The cow is sacred to some Indians. Does the cow, however, retain its sanctity upon its death? We never see the corpse of a sacred cow being worshipped inside a house, but it does retain its sanctity to a marginalised section of the society. Dalits, who carefully skin the decaying corpse of a cow and preserve it to make leather, hold their profession in high regard — which goes a long way in saying that there is nothing more sacred than the worship of one’s work. This community, which has been making the putrefying corpse of a cow useful to our society for centuries, has never been held in honour or even given a modicum of respect, but has been a target for assault, rape, public insults, murder and several other atrocities.
A week ago, in Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, four Dalit youth, who were skinning a dead cow, were tied to a jeep and dragged to a police station while being beaten along the way. Their pleas that they were only skinning a dead one fell on deaf ears of the so-called “Defenders of the Cow”. It is no surprise that the Dalit youth, for fear of further torture and a dishonourable death, were prepared to commit suicide. This tendency has grown alarmingly in the past few months — out of the 16 recent suicide attempts, one person had unfortunately lost his life. There have been several protests on this issue. In the town of Amrelli, 400 km from Ahmedabad, the protests took a violent turn. One protester died in police firing while a policeman succumbed to injuries in stone-pelting by the protesters. A bandh was declared last Wednesday protesting the attitude of the State and the police towards the plight of the Dalits in Gujarat.
The people, who have been in the leather works for centuries, now live in perpetual fear of persecution from the “Defenders of the Cow”. This is not an isolated incident in Gujarat but a growing trend over the past two years; people are being assaulted or even lynched on accusations that they have killed or skinned a cow or consumed cow meat. Moreover, after the BJP came to power, Hindu extremists have been orchestrating these attacks shamelessly.
The situation is more noticeable in North India. In Haryana, five Dalit youth were lynched in the presence of police officers in 2002. They were attacked by a mob while they were on way to the market with cow hide. They were thrashed to death at a police outpost. It is pertinent to note that animal trade is important to the Indian economy. India ranks first in animal trade followed by Brazil and Australia. Out of the six biggest meat trade companies, four are owned and run by Hindus. The BJP admittedly receives funding from some of these companies as mentioned in its annual accounts submitted to the Election Commission. In 2014-15, India had generated a revenue of `33,128 crores out of which `29,282 crore was from bovine cattle meat and `828 crore was from goat and sheep meat.
As on 31 March, 2014, India had 1,623 slaughterhouses out of which 310 were in Maharashtra, 285 in Uttar Pradesh, 183 in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, 130 in Tamil Nadu and 96 in Karnataka. Other than these, there are several small slaughter houses. After the animals are skinned and the meat extracted, the leather is taken by Dalits for sale in the town markets. This has been wrongly propagated as cow slaughter. If it is taken to be true that selling the skin of cows is a crime, one must question the “Defenders of the Cow” as to why they do not target the companies that engage in the slaughter, a question to which we will find silence as an answer. Why have all those who have been demanding ban on animal slaughter and the BJP itself, not shut down the slaughterhouses? Most of the trade happens in the guise of Muslim companies, which are owned and run by Hindus. Of the top six meat exporting companies, Al-Kabir is owned by Satish, Arabian Exports is run by Sunil Kapoor, MKR Frozen Exports by Madan and PML Industries by AS Bandra, to name a few. BJP MLA Sangeet Singh Som of the infamous Muzaffarnagar incident, who had been a voice for ban against cow slaughter is a partner in the famous Halal meat export firm Al-Dua Food Processing Company. Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s family is also involved in the export of meat through Arihant Farm House Pvt Ltd. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, in its annual donations accounts report to the Election Commission, the BJP had mentioned receiving `2 crore from Allana Sons Company, a leading exporter of meat.
“The Defenders of the Cow”, worshippers and all those against the export of meat should target these companies instead of attacking and lynching Dalits who are only trying to make a living by selling the leather made from the skin of dead cattle. They should question the BJP on the donations it receives from these companies. In the Bihar elections, the BJP had used the beef issue to exploit the Hindu vote bank. Though it lost the elections, the sentiment still runs deep in the Hindu community and poses a threat to the minorities.
What happened in Gujarat is not without provocation. The leaders have been making anti-beef propaganda. The responsibility for this must be owned up by the BJP. Jailing the accused and announcing ex-gratia to the victims is not going to bring back lost lives. The leaders and religious figures must condemn these acts of pure hate and take it upon themselves to create a safe atmosphere for Dalits.
The communities that clean up the dead cattle have declared that they will not even touch the dead animal if the attacks do not stop. They have left vehicles filled with dead cattle in front of government offices as a mark of protest. This should be an inspiration to all the Dalits in India. Those who clean the streets and the drainage manholes should also join the protest. If the atrocities continue, Dalits will soon stop cleaning the roads and drainages too. Those in the Hindu society, who are on the side of democracy and justice, should stand up for Dalits.
Mallepalli Laxmaiah is an activist and coordinator of the Center for Dalit Studies