verma about the threat to the mosque. Colleagues like Arjun Singh told him to impose central rule before the calamity.

Instead, Rao took the false promises of sadhus and sangh bosses seriously. In the end, inaction proved costly. The mosque was razed, Rao’s reputation ruined; Congress never won UP after 1988.

Is Modi equally helpless? Comments and taunts from Sangh Parivar leaders after his outbursts suggest so.

As prime minister, Narendra Modi must act and not express anger against cow vigilante groups, writes Abheek Barman.
BSP President Mayawati meets one of the Dalit victims thrashed by ‘cow vigilantes’ at Una in Gujarat’s Gir-Somnath district, in Ahmedabad, 4 August, 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Sangh Warnings

In Agra, Sunil Parashar, vice-president, cow protection of Uttar Pradesh’s unit of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) said on Monday, “Modi’s statement is an insult to all those who have sacrificed their lives for cow protection.”

Modi tried to contain the damage in Gujarat. After Una, when protests boiled over, he sacked Anandiben Patel as chief minister on August 3. But he could have done more.

On Sunday, Mayawati, leader of UP’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), taunted Modi, saying, “Most of these anti-social elements are only in BJP-ruled states.” She is correct. Here is what data culled from media archives shows.


Cow-Related Attacks

Between October 2015 and August this year, 17 cattle-related attacks were reported from all over India. Only one, a lynching in Himachal Pradesh in October 2015, was in a non-BJP-ruled state.

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). All are ruled by the BJP; 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.


Modi’s Dithering

Unlike Rao, who would have had to dismiss a BJP government in UP in 1992, Modi has his party colleagues in power in the worst-offending states. He could have pulled them up if gau rakshaks weren’t reined in.

Clearly, apart from Anandiben, there is no chief minister who Modi can sack for dereliction of duty. So he chose to rant.

This dither has emboldened people like Munna Kumar Sharma, a leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, one of the many organisations behind systematic cow-vigilantism. On Sunday, Sharma said, “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.”


Cowering In Fear

  • Recent attacks on Dalits have made PM Narendra Modi nervous about the electoral outcome in UP, Punjab and Gujarat.
  • Modi must be mindful of the fact that blunders by the then PM Narasimha Rao in Ayodhya cost the Congress dearly in UP.
  • Most of the cow-related attacks on Dalits and Muslims have occurred in BJP-ruled states.
  • In UP, where Dalits comprise 21 percent of the population, the BJP desperately wants to capture power.
  • But the BSP has now scented power and atrocities on Dalits have given wings to Mayawati’s electoral campaign.
  • In a multi-cornered fight in UP, a party can sweep with less than 30 percent of total votes.

Fear of Dalit Anger

Forget the Lok Sabha elections. Modi’s nervousness stems from his fear about Dalit anger denting the BJP’s prospects in Punjab, UP and Gujarat, where polls are due next year.

In Gujarat, Dalits are 7 percent of the population, relatively small, compared to their near-17 percent share of the pan-India population. But with Patidars (around 14 percent of the population), staunch BJP supporters since the mid-1980s, now up in arms, a BJP walkover is uncertain.

UP is more formidable. The ruling Samajwadi Party (SP), which draws support from Yadavs and Muslims, is on the wane. The BJP desperately wants to capture India’s electorally most significant state, which it last ruled 14 years ago.

The BSP, which furthers the interests of Dalits, upper caste and Muslim voters, has scented power. News of atrocities on Dalits – and Muslims – on the issue of cattle, has given wings to Mayawati’s campaign.


Formidable Force in UP

Dalits comprise 21 percent of UP’s population. In a multi-cornered fight, a party can sweep with less than 30 percent of total votes. In 2012, for example, the SP won 224 seats (of 403) with only 29 percent votes.

Meanwhile, the Sangh’s ‘Hindutva-or-nothing’ brigade is on the rampage. They act with impunity, believing New Delhi will indulge them. Their actions – and the consequent bad press – tarnish Modi’s image at home and overseas. They also scare away potential voters.

To take up Mayawati’s gauntlet, Modi will need to sack chief ministers across many states. This he cannot afford. His image is sandwiched between electoral and political compulsions, and the agenda of the Sangh. This probably makes him nervous. And angry.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached at @AbheekBarman)

Also read:

Gau Raksha, Manuvadi Mindset: BJP’s Recipe for Electoral Disaster
India’s Food Debate Needs to Go Beyond Cow Politics, Tackle Ethics

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