We can see the outrage against the atrocities committed on Dalits in Una, Gujarat, in different ways.
We can see the outrage against the atrocities committed on Dalits in Una, Gujarat, in different ways. It can be seen as evidence of growing Dalit assertion, as a limitation inherent to Hindutva, or the menace cow-protection vigilante groups pose to the nation. Una combines all three themes, in addition to opening up the possibility of Dalits and Muslims building a social alliance against Hindutva, which threatens their interests in different ways.
Hindutva seeks to abort the assertion of Dalits by ideologically persuading them that their caste identity must be subverted to the larger Hindu identity. It is through the conscious sharing of a common religion, Hindutva argues, that Hindus can paper over their differences to present a united front against their common 'enemy' - the Muslims.
To achieve this goal, Hindutva insists that the story of India's past is about Muslims warring against Hindus, which arrives at its denouement in the present. This is why it manufactures disputes over places of worship and plays politics over the cow.
By contrast, the more pressing agenda of subaltern social groups is to end social discrimination. It is to thwart the challenge from below that Hindutva seeks to demonize Muslims, hoping Hindus will then forget their own differences and unite against the common foe. Otherwise, Hindutva fears, caste differences could tear apart the Hindu social fabric.
To overcome its fear, Hindutva has turned the cow into a strategy.
For decades, the proponents of Hindutva have been claiming that since Hindus rever the cow as holy, its slaughter should be prohibited to respect their religious sentiments. In this articulation is the innuendo that cow-slaughter hasn't been banned only to mollycoddle Muslims, in whose food culture beef isn't taboo.
There was passionate debate in the Constituent Assembly whether or not to ban cow-slaughter. Ultimately, Article 48 was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy stating that the Indian state would strive to prohibit the "slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle."
The Congress governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar prohibited cattle-slaughter in the 1950s. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on the slaughter of even bullocks and bulls, despite old age and no longer economically useful, amounted to imposing unreasonable restrictions on butchers - and was, therefore, ultra vires of the Constitution.
Hindutva insists on a complete ban on cattle-slaughter, claiming any conditional ban would encourage illegal selling of cows to slaughter-houses.
By this reasoning, the only use that ageing cows have is for their meat. The cow is projected as a holy but helpless creature that's trapped between Hindus who want to protect it and Muslims who have an insatiable appetite for beef. There is thus a perpetual, unannounced war between Hindus and Muslims over the cow.
From this perspective, Una has delivered a blow to Hindutva. The four Dalits who were mercilessly beaten were skinning a dead cow. It establishes in the popular imagination the many uses cattle have for marginalized social groups.
We know but never admit that the poor consume beef, largely because it is cheaper than chicken and mutton, as also do those Hindus who are not religious. The hide of the cow is used for leather, its bones for perfume, and its tallow has several industrial uses. Una has, to an extent, shattered Hindutva's narrative regarding the Muslim's inexhaustible appetite for beef.
Then again, Dalit protests against Una have involved dumping carcasses of cattle at government offices. It is a challenge to Hindutva to send its votaries to remove them, in case it truly considers the cow to be holy. It exposes Hindutva's hypocrisy. Protests against Una have seen Dalits and Muslims together petition different district authorities for justice, suggesting that the two communities realise they are united in the suffering that rampaging Hindutva inflicts on them.
Indeed, Una underscores the pressing need to ban cow-protection groups. They terrorize traders who are legitimately engaged in cattle trade. They have assaulted, even lynched, drivers ferrying cattle in vehicles. Most of them are Muslim. In Jharkhand, they hanged two of them, including a minor, who were taking their bovines to a cattle fair. But Muslims did not take to the streets to protest against cow vigilantism. The community fears that even a non-violent expression of rage will see the Hindutva brigade incite and mobilise Hindus against them. If they have come out in Gujarat, it is only because the protest there is primarily by the Dalits.
The widening caste chasm in Gujarat is ironical because it is touted as a veritable Hindutva laboratory. It is more so as the chasm has emerged over the cow. This is because Gujarat, under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, imposed a complete ban on cow-slaughter, including bullocks and bulls.
Gujarat's legislation was challenged in the Supreme Court, which, in 2005, reversed the earlier judgement of allowing old bullocks and bulls to be slaughtered. Once the BJP came to power in Haryana and Maharashtra, both states embraced the Gujarat model and imposed harsh punishment on violators of cow-protection law.
Cow protectionists, however, have usurped both the judge's and executioner's roles, so to speak, as it happened in Una, Dadri and elsewhere. The existence of vigilante groups is anathema to any civilized society.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a political commentator and author of The Hour Before Dawn)