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Cow and culture

By Kancha Ilaiah

They killed five Dalits for skinning a cow... At least now the whole nation must stand up against this kind of spiritual and political nationalism.

IS A cow's life worthier than that of five Dalits? The Dalits have had to pay an enormous price — of remaining untouchables — for removing carcasses from villages and towns for thousands of years. They had to pay the price of remaining illiterate and insecure for building up the leather economy of India. If they had not removed dead cattle, dogs and even humans, the people in the towns and villages would have died of disease — dreadful contagious diseases at that. Even now they keep paying a price — sometimes with their lives as happened at Jhajhar in Haryana.

What was essentially scientific was constructed as spiritually bad and sinful in Manudharma Shastra. Such superstitions keep getting passed off as spiritual and scriptural. More shocking is that Hindutva organisations such as the VHP want to implement them, emboldened by the fact that their ideological twins are at the helm of the state. They killed five Dalits for skinning a dead cow on a roadside in Haryana. They say the Hindu scriptures prohibit such an act. To bolster their case, for the modernist legal context, the murderers say the Dalit youth were skinning a live cow.

The leather industry was one of the first that Indian society had established, much before the Europeans and Americans. Instead of being proud of them, society rendered the builders "untouchable". There is some thing basically wrong with this mode of understanding divinity and spirituality. The problem is deeper than present behaviour of the VHP and its ilk shows. An anti-scientific temper runs deep in the Hindu psyche. Does this not deserve much more serious debate? Is the struggle against such a spiritual psyche to be carried by only the Dalits?

Many of the VHP leaders themselves are industrialists. Some of them are training their children in America — their dreamland — to become successful industrialists. Some of them are even involved in the leather industry. How does the leather industry exist without skinning dead cattle? If doing leather business is not sinful, how does skinning a carcass become sinful? How does leather come into existence without skinning dead animals? The Shastras say that it was for doing this early industrial job that the Dalits became untouchable. Now Dalits get lynched for doing this job. What kind of nationalism is this?

Incidentally, when this took place I have been touring America — the dreamland of many Indians. I met many boys and girls — many of them Brahmin too — who are working in beef-packing and leather units. A majority of them eat beef as well. Do all of them become untouchables? By invoking the same scriptures that the Hindutva forces are talking about, they too should be declared untouchable and never should be allowed to enter the Hindurashtra that Bal Thackeray is talking about. But these beef-eating NRIs fill their hundis with dollars and hence they are most lovable. How do they explain this mode of Hinduism?

Indians do not live with one mode of scriptures. We have the Buddhist scriptures, we have had the Bible as a living book for 2,000 years in India. The Quran has been India for more than 1,000 years. The Dalits in the spiritual realm have more affinity with Buddhism and Christianity than Hinduism. In their spiritual realm, the cow is not sacred. How can Hindutva forces impose their spirituality on others? Second, how can spirituality allow so much hypocrisy, terrorism and brutality in day-to-day life? The Hindutva forces want to welcome economic globalisation but do not want to learn any thing from the process of cultural globalisation. How do the global spiritual cultures see the relationship between animals and human beings? Is it not important to learn from all positive cultures?

In the economic realm, they want to do the leather business, in the political realm, they want to use Dalits as vote givers, and in the spiritual realm, the science and technological process that the Dalits as historical people constructed became impure, polluted. Not that the professions that the OBCs are involved in their day-to-day life - washing clothes, making pots and rearing sheep and cattle — have become spiritually acceptable for Hindutva forces. They too still — perhaps forever — remain impure. All the Sudras/OBCs involved in productive activity continue to be unacceptable to become priests in Hindu temples. But their muscle power becomes acceptable to kill Dalits in the name of cow protection, Muslims in the name of religion. Even the Yadavs who work within Hindutva organisations do not ask why the buffalo, that gives us most of our milk, is not sacred?

Our intellectual class does not ask why Hindu nationalism gets constructed around issues such as animal sacredness and human pollution? When I asked this question at my Columbia University talk, the Indian diaspora intellectuals appeared to entirely agree with me. But how much writing they did on such issues is the moot question. What kind of theoretical and practical nationalism do we have? No one asks why the cow alone should remain a constitutionally protected animal under the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Today the whole world knows that the black people's culture got assimilated not only in American civil society. It became part of the state system as well. The American Constitution values the black life absolutely equally to the white life. The Indian intellectuals must realise that the civil war to grant equal rights for blacks was not fought by blacks. It was fought by the whites under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. African-American taxi drivers tell a lot of positive stories about white intellectuals. They say that because many of them sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the blacks. Where is such a rebellion against the barbarity of treating the life of a cow as more worthy than that of five Dalits in India? Imagine such a thing taking place against African-Americans today. Would not such an incident have created conditions for another civil war? Look at the way the Indian legal agencies are dealing with this brutality. They are waiting to find out whether the cow was dead or alive when it was skinned.

The Hindutva forces do not think of abandoning such superstitious notions of life and religion. So far there is no evidence of the Hindu spiritual leadership coming down heavily on the VHP leadership even on this issue. The rulers in New Delhi remain indifferent as well. After the BJP came to power, the cow question was brought to the national agenda again and again. Earlier, it was always in reference to Muslims. Now Dalits get lynched. Their very livelihood is attacked.

The OBCs who are getting used in all kinds of fundamentalist activities, including the Gujarat pogrom, possibly must have been used in this lynching of Dalits as well. Many Dalit activists have been complaining that the OBCs are getting involved in attacks against them more and more. The OBCs must realise that the very same fundamentalists are going to say that the caste hierarchical practices must come into operation in classical form. They may disqualify them to contest elections and administer the state. The Hindutva attacks did not stop with Muslims. They targeted Christians and now the Dalits. At least now the whole nation must stand up against this kind of spiritual and political nationalism.

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