Church & State

Struggle for Dalit rights in the Shadow of political Hinduism

News reports feature Dalits being attacked in different parts of India nearly every day and against this backdrop the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi, called upon his party to work towards attracting Dalits and Tribals towards ruling party, BJP.

Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is the Hindu right-wing political party and an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body advocating for a Hindu Nation.

Prime Minister Modi addressed a meeting in Delhi, of the core group of BJP leaders from 29 states of India and seven union territories. “The nationalists are with us, we need to bring Dalits and backwards,” PM Modi said.

In the backdrop of his statement, the media again reported an attack on two Dalit men on 22 August 2016 in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, by a group of ‘cow vigilantes’. The vigilantes were angry that the two Dalit men refused to dispose of the carcass of a calf. There have been many other incidents of this kind.  Two days earlier, media had reported that two men in the Ahmedabad district of Gujarat beat up a 15-year-old Dalit boy. The men were outraged that the father of the boy had refused to dispose of cattle carcasses in the village.

On the other hand,  Congress leaders from Gujarat submitted a memorandum to President Pranab Mukherjee this week raising the issue of atrocities against Dalits.They accused Prime Minister Modi of turning a “blind eye towards the suffering of Dalits” in his home state of Gujarat.

The Dalit attack and cow vigilantism controversy

Dalit Una Flogging Victims
Four Dalit Victims of the Una Flogging

Recent political discourse in India has been rife with the issue of violence against Dalits since the “Una floggings” came to national attention. Four members of a Dalit family were publicly flogged by a group of “cow-vigilantes” on 11 July 2016 at Una, District Gir Somnath, in Gujarat state of India. The “cow-vigilantes” alleged that the Dalits had killed the cow. Police reports later confirmed that the cow was killed by a lion and that the Dalit family was merely assisting the owner of the cow in disposing of its carcass –  a traditional work handled

by the Dalits for centuries.

Dalits are considered outside of the preview of the Caste system and were considered untouchables by the higher castes. They do not have a right to property and hacw to sustain themselves by eating leftover food disposed of by the higher castes. The untouchables do not have the right to enter temples or to use common wells; they are not entitled to education or knowledge and spend their lives doing menial work benefitting the upper castes. These practices have continued for centuries. When Independence was declared, India outlawed untouchability but it continues to be rampant.

The term Dalit is a self-designation, and means, “crushed or broken”. It is claimed that Jyotirao Phule, the great Indian social reformer, first used the term in the nineteenth century.

The Una flogging of the Dalit family resulted in a massive protests with Dalits refusing to dispose of carcasses of dead cows. Crowds of Dalits brought carcasses of dead cows and dumped them in front of government offices to protest the violence against Dalits. Protests soon followed in Gujarat state and elsewhere in India. Opposition parties got involved in the protests and questioned the state governments and the central government led by Prime Minister

Dalits begin Asmita Yatra in Gujarat - Business-Standard
The Asmita Yatra

Narendra Modi.

Many thousands supported the 10-day Dalit Asmita Yatra (Dalit Pride March), which began on August 4, 2016 from Ahmedabad and culminated in a massive rally at Una on August 15, 2016. Muslims and many Dalit activists joined the 400 kilometer historic Yatra.  At the rally on August 15, thousands of Dalits vowed that they would never dispose of dead cattle again or indulge in sanitation work, which is traditionally considered the job of untouchables by the higher castes.

“Though the church in India did not officially join the Una protest March, Dalit Christians were quite a part of it,” says Dr. John Dayal

Dalit Yatra at Una
Dalit Yatra at Una

, spokesperson of the United Christian Forum, Member of the National Integration Council and Co-Founder and former Secretary General of the AICC.

 

“Article 341(3) of the Indian constitution, effectively disenfranchised Dalit Christians from all affirmative action by the government,” he told Global Christian News.

 

Cow Vigilantism

‘Cow Vigilantes’ have been in the news since the Narendra Modi led NDA government came to power in May 2014.  Cow Vigilantes or Gau Rakshak’s as they are known in Hindi, have been known to attack people on the suspicion of cow slaughter. They are often armed and violent and Muslims and lately Dalits have regularly been the target of these cow vigilantes.

Dr. John Dayal declared: “Dara Singh, the murderer of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his young sons Timothy and Philips, was a “Gau rakshak” or cow protector who had unleashed a reign of terror against Muslim cattle traders and Christian Dalits and Tribals in Odisha in the 1990s.”

States like Maharashtra seem to have legitimized cow vigilantism. The Indian Express, a national daily reported that since May 2016 when the State Government of Maharashtra issued a call for volunteers “engaged in animal welfare activities on religious grounds” to apply for “honorary” non-salaried position of welfare officers to serve as “eyes to monitor the beef ban” imposed in 2015, 2388 applications have been received for the positon.

Last September a Hindu mob killed Mohammad Akhlaq, a 52-year-old Muslim man, after it was announced from the local temple that Akhlaq’s family had killed a cow and consumed its meat. Akhlaq’s son Danish, aged 22 was seriously injured by the same mob. In the days that followed, leaders from the BJP, Mr. Modi’s party and the political wing of the RSS, issued sectarian and divisive speeches, demanding action against Akhlaq’s family for consuming beef.

In January, a Muslim couple was attacked by cow protection groups at Harda district in Madhya Pradesh, alleging that the couple was carrying beef.

In March 2016, two Muslim traders were hanged after being beaten to death by cow vigilantes. Media later reported that a Hindu seer, Archarya Gopal Maniji Maharaj, had fomented hatred against cow traders with his followers exhorting people to hang beef-eaters.

In March 2016, four Kashmiri students were beaten up at the Mewar University in Rajasthan because of the suspicion that they were cooking beef in their hostel room. The students were arrested after they had been beaten up while the meat was sent for forensic examination. After the forensic examination ruled that the meat was not beef, the students were released.

In July 2016, cow vigilantes in Madhya Pradesh, attacked two Muslim women in the presence of the police who did little to protect the women. The cow protectors were alleging that the women were carrying beef.

In all the above-mentioned incidents and many like it, the Prime Minister maintained a resounding silence, refusing to comment on Muslims being targeted by cow vigilantes. Political parties and many social activists criticized and accused the government and the Prime Minister of encouraging such vigilante groups through their silence on the issue.

Speaking about the atrocities on the Dalits, Dayal told GCN, “The “beef laws” have been enlarged both in their provisions for punishment and in covering new states after the BJP government took office in New Delhi. It is obvious that they target Muslims and Christians, who are also the object of a continuous and virulent campaign of calumny that incites violence against both these religious groups, which are called alien invaders of mother India and proselytizers. Among those lynched for consuming beef or allegedly killing cows are Muslims and Dalits.”

 

PM Finally Speaks

The increased rates of attacks on Dalits, however finally forced the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to issue a strong statement against Cow Vigilantes. On 6 August 2016, in his first town hall address, Mr. Modi condemned the actions of the cow vigilantes saying that, “most of them were anti-social elements masquerading as gau rakshaks (cow protectors).”

Mr Modi has been accused of using ‘cow slaughter’ as an election issue during his campaign in late 2013 and early 2014, as he rallied crowds against what he called a “Pink revolution” referring to an image of bloody cow slaughter. Modi’s emotional speeches against cow slaughter still remain popular on social media.

Government response

Even as the Prime Minster criticized the targeting of Dalits by so called Cow Vigilantes, the Indian Home Minister Mr. Rajnath Singh sought to downplay an increase of violence against Dalits under the NDA government by reading out statistics in the Indian Parliament on 11 August 2016 during a Parliamentary debate on the issue. The opposition led by the Congress lashed out at the Government, as leaders from the Congress and Leftist parties staged a walkout.

Rajnath Singh who made a calm and peaceful speech at the end of a rather heated debate, presented data between 2013 and 2015 and blamed a “distorted mindset” implying that the issue of violence against Dalits was being used by political parties towards electoral gain.

While he condemned incidents of violence against Dalits in different parts of the country and demanded that respective State governments take strict action against “some anti-social elements”, he maintained the perception that violence against Dalits has gone up since the present government has come to power; was an “illusion”.

The newly appointed Gujarat Chief Minster Vijay Rupani was even more indiscreet and claimed that the political parties were unnecessarily raising the issue of attacks on Dalits to “defame Modi”.

Though political pressure is building on the BJP government, there are no signs that the political establishment has woken up to the dangers posed by the spate of attacks fuelled by cow vigilantism and prejudice. Dayal in his concluding statement to GCN said, “A near nationwide ban on beef and cow vigilantism by Hindu extremists has totally polarised the countryside resulting in widespread lawlessness. There is a need for concerted and well-coordinated nationwide protest towards which all denominations, independent Churches and human right groups must focus their energies.”