The charge of the cow brigade

The cow rakshak syndrome needs to be analysed and exposed as a threat to Indian democracy

July 25, 2016 08:48 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

One of my friends, who is an anthropologist, argues that the middle class Indian does not need to be psychoanalysed on a couch. “A crowd,” he claims, “is a better method of analysing Indian repressions.” India’s politics of anxiety emerges more at the level of the crowd. “Crowds,” he adds, “are for negative democracy, the public for citizenship.”

For him, the psychology of India unravels at two levels. The first is at the level of the family, and where violence is more patriarchal. The second is at the level of an imaginary Jajmani system — a socio-economic system more predominant in rural areas and of its interaction between the upper and the lower castes. In this caste bundle, there is constant shuffling which provides a sense of order and disorder. But the fact is that what looks like order at one level might be mayhem at the second level. For this he uses the example of the cow and the politics around it which are very much in the news. At the domestic level, the cow is a god and represents something sacred. Simultaneously, it is the embodiment of an agricultural way of life. The cow is Gau Mata representing man’s oneness with nature and is embodied in his totemic relation with the animal.

Now, a symbol of social fissures But this domestic arrangement acquires political overtones. The nature of the symbol, the cow, changes and it soon comes to represent the worst in the caste system. The political battles around the cow soon become deep. Let me put it this way. The cow expresses the social tensions within an agricultural society that is turning urban in its ways. Here, local panchayats disrupt what is normal by becoming vigilantes. Ironically, the cow becomes a symptom of the deep fissures within a society. Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits are fast losing their moorings in agriculture and the cow becomes a source of violence. Ironically the cow, instead of representing the best of agricultural values, embodies the tension between a changing caste system and the ideals of a constitutional India.

As a result, we are soon inundated with images of and reports about social violence. In such moments of change, the Constitution becomes an empty document. Neither the rule of law nor law and order is maintained. Vigilante groups play kangaroo courts while the rest of the nation can only watch. It is this sociology of violence that we must confront.

One thing is clear. The Government of India is blissfully deep in slumber as this process plays out. As victims protest the violence, the regime plays a game of being indifferent. I must add that I am not reporting one singular event but a cascade of events. As the urban social landscape flares up, one even begins wondering whether the much talked about smart cities of the future will have a civic place for the cow, even as imagination. Given the nature of Twitter and the Internet, every act soon goes viral. Events in even the remotest corners of the country soon become a global spectacle. They become a part of the ecology of everyday memory and are difficult to shrug off.

It is not as if these “cow protection” groups protect the cow. They are not like the Jain goshalas where there is deep respect for animal life and cattle are given shelter. These groups see little connection between the cow and the future of agriculture. In fact, the cow, which is an icon, honoured in festivals, and considered as a totem, becomes a symbol that leads to irrational violence. The high caste Hindu, instead of seeking harmony between nature and culture in which the cow is cosmologically represented, now brutally disrupts both.

Minorities at the receiving end Consider a typical scene that went viral. Four men were stripped, tied to a car and beaten by a high caste group. The brutality of the scene is stark. What added to the brutality was the piety of the gau rakshak pretending he was protecting the ideals of a fading society. Yet it is not as if the gau rakshak understands the Jajmani system or the political economy of a society where lower castes carry away carcasses, playing a scavenging role that keeps other castes pure. The four Dalits were taking away a dead cow to be skinned. This has been a part of tradition, yet the gau rakshak is illiterate about social functions. Worse, these vigilante groups obtain encouragement from the rhetoric of government spokespersons who announce elaborate plans for cow protection. Stopping illicit cattle trade between India and Bangladesh is understandable, but using this as a pretext to inflict atrocities on Dalits is not.

Such atrocities have been recurring with impunity and Dalits are deeply frustrated. Some have even gone to the extent of ending their lives.

In all this, one realises that vigilante-sponsored violence is not sporadic but involves organised networks. They even patrol highways looking out for trucks ferrying cows and then attack those in the vehicle, using weapons to mete out instant justice. In turn, the Centre remains silent, almost tacit in what it considers an informal validation of government policy. It is not sacred cows that the regime is protecting. What it is tacitly desacralising is the Constitution. The so-called rights of a cow are getting precedence over the rights of Dalits. The very sacred idea of a cow which seeks harmony between nature and culture now stands emasculated. It is here that fundamentalist movements get some of their energy from. It appears that the Modi government is operating on split levels, with one entity suggesting modern proposals for policy, while the other wants all of this to be anchored to a fundamentalism. It is this which makes the violence so overt. Oddly, the function of policing is being handed over to these groups and the regime sees them as arms that are helping to consolidate the ideology of the government.

A structure of violence Let me look at another incident which happened last year where >a 50-year-old man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was beaten to death and his 22-year-old son severely injured in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, allegedly by residents of Bisara village, after rumours spread in the area about the family storing and consuming beef. In fact, if one looks at the lynching of Akhlaq and the attack on the four Dalit men for skinning a cow, one sees similarities. There is a third incident I will look at. This time it is on a video that emerged in late June this year which showed volunteers of the Gau Raksha Dal forcing two “beef smugglers” to eat cow dung and drink cow urine. According to reports, their leader admitted that his group had forced the two Muslim men to eat cow dung on June 10. The man claimed that volunteers, acting on a tip-off, intercepted a vehicle transporting “700 kg of beef from Mewat to Delhi” on the Kundli-Manesar-Palwal Expressway. He said the group chased the car for a few kilometres before stopping it near the Badarpur border. “When we caught them, they had 700 kg of beef in their car. We made them eat panchgavya, a concoction of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd and ghee, in order to teach them a lesson and also to purify them,” the man said. Thus there seems to be adequate evidence of a new fundamentalist rule of law. The sad part is that the political Opposition, especially the Congress party, is reading all this as sporadic events rather than as an emerging structure of violence that does need to be confronted.

We must understand that there is a style to the violence and its staging. In one way it is plain bully boy brutality, where brute majoritarianism seeks to make a point to some minority group, be it Dalit, Muslim or tribal and that “they must be taught a lesson”. Vigilante and policeman literally mirror each other even as the government appears to be instructing the victims to be restrained!

The unending sequence of probes being demanded matches the widening cycle of violence. It is almost as if it takes only one sacred cow to kill another —in this case, democracy. In all this, middle class India watches silently as it is overcome by “atrocity fatigue” and wants to get back to “aspiration and desire mode”.

In the end, the Muslim and the Dalit are violated twice. Riots first displace the Muslim, and vigilante groups then forbid him from pursuing his occupation. In the case of the Dalit, he has to face never-ending atrocities. Thus in the roster of democracy, both Muslim and Dalit are less than equal. What needs to be exposed is the sanitised hypocrisy behind these acts of brutality. The cow rakshak syndrome needs to be analysed and exposed as a threat to Indian democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor at Jindal School of Law.

(This article has been edited after publication to remove editing errors.)

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