India’s untouchable past is its shameful present
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Aug 2016 47 Comments

Russian writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a moral compass to his nation, said, “Every people must answer morally for all of its past - including that past which is shameful”. This involves trying to understand, “How could such a thing have been allowed? Where in all this is our error? And could it happen again?”


As another Independence Day dawns, we must ask ourselves if we have achieved the egalitarian promise of the social reform movement of the nineteenth century and the freedom struggle of the twentieth; or are we regressing towards an exclusionism and morally repulsive vigilantism which aims to impose a selective morality in the public domain.


Amidst sporadic incidents in different parts of the country, we can discern a pattern internal to Hindu society. When parents refuse to let children eat mid-day meals prepared by a Scheduled Caste worker in an anganwadi (government-run child care centre); when pregnant women needing nutrition refuse food prepared by an SC cook; when denial of access to the village well or temple persist in the twenty-first century; when persons are beaten and urinated upon for having a certain caste background, it is impossible to deny that we have failed to bless all citizens with equal dignity.


Upper caste Hindus often cite Adi Shankar’s apology to an outcaste who challenged his Advaita philosophy when asked to move out of the Acharya’s path on grounds of alleged impurity, to assert the universal reach of Upanishadic precepts. This is theoretically sound, but Adi Shankar did not practice social liberation in his lifetime, and in the millennium since, Hindus have not ceased to be offensive towards those they designate as socially inferior. Some recent incidents make sensitive individuals cringe with shame.


It needs stating that while Narendra Modi fought the 2014 parliamentary election exclusively on a development plank, his impressive victory has led to unwarranted assertiveness in some sections. Incidents of vigilantism over the cow (and beef) fall squarely within this realm.


As the issue has deep resonance in Hindu civilisation from primordial times, some nuancing is in order. The Vedas declared the cow a sacred animal that should not be killed; there was no intellectual challenge to this position for centuries. Physical assaults on the cow appear to be coterminous with the dominance of foreign-born faiths on the subcontinent. Coming to independence, some Muslim members of the Constituent Assembly urged that cow slaughter be banned as a matter of religious sensitivity of Hindus; this was resisted by successors of the British Raj who did not share this sensitivity. Therein lay the seeds of conflict in successive decades.


Hints that some people misread the Modi mandate came with loose statements about the non-sons of Sri Rama, for which the Prime Minister personally apologised in Parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party tackled other damaging statements individually. But the deeper malaise in caste Hindu society surfaced in September 2015, when a mob attacked a Muslim family in Dadri village, Uttar Pradesh, killing Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, and seriously injuring his son, Danish, 22, for allegedly killing and consuming a cow on Eid-ul-Adha. It has since been reported that laboratory tests have established that the meat was indeed beef; the Akhlaq family alleges substitution. Whatever the truth, this cannot justify the murder of a human being and near-murder of another. 


The July 11 incident of flogging and stripping four SC youth in Una, Gujarat, for allegedly killing the cows they were skinning, is far more serious. The episode threatens to derail the Prime Minister’s agenda of development with good governance, and is possibly behind his lengthy silence on the issue. Once Chief Minister Anandibehn was replaced for inept handling of the episode, the Prime Minister availed of the first opportunity to publicly condemn the vigilantes as anti-social elements deserving official scrutiny.


Still, many sensitive citizens felt disappointed that the Prime Minister did not promptly attack the growing culture of vigilantism and caste arrogance. It is true the BJP quickly demoted and expelled a senior UP leader who used foul language against former Chief Minister Mayawati, but the delayed response in Una enabled Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (who hopes his Aam Aadmi Party will make an impressive debut in Punjab) to fish in troubled waters.


Now, at the very least, the BJP needs to compile a list of persons like MLA Raja Singh who rejoiced at the brutal thrashing of the leather tanners and ensure that they are not given tickets in future. One of 16 youths who consumed poison during a protest rally in Ahmedabad on July 19 died in hospital on July 31; his agony deserves some mitigation. Unsurprisingly, incidents of ‘cow lovers’ extorting huge money from legitimate cattle traders are coming to light.


A positive side of the SC anger is the refusal to dispose of dead cattle or clean sewers, to send a message to the derelict administration. For Prime Minister Modi, the challenge is not to view SC assertion through the prism of assembly elections in UP and other States in 2017. Taking a cue from the leather tanners’ decision to pile up carcasses in front of government buildings and ask gau rakshaks (cow protectors) to dispose off the dead animals, the Prime Minister should consider a multi-pronged strategy.


There should be an immediate end to skinning of dead cows/animals in any district in which there are atrocities against tanners. Until there are assurances of good behaviour, the dead animals should be cremated. This will deprive the leather industry of a valuable raw material, and prompt leather manufacturers to demand protection of tanners and action against vigilantes. This will alter the public discourse on the subject.


The Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry should be asked to mentor the leather tanners to evolve as small scale leather manufacturers, or cooperatives, an endeavour that is doable under Skill India, with funding from Mudra Bank. So far, small and medium enterprises have not got the fillip they deserve; this could kick start entrepreneurship among these groups.


Finally, Hindus must realise that most gau bhakts have done little to nourish cows. Most gaushalas are run by upper castes with government funding. Recently, over 200 cows died in just ten days at a government-run shelter in Jaipur, ostensibly due to poor maintenance of the cowsheds. Over the years, NGOs have shut down cow shelters for not being lucrative enough. India’s untouchable past is also its shameful present. We can no longer live in denial.  

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