Earlier this month, when Ramdas Athawale was inducted into Narendra Modi's cabinet as the minister of state for social justice and empowerment, it was very clear that the NDA government deemed him as a sort of quick fix for their turbulent relationship with Dalits in the country.
And now, days after Dalits in Gujarat erupted in protest against cow protection groups, Athawale has told The Indian Express during an interview that he wants to ask the 'gau rakshaks' (cow protectors) one question.
"I want to ask gau rakshaks: There is a law against gau hatya (killing of cows), you continue with gau raksha (protection of cows) but why do manav hatya (killing of human beings)? If you do gau raksha, who will do manav raksha (protection of human beings)?"
He also termed the attack on Dalit men doing their job in Una, Gujarat a 'very serious' issue.
The mere induction of Athawale into the cabinet couldn't possibly have the power to dissipate the deep distrust and resentment that a majority of Dalit groups across the country have developed for the government. Rohith Vemula's suicide and the shoddy handling of the protests that followed had soured the relationship between the government and Dalits, almost beyond repair.
That apart, the spiralling attacks on Dalits by cow protection groups and other fringe Hindu right wing groups have made the government look completely unsympathetic to Dalit causes.
Sometime in mid-July, a group of Dalit men were brutally thrashed up by self-appointed cow protection groups in Saurashtra, Gujarat when they were ferrying carcasses of cows.
Days later, protests against cow protection groups and the government's silence on them intensified in Gujarat. Dalits, who are burdened with the job of disposing carcasses, started throwing carcasses in front of government offices, urging 'gau rakshak dals' to clean up.
As the government refrained from issuing a strongly-worded warning to these self appointed cow protection vigilantes, a popular Dalit leader himself, Athawale didn't issue a public statement either. His comment on the issue came only when the newspaper approached him for the interview.
Incidentally, before his induction into the cabinet, Athawale seemed to have been on the opposing side of BJP's politics, following Rohith Vemula's suicide.
NDTV reports: "Mr Athawale courted controversy when he demanded firearms for Dalits for self-defence in the backdrop of suicide by a Dalit research scholar in Hyderabad University."
The government at the Centre has so far treated the issue of cow vigilantes with kid gloves. It remains to be seen of Republican Party of India (RPI) leader's comments prods them into definitive action.