On 6 August, at a town-hall-style meeting in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out against self-styled gau rakshaks, or cow protectors, declaring that 80 percent of them were fake. “I feel angry when people, in the name of cow protection, do business,” the Indian Express reported him as saying. It had been nearly a month since seven Dalits were flogged in the city of Una in Gujarat, for skinning a dead cow. Since then, the state had witnessed a storm of protests by Dalits, who took to the streets in rage against the assault. The agitations refused to die down in the weeks that followed, building pressure on Modi to address the issue.
The prime minister’s comments on the matter, however, both in Delhi and in Telangana the next day, were not an outright condemnation of those who unleash violence in the name of protecting cows. Rather, he directed his ire specifically at what he claimed were fake gau rakshaks—suggesting, perhaps, that there were also genuine vigilantes whose aggressive tactics of cow protection he found acceptable.
The prime minister’s remarks were followed by a quick succession of reactions from the Hindutva camp—specifically the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishva Hindu Parishad—that were indicative of the push-and-pull negotiations that take place within these organisations on key issues. The senior RSS leader Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi issued a statement the day after the Delhi meeting that broadly supported Modi’s views. Joshi called on people to separate the “condemnable efforts of a few opportunists” with those carrying out “the good work” of gau raksha.
The harmony was short-lived. The VHP soon took a far more hostile stand on the matter, with the senior leader Sunil Parashar issuing a statement on the same day as the RSS, declaring, according to the Indian Express, that “The Prime Minster has hurt the sentiments of gau rakshaks and he will have to pay for it in next Lok Sabha polls.” The RSS modulated its own response the very next day, with its spokesperson Manmohan Vaidya declaring, according to the Indian Express, that Modi’s “80 percent remark should have been avoided,” and asserting that the organisation remained committed to the gau raksha movement.
But the VHP continued to rattle its sabre. A few days later, the Times of India reported that the senior VHP leader Pravin Togadia had attacked Modi at a press conference in Delhi, accusing him of betraying those who had helped him become prime minister, and demanding that he withdraw his comments. The organisation also issued a call for a rally in Delhi to mark the fiftieth anniversary of a 1966 attack on the Indian parliament by gau rakshaks. On 20 August, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, spoke out, declaring that gau raksha remained firmly on the organisation’s agenda—a marked change in tone and emphasis from the RSS’s initial response.
The Una flogging, the ensuing protests and the sequence of statements from Hindu organisations were a stark reminder of these groups’ struggles to balance their ideological commitments with the need to secure the support of Dalits to win elections, both at the centre and in states. Dalits make up a sizeable portion of the electorate in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, which, like Gujarat, go to elections in 2017. As protests by Dalits continued for weeks, the failure of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its Sangh affiliates to assuage the anxieties of Dalits was laid bare.
Historically, Dalits have not been a significant constituency for the BJP, which emerged in the 1980s as a primarily forward-caste party. Dominated by leaders and members from the Brahmin and Bania castes, the party was essentially unwelcoming to Dalits. This was starkly visible in the early 1980s, when the new party led agitations against reservation policies that were introduced in Gujarat for government jobs and admission to educational institutions. Anti-reservation violence broke out in 1981 and 1985, in which Dalits were targeted, and many killed. Covering the agitations as a Gujarati journalist of a privileged caste background, I saw at close quarters the toxic bias among forward castes against Dalits.
This bias was also apparent in a memorandum that was prepared by the anti-reservationists to submit to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on his proposed visit to Ahmedabad in March 1985. The opening line of the memorandum stated: “This is the last-ditch effort by the students and people in Gujarat to save meritocracy.” It viewed the beneficiaries of reservations with utter contempt, asking the prime minister: “Would you yourself have 49 percent of the doctors on your medical panel from these reserved classes?” If not, it continued, “why should you treat the citizens of India as guinea pigs for social experiments?” The memorandum claimed that reservation not only produces “one bad professional, it generates a nexus of nincompoops at a higher decision-making and administrative level which will ultimately paralyse the whole nation.”
“It is a preposterous proposition,” the memorandum went on, “that reservation will uplift the standards of the backward classes and help them to integrate with the mainstream of the Indian middle class.” On the contrary, it claimed, reservation gave beneficiaries “a false sense of security and contentment, which are the enemy of a progressive and competitive society.” It added: “Just as a single polluting chemical factory upsets the ecology of the whole surrounding natural environment, such unnatural reservations pollute, corrode and ultimately destroy the very social fabric of the Indian society.”
The anti-reservation protests were led by forward-caste students and their parents, most of whom were from the Gujarati middle class and had formed groups such as the Akhil Gujarat Navrachana Samiti and the Akhil Gujarat Vali Mandal to bring attention to the issue. But they also had political support from the Sangh, particularly from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Sangh’s student wing. Local leaders of the BJP, including Ashok Bhatt, Harin Pathak and Ghanshyam Mehta, also participated in the protests. In mid 1985, Pathak and Mehta were arrested under the National Security Act for their role in the unrest—they were BJP municipal corporators at the time. A month earlier, three other local BJP leaders had been arrested, including another municipal corporator named Praful Barot. These leaders were later rewarded by the party with important posts, including city mayorships, state and central ministerships, and opportunities such as parliamentary tickets.
The anti-reservation agitation of 1985 began in February and continued into July that year, forcing the Congress chief minister, Madhavsinh Solanki, to resign. The accompanying bloodshed, which was of a greater scale than in 1981, originated from the protests, but was also backed by logistical support that suggested a high level of planning. “Shattering of Gujarat,” a compilation by independent social researchers of information about the violence, noted: “There seems to have been an organised, planned, prepared, intimidatory, almost terrorist quality to the violence.” According to the report, “Arsenals were stocked, weapons—crude (nail-studded cement balls, molotov cocktails) and relatively sophisticated (bombs and country-guns)—were prepared obviously in advance, masses were used (particularly women) as shields for armed detachments, justifiable grievances as facade for subversive and punitive violence, judicial procedure as protection against administrative action.”
The Congress had the electoral advantage during these years. In the state election of March 1985, the Congress relied on a tested strategy of wooing a vote-bank comprising the state’s Kshatriyas (many of whom are deemed other backward class, or OBC, in Gujarat), Dalits (also known as Harijans then), Adivasis and Muslims—termed the KHAM formula. The strategy was boosted by Solanki, who, before the elections, announced an 18-percent hike in the existing 10 percent reservation for OBCs, in government jobs and educational institutions in the state—a move aimed at pleasing Kshatriya voters. With this, Gujarat had a 28 percent quota for OBCs, 14 percent for scheduled castes, and 7 percent for scheduled tribes. Even as the BJP was beginning to launch its opposition to reservations, the Congress won 149 seats in the 182-seat assembly. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar quickly realised that an anti-reservation stance would never fetch it political power in Gujarat.
In the years that followed, the party and its affiliates sought to drive a wedge into the Congress’s KHAM grouping. The Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, launched a massive drive to recruit Dalits into Hindu organisations. Many Dalits were given positions in the organisations, as mohalla presidents or street chiefs of the VHP or the Bajrang Dal. Many were also absorbed into Hindu sects such as the Swaminarayan and Brahma Kumaris sects. Some Dalits found jobs in these offices, and were gradually co-opted under the larger umbrella of Hindutva.
This process allowed the Hindu groups to break the bonds that had once existed between Dalits and Muslims. Since large sections of both communities were poor, and lived in neighbouring slum areas, a kinship existed between them, with Muslims often supporting Dalits when they came under attack from forward castes. This unity was reflected in a popular slogan of the time: “Dalit-Muslim bhai–bhai.” But over the years, as Dalits were wooed into the Hindutva fold, the communities were driven apart. The extent of this split was apparent in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002: as first information reports were filed in the aftermath of the violence, one of the major revelations that emerged was that Dalits—along with other marginalised communities—were some of the most active foot-soldiers in carrying out the massacres.
But the 2002 violence also left many Dalits feeling betrayed, as they found little support from those in power in avoiding the clutches of the law. Their original patron, the Congress party, which had once used them as a valuable vote bank, had begun to recede in prominence as the BJP, led by Modi, rose to power. The community’s resentment was compounded by the fact that their economic and social conditions had seen little improvement despite their supposed acceptance into Hindutva groups.
The story of Ashok Parmar, a Dalit, also known as Ashok Mochi, is indicative of the community’s experience. Parmar became one of the most famous faces of the 2002 violence after he was photographed wearing a saffron headband and triumphantly brandishing a metal rod as a fire raged behind him. In an interview to the website Indiatimes in August (in which he also denied participating in any violence), he asserted that “nothing has changed for the poor” in the state under Narendra Modi. “My financial condition is so bad I can’t even get married. People more educated than me are driving rickshaws because they cannot get jobs. All I have seen in the name of development in this area is the riverfront being made like Chowpatty (Mumbai) and two over-bridges. It has nothing to do with poor people like me.”
The Una flogging, which followed numerous widely publicised incidents of brutal violence by gau rakshaks across the country, heaped further humiliation on a community that had long been simmering with such resentment. As thousands took to the streets in protests, which occasionally spilled over into violence, the BJP was once again faced with a familiar paradox: how can it win the vital Dalit support it needs to hold on to power in states and at the centre, even as it clings to programmes such as cow protection, which form part of the core agenda of Hindutva groups? The conflicting signals on the issue that emanated from the prime minister, the RSS and the VHP, showed that the party is nowhere close to resolving this question.
Darshan Desai is a journalist based in Gujarat with 28 years in the profession. He has worked as the resident editor of the Indian Express in Lucknow, and in various capacities with Outlook, Tehelka, The Hindu and other publications.