Monday, 30th October 2017

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Modi and vigilantism

The good gau rakshak

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 8.08.16

The prime minister's 'town hall' meeting was intended to showcase the way in which Narendra Modi had brought governance to the people through initiatives like MyGov and apps that allowed citizens to communicate digitally with the Prime Minister's Office. It was Modi's prime time commercial for himself. Above the prime minister, as part of the stage setting was an electronic screen that juxtaposed Modi's photograph with the MyGov logo; the aura of sole proprietorship that is the prime minister's signature political style was neatly (if unintentionally) captured by that graphic.

The event's news-making moment was Modi's criticism of vigilante gau rakshaks. These men, said the prime minister, were bad people who were wicked by night but who, come daylight, donned the mantle of cow-protection. He asked state governments to compile dossiers on these so-called gau rakshak groups. In passing, the prime minister gave his listeners a short glossary of terms that would help them distinguish between real cow-protectors and these impersonators. Gau-bhakts and gau sewaks were genuinely committed to the care and nurture of cows while the scoundrels who styled themselves gau rakshaks used the piety of that designation to harass others.

This was a potentially important moment. From the time Mohammad Akhlaque was lynched in Uttar Pradesh for allegedly eating beef to the leisurely caning of a Dalit family in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow, Modi had treated vigilante atrocities as white noise, as static to be tuned out. Earlier in his speech he had seemed to double down on this Olympian position when he complained about an editorial tendency to blame the prime minister for everything. Bad things that happened in panchayati and municipal jurisdictions were blamed on him. Failings that were properly the responsibility of state governments were laid at the prime minister's door. This was wrong; it weakened the system by not holding the proper tier of government to account for its failings.

This passive-aggressive lament about being blamed for things that were below his pay grade didn't suggest that Modi was going to unbend enough to notice cow-vigilantism, but he did. It made him so angry, he said. People were setting up shop, he said, in the name of cow-protection. Many more cows died from eating plastic waste than were slaughtered. The prime minister told us a story about the time he had organized a cattle camp in Gujarat and found two buckets of plastic waste in a cow's stomach. The real problem was plastic waste...

Except that the real problem isn't plastic waste. Modi got it right the first time. The real problem is people setting up political shop in the name of gau raksha. People like Modi. People like ministers in his cabinet, Haryana's chief minister, MPs and MLAs, sangh parivar associates, who, through the general election campaign of 2014, in the aftermath of the lynchings of 2015 and in the run-up to the provincial elections in Bihar, spoke darkly of a 'pink revolution' in north India, created ferocious anti-cow-slaughter laws, blamed dead men and their families for provoking righteous Hindu wrath and used the cow for a single political end, Hindu consolidation.

The political shop in question is a pan-Indian behemoth. The sangh parivar built the cow-protection brand; the lumpen who use it as their calling card are its franchisees. In its time in office, Modi's party has given gau raksha State sanction and approval. It has created a penumbra of impunity for those who would take the law into their own hands. The equivocation, the apologetics and the victim-blaming that we saw after a sequence of lynchings last year, coupled with Modi's epic silence, encouraged bigots lower down the political food chain to give their inner beast free rein.

This isn't metaphorically meant; Bharatiya Janata Party state governments have put systems in place that have helped institutionalize vigilantism. They have turned cow-protection into a protection racket. Two national newspapers, the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express, carried stories detailing the way in which administrative innovations in Punjab (where the BJP runs a coalition government along with the Akalis) cleared the ground for the organized extortion of cattle traders by gau rakshaks.

The root of the problem is the Gau Sewa Commission formed in Punjab in January 2015. The commission made a no-objection certificate from a deputy commissioner mandatory for those wishing to transport cattle, another layer of sarkari paper that has proved remarkably hard to get. Not only does this lead, inevitably, to bribery and rent-seeking, it creates a circumstance where Gau Raksha Dals and Shiv Sainiks prey on trucks and force cattle traders to pay them off. These vigilantes are now confident enough to charge trucker unions nearly four lakhs for a licence that allows their trucks free passage for six months. More ominously, the Express reports that the main victims of vigilante assault are Sikh drivers and migrant labourers.

Punjab's Shiv Sena president recognizes the existence of the extortion racket but, like the prime minister, claims that the fault lies with false gau rakshaks. "The real gau sewaks raid dairy farms where cows are starving," he says. "Extortionists target trucks to make money." The 'false gau rakshak' is rhetorical sleight of hand, a form of misdirection. The false gau rakshak is simply the true gau sewak who happens to get caught beating people up, for profit or for pleasure.

If you haven't seen the video clips of the beatings administered to Dalits in Una in Gujarat, you should take a deep breath and watch out of a sense of civic responsibility. You will see thin, bare-bodied men, wilting with distress, being caned by well-fed youths wearing denims and tee-shirts. It's very nearly impossible to watch. A row of captive Dalits are inspected by men who then take turns to beat them with rods and metal slats. The men doing the beating are curiously impassive, till the moment they hit their victims. Then they lay into them, two-handed, and go down the row, swinging with real enthusiasm. Other men stand around them in a ragged circle, shooting videos of the action with their camera phones. I've never seen anything like this tableau; it's like slave-owners working their property over because they can. The vileness of it is that these freelance sadists aren't just inflicting pain, they are also performing. These men are the young masters of Gujarat's universe: this is the logical terminus of the politics of cow-protection.

Modi didn't mention this specific incident; perhaps he hasn't seen the video. He did, however, illustrate the false gau rakshak's instrumental use of the cow with a story. In the old days when there were battles between badshahs and rajas (read Muslim and Hindu rulers), the badshahs would station a herd of cows ahead of their vanguard on the battle-field. The rajas, constrained by their reverence for the cow, wouldn't attack the badshah's host and the battle would be lost. The implication was that the false gau rakshak was like the bad badshah who played upon the piety of Hindu kings to win his battles.

Modi can't help himself. Even the stories he tells to criticize Hindu vigilantism have Muslims as their villains. The prime minister and the party he represents aren't self-critical about gau raksha; they can't be - it's the fire they are forged in. They can, however, be strategic about it. The lynching of Muslims is one thing; the savaging of Dalits, potentially a part of the Hindu body politic, is quite another. To separate the false cow protector from the true cause of cow protection, to ignore the political economy of cow protection, to turn the conversation from the violence of vigilantism to a constructive awareness of plastic waste, was the work of a moment. Governance comes in many guises; on Saturday the prime minister showed us one aspect of it. He flagged vigilantism... then finessed it.