Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre in the summer of 2014, cow vigilante groups have displayed remarkable boldness in terrorizing Muslims and Dalits, without any fear of the law.
The "gau rakshaks" in Gujarat, who beat up four Dalit men within an inch of their lives on July 11, had the audacity to upload a video of the beatings as a warning to potential cow killers. Not only did they beat up four Dalit men who had skinned a dead cow for their leather tanning work, but they tied them to the back of their SUV like some roadkill, and dumped them at the police station in Una.
In many cases, such as this most recent episode in Gujarat, these vigilantes do nothing to protect cows, and their actions appear to be little more than an excuse for violence. As historian and author of The Myth of the Holy Cow, D.N. Jha, put it in an interview with HuffPost India: "How will these jokers protect a dead cow?"
The protests in Gujarat over the brutal assault on the Dalit boys is the first backlash against the brazen reign of cow vigilantes, which the BJP, in power at the Centre as well as the state, is facing. And this could be the spark for a huge counteraction against its cow protection agenda, which is antithetical to the economic interest, livelihood and dietary patterns of several communities across the country.
What drives this radical cow protection agenda isn't quite clear because historians have refuted its roots in ancient religious practices. In his autobiography, Verghese Kurien, known as the "Milkman of India" and the father of the White Revolution, revealed that M.S. Golwalkar, who led the RSS for over three decades, championed cow protection only to "embarrass the government".
Jha, who has written about Vedic Aryans sacrificing the cow in religious sacrifices and eating its flesh, told HuffPost India that growing violence in the name of cow protection is a "major problem" which will end in a blowback.
"A social revolution can take place," he said.
There is no question that cow protection has sparked tensions and even led to horrific violence before the BJP came to power, but observers have pointed out that the frequency of the attacks has increased over the past two years, and so has the brazenness with which these acts are committed.
What happened in Gujarat came a few weeks after two Muslim men, who were allegedly transporting beef across BJP-ruled Haryana were made to eat cow dung mixed with urine as a punishment by another vigilante group. The police did not act against these men until the horrific episode was brought to light by the media. In March, two cattle traders were beaten and hanged from a tree in BJP-ruled Jharkhand.
It isn't just Dalits and Muslims who live in fear of cow vigilantes whose antics are becoming nuisance for people across social backgrounds.
Puran Singh from Rajasthan, for instance, decided against traveling to Punjab to compete for Rs.1 crore at the Eighth National Livestock Championship because he was afraid that his vehicle and cow could come under attack from a vigilante cow protection group.
"I would not prefer not to risk my limbs and my cow," he said.
The reason why these "gau rakshaks" feel no fear in humiliating and beating Dalits and Muslims, and even resorting to murder in the name of cow protection, is because they believe that they are carrying out the Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP and its ideological fellow travelers including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
So while they may be breaking the law, cow vigilantes do so with impunity because they are emboldened by a sense of security that their political masters have their backs. What could be more telling than the fact that Mohammad Akhlaq's family is now at the receiving end of an investigation on the charge of cow slaughter, a cause championed by local BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh, or the fact that Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has assured gau rakshaks that his government will withdraw all cases against them.
It was only after Dalits took to the streets to express their pain and anger, did Prime Minister Narendra Modi say, through Home Minister Rajnath SIngh, that he is "very upset" over the attack on the four boys from their community, and it took ten days for the BJP government in Gujarat to realize the seriousness of the situation.
"What is this nonsense. There are very strict laws to protect Dalits against atrocities. Where is the political will to stop these gau rakshaks," said P.L. Mimroth, a lawyer who works with the Rajasthan-based Centre for Dalit Rights.
Mimroth believes that cow protection is only an excuse for the RSS to establish the status quo of the caste system, and ensure that Dalits "remain landless and to do all unclean jobs."
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