‘Take your cow’: That one slogan from Una

The protesting Dalits ironically concede the majority's right to its belief in the holy cow.

 |  5-minute read |   10-07-2017
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The Una movement is going to complete one year this July 2017. On this occasion, the Rashtriya Adhikar Dalit Manch, led by Jignesh Mevani, is organising the "Azadi Kooch" (march from Mehsana to Dhanera), with an all-India conference in Ahmedabad. The BJP government has revoked the permission earlier given for the march, which only shows the movement's radical energy.

As that unfolds, let us ask: What is new about the Jignesh Mevani-led Una movement? Everybody seems to agree that the movement is connecting the caste question with the economic question. Apparently, Mewani is going beyond "mere" symbolic politics against caste (like building Ambedkar statues) and instead foregrounding the need to challenge what he calls the "material basis" of caste oppression (demanding that every landless Dalit be given five acres). But that sounds pretty bland, textbook Leftism: focus on the "economic", on the land question, and so on. This must be unpacked.

For, let us not forget that the focus on the "material basis of caste" has so often meant bypassing the fight against what Ambedkar called the "social ideology" of Brahminism which produces caste. Dalit radicals, like Ambedkarites at www.roundtableindia.co.in, are often right in seeing a (secret) Brahminism at work in the emphasis on "material basis" and in the Left’s rejection of "identity politics".

The same is to be seen in the work of "public intellectuals" like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, whose "public" is only another name for "rational politics" shielded from passion and marked by constraint. Interest-based "identity politics" is treated as irrational and bad for democracy.

Emphasis on "material basis" (or on "rational politics") is often an alibi for not confronting the very ideology of varnashramadharma. Fortunately, there are indications that the Una movement is not resorting to any such alibi.

It rejects both "identity politics" and the alibi-centric notion of "material basis" or the "economic". It attacks the ideology of Brahminism (in this case, the belief in the 'holy cow') in and through opening up the question of the material dependence of society on the casteist division of labour.

Take the slogan, “Gaay ki poonch tum rakho, hume hamari zameen do” (You keep the tail of your cow, give us our rightful land!). It does not say, give me the right to eat beef, or to kill the cow, since I do not believe in the idea of the "holy cow". It does not ask for the minority's "right to be different", it does not ask for "tolerance". It does not exclude the "right to eat beef" but nor does it foreground this "minority" demand.

So much so, it ironically concedes the majority's rights to its belief in the holy cow. If the "holy cow" is your identity, if you claim that is what defines you authentically, then I am not contesting you there – I have no quarrel with you there, you please "take your cow", but you give me something else (land).

Traditional Leftist common sense treats the second part, "give us our land", the so-called "material basis" as the crucial part. But we must overcome that temptation, and not get detained here. Let us continue with the first part about belief and ideology. For here comes the punch - if you love the "mother cow" so much, if you can kill us to defend the "holy cow", then you surely want to do the work of clearing off the carcasses of your "mother cow"!

Here is our resolve: we are not clearing the dead carcasses. Again and again in the Una movement Dalits declared their refusal to carry out the so-called "traditional occupation" of clearing and skinning dead cows!

In July 2016, cow carcasses were deposited in the collector’s office in Surendra Nagar. This refusal created a serious crisis. Stinking, rotting carcasses began to pile up in the middle of the town and village. Cow protection outfits were completely clueless about dealing with the situation. "We can only pray that no more cows die," said Haresh Joshi, member of Hindu Gau Raksha Dal that works in Ahmedabad district. Society could no longer function normally.

What got highlighted through this refusal is how Dalits are indispensable in carrying out a critical function of society. Society as a whole uses their labour and is materially dependent on it. And yet the same society cannot give them a respectable position within the social edifice. Society as a whole is complicit in caste oppression - "Not in My Name" is not possible.

The refusal undermines the material reproduction of society and shows how the belief in the holy cow sustains a casteist division of labour. It shows how the belief itself must be attacked and how the material question, the question of labour, must be grasped from within the structure of Brahminical ideology and belief. The same goes for "gender", "environment" and so on. This refusal is like the "workers' strike" gone beyond the factory, cutting across the entire social body, and now ricocheting back on the beliefs of the workers themselves.

The belief cannot be attacked as just a majority imposing its beliefs on the minority. The majority's beliefs is seen to be sustained by the labour of the minority. Or, rather, the majority's belief is actually a material force which holds down the Dalits and minorities (including the Muslim and adivasi underclass).

The second part, "give back our land", on its own, however, is an economic demand which often presents itself as a sectoral demand without unpacking the casteist social order and indeed the casteist division of labour. "Land to the tiller" is a very old and hackeneyed Leftist demand which really does not amount to much, and, in our case, will surely be an alibi for not taking on the ideology of Brahminism head-on.

Will Jignesh Mevani fall for the simple Leftist temptation?

The slogan (with both parts) itself is fortunately not a hackneyed Leftist emphasis on the "economic". The Una movement, so far, focuses on the economic, not to move away from the ideological edifice of caste but to really grasp it in all its dimensions. It is a "blue" which exudes the real "red", not the faded "red" of "the Left".

The Una movement allows us to recall what Leftists have forgotten: that what Marx was doing was not "political economy" but the "critique of political economy".

Also read: BJP can no longer take Dalits for granted

Writer

Saroj Giri Saroj Giri

Saroj Giri is a social commentator.

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