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Politics of cow protection

By Nonica Datta

The brutal lynching of five Dalits in Jhajjar shows the level to which Haryana politics and society have descended. It suggests the growing success of the Hindutva forces in the State. The Ram mandir movement, much to the disappointment of the Sangh Parivar, did not bear fruit here. Now, the Hindutva campaign has made dramatic progress among the Jats. The `cow' has suddenly emerged as the principal symbol for the mobilisation of dominant caste groups into the Hindutva fold. At the heart of the Dalits' lynching is the cow-slaughter theory. Justifying the killings, leaders of the VHP and the Arya Samaj are busy establishing that the "cow had life in it". The Dalit victims have become the culprits; the Jats have emerged as warriors.

The VHP, after being ineffective in Haryana for long, has drawn on the most enduring symbol of the Jat heartland. Historically, the notion of cow-protection is embedded in the diverse peasant-pastoral traditions and `warrior culture' of the region. By the late 19th century, the Arya Samaj and Jat publicists gave it a new public expression. Cow-protection societies formed the major plank of the Arya Samaj movement in north India. The cow-slaughter theory was specifically used to justify violence against the Dalits and Muslims. Popular ballads and stories abound highlighting the virtues of Kshatriya values embodied in acts of saving the cow from the assaults of Muslim butchers, who were allegedly supplied cows by Chuhras and Chamars. One of the most powerful images in the Jat belts was that of a gaurakshak (cow-protector). He was venerated for protecting the community through an act of saving the cow, and killing the `culprits' and `infidels'. His `victory' over the infidels was sung by wandering jogis. Protection of the cow became a centrepiece of the emerging Jat identity. The Jats' cultural landscape and territorial identity centred on the notion of the sacredness of gaucharbhumi (cow-grazing land). The cow shaped the nature of communitarian politics. Communal riots in Rohtak, Hissar and Gurgaon in the 1920s occurred around the symbols of cow and `cow-country'.

The cow remains a potent symbol in Haryana society. Yet, it has acquired a radically new meaning since colonial times. In a State where the relationship between the ruling Government and civil society is fragile, the notion of a Hindu identity built around the cow as symbol has acquired a new political significance. The police in Haryana have now taken on the role of gaurakshaks. Last year, in Palwal, egged on by a fiery Hindu "godman", civil authorities closed the town's meat-shops, a move which deprived more than a hundred butchers — mostly Muslims and Dalits — of their livelihood. A few months ago, in the wake of the Gujarat carnage, rumours of cow-slaughter led to a systematic campaign launched by the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS against the minorities in the erstwhile riyasat of the Loharu nawab. Such acts of violence sharpen communitarian identities and forge a powerful political link between the ruling parties and dominant castes.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that atrocities against Dalits and minorities have increased considerably over recent years in Haryana. "False" criminal cases instituted against the various Dalit organisations, the constant harassment of Dalit women and safai workers by police officials, the denial of entry to Dalits into the fields of landlords, the crushing to death, by a tractor, of a landless Balmiki Dalit labourer, Hukam Singh, for organising a movement against bonded labour in Karnal district, and the beating up of Dalits, for their entry into the temple, by Jats and Gujars in Jalmana village in Panipat are some of the most glaring instances. One still remembers, with horror, how RSS men attacked a nuns' house in Kheri Khummar village in Jhajjar a few years ago, and the Shiv Sena went on a rampage in Kaithal, Kalayat and Loharu during the Gujarat carnage.

Violence against Dalits is rooted in caste politics that has dominated Haryana for the last 100 years. In Jhajjar, local traditions refer to the Chandals — a Dalit community engaged in cremations, and thus regarded as unclean — as "informers" of the Mughals at a time when the Jats were "fighting for the honour of their land". Notions of community derived from such competing versions of history. Early 20th century history is replete with instances of Dalits being constantly attacked by Jat cultivators, being denied access to wells and other public spaces, and stigmatised as luchas (rogues). Yet, Jat identity remained aloof from the mainstream Hindu identity.

Today, dominant peasant caste identities are in harmony with the dominant Hindu identity in Haryana. The Jat identity is negotiating with Hindu identity. The urban Punjabi `refugee' is no longer the `other' for the Jats; the Muslims and Dalits are the most potent `others'. The recent complicity between Hindu militant groups and the State Government strengthens dominant peasant caste identities, and consolidates the `Hindu vote'. Haryana is now a battlefield of casteism and communalism. The gurukuls (Arya Samaj seminaries), for long indifferent to majoritarianism and Ayodhya movement, are breeding grounds for caste and communal mobilisation. Their gaurakshaks protect Hinduised communitarian concerns. The legitimacy offered to sati temples (where Dalit women are denied entry), the assimilation of the fairs of Guga pir, a popular historical warrior hero, into the Navratri festival, and the intensification of shuddhi campaigns in the rural hinterland are some of the ominous signs of the suppression of the popular cultures of the region.

Many Dalits have threatened to convert to other faiths if the State Government and the administration fail to stop acts of atrocities against them. Not surprisingly, some Dalits, including family members of those lynched in Jhajjar, have converted to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity in Gurgaon. Though an act of conversion disqualifies a Dalit Christian from receiving many of the constitutionally guaranteed protections and privileges, conversion is perhaps the only way out to escape violence and oppression. Hindutva forces are angered and frustrated. They have made conversion a political issue, for their concerted shuddhi campaigns have been consistently resisted by the Dalits. One of the Balmiki converts, after the Jhajjar killings, confessed: "I challenge the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS to reconvert me. I will give up my life but never be a Hindu again."

In the face of the failure of its shuddhi campaigns, the VHP now uses the strategy of cow-slaughter to oppress the Dalits, to woo the Jats and to consolidate the Hindu identity. The so-called `mob reaction' in Jhajjar reveals a deeper malaise of identity politics that has plagued the State. In the process, Dalit and non-Hindu identities are marginalised, targeted or coopted into the larger identity. Dalits' resistance to the process of Hinduisation, and the lack of a strong Dalit leadership, further strengthens the exclusivist ideology of the ruling INLD-BJP combine. Sadly, the erosion of human rights in the State has cast a shadow of gloom on the Dalits' world. Buddharam, father of Dayanand, a victim of the lynching, said after the Jhajjar killings, "we want to live with dignity, whatever our work may be. We have faced enough social discrimination".

(The writer is Lecturer of History, Miranda House, Delhi University.)