In the current session of Parliament, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been at the receiving end of severe criticism from the opposition over a whole host of hot-button issues. These include the Centre’s role in fomenting a Constitutional crisis in Arunachal Pradesh, the alleged mishandling of the recent mass protests in Kashmir and failure to secure NSG membership, among others. However, the most damaging criticism from the opposition benches was reserved for the recent events in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. With urgent business in Parliament and two major state elections (UP and Punjab) on the horizon, these events could not have come at a worse time for the BJP. Since Monday, BJP-ruled Gujarat has been witness to mass protests against the brutal assault of Dalit leather tanners by cow protection vigilantes in Una taluka on July 11. The local police did nothing to stop or prevent the attack, according to an independent fact-finding report on the incident. The assault on the tanners was caught on camera and the video went viral when one of the accused uploaded it.
In a brazen disregard for the rule of law, one of the accused was heard warning people against killing cows unless they want to be subject to similar treatment. The video showed several men stripping the victims, tying them to a vehicle and beating them up with iron pipes and wooden sticks. Suffice to say, the incident has caused a serious outrage among the lower castes, many of whom have skinned dead animals for several generations. Thousands are on the streets, dumping cow carcasses in public places as a show of protest. These protests have come soon after the high-octane agitation for reservations in government jobs and educational institutions by the high-caste Patel community. Although atrocities against lower castes are a common occurrence in the state, the sight of Dalit men being thrashed mercilessly for merely doing their job has touched a raw nerve. In an obvious attempt to save face for the BJP, which has openly supported cow protection vigilante groups in the past, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh condemned the attack and said the government was committed to stopping such atrocities.
Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, a senior leader of the BJP and the erstwhile vice-president of its state unit remarked on Wednesday that Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati was “worse than a prostitute” for allegedly selling party tickets ahead of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The resulting furore brought proceedings in Parliament to a grinding halt and the BJP was forced into issuing an apology for the statement. To its credit, the party sacked Dayashankar Singh from all party posts. The BJP has been wooing Dalits, a politically crucial community in Uttar Pradesh which goes to the polls early next year. Dayashankar Singh’s comments have the potential to damage its efforts. The party hopes that it will be able to contain the damage by acting swiftly against him. But there are other potential costs that the BJP may have to bear. Reports indicate that Singh is a key figure for the party in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Wooing the Dalit community has been central to the BJP’s strategy of consolidating the Hindu vote. BJP President Amit Shah has on numerous occasions insisted that the party must bring Dalits on board in a major way if it is to realise its ambition of enhancing its national presence and shed the image of an upper caste party relegated to the Brahmins and Baniyas (traders). Suffice to say, such tasteless remarks and instances of cow vigilantism do the BJP no favours at all. But beyond the politics of these incidents, it is frighteningly clear that scourge of casteism continues to haunt India in a myriad ways.