Angered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments against cow vigilantism and frequent attacks on the low-caste Dalit community, Hindu fundamentalist groups across the country are threatening to withdraw their support of his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“He (Modi) has made sweeping statements, such as 80 percent of cow vigilantes were fake. That is not true. It seems he was just trying to appease the Dalits and Muslims for their votes in the upcoming (Uttar Pradesh state) polls,” Anuradha Mody of the Holy Cow Foundation, a Delhi-based cow protection group, told BenarNews.
“It feels as if we were stabbed by our own man,” she said, referring to Modi’s attack on self-styled anti-cow slaughter activists who frequently take the law into their hands under the pretext of protecting the animal considered holy in Hindu culture.
Cow slaughter and consumption of beef is banned in most states of Hindu-majority India.
On Saturday, during his first Town Hall interaction with Indian citizens since coming to power in 2014, Modi asked state governments to take stern action against “anti-social elements masquerading as cow protectors to save themselves.”
“I request state governments to prepare dossiers of these self-styled cow vigilantes. About 70 percent to 80 percent of them will be those who are involved in anti-social activities,” Modi said in his nationally televised speech.
“I want to tell everybody to beware of these fake cow protectors. These vigilantes have nothing to do with cow protection. Their only aim is to create tension and conflict,” Modi said while addressing a separate gathering in south India’s Telangana state on Sunday.
Modi speaks out for Dalits
Modi’s comments came nearly a month after four tannery workers of the Dalit community, which figures at the bottom of Hinduism’s rigid caste hierarchy, were publicly flogged by cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow in the PM’s home state of Gujarat.
The incident, which sparked national outrage, was just one among a spate of recent violent attacks on the historically marginalized group, long disregarded as untouchables.
The assault, which was videotaped and posted online, triggered widespread protests by the 180 million-strong Dalit community.
“What is the reason we torture our Dalit brothers? What right do you have? The section which has suffered for centuries, will you force them to suffer more?” Modi asked.
“If you want to attack Dalits, attack me first. If you want to fire at Dalits, fire the first bullet at me. The nation will not forgive us if attacks on Dalits continue like this,” he said.
Calling the Indian prime minister a “snake of the sleeve,” Pooja Shakun Pandey of the right-wing group Hindu Mahasabha, said, “He had lured people in the name of cow protection to get votes.”
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Hindu nationalist organization that campaigned for Modi in the 2014 elections, said BJP would pay the price for Modi’s comments.
“The BJP will not be able to come in power again in the 2019 polls,” the group’s vice president, Sunil Parashar, told reporters.
“The prime minister has hurt the sentiments of ‘gau rakshaks’ (cow protectors) who sacrifice their lives to save cows and (Modi) has termed them as criminals. He will have to pay for it in the next polls,” he said.
Neha Patel, a cow vigilante from Gujarat, told BenarNews: “It is true there are a few people who don’t care about cows but masquerade as cow protectors. But the figure given by Modi is highly overstated. I would say 80 percent to 90 percent of cow vigilantes ate genuine.”
The All India National Congress, the principal opposition party, also took aim at Modi, calling his remarks “absolutely humbug.”
“It is his ideological co-travelers who have been perpetrating this specter of uncertainty and terror in the name of cow lumpenism across the country. Whatever the Prime Minister said was absolutely humbug and completely sanctimonious,” Congress leader Manish Tewari told the Press Trust of India.
Dalit leader Bhawan Nath Paswan said Modi’s speech seemed to be “just another a political game plan” to secure votes from Dalits, who form 23 percent of India’s 1.25 billion population.
“If you see, most of the attacks on Dalits are happening in states where the BJP is in power. If he is so concerned, why does he not order action against the culprits?” Paswan told BenarNews.
“We voted for Modi not because he belonged to the BJP, but because we wanted him to lead the nation. It is time he now ensures implementation of what he has said,” he added.
Political analysts described Modi’s utterances as an attempt to reach out to the Dalit vote back ahead of the crucial assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in early 2017.
“This is not a new practice of the BJP. There is a steady pattern to it. Modi maintains silence until an election nears and then he suddenly speaks of these issues,” Deepak Tyagi, a Delhi-based political observer, told BenarNews.