Translated and introduced by Gopika Jadeja.
11th July marked a year since four Dalit youths were stripped and brutally beaten for skinning a dead cow in Mota Samadhiyala, Gujarat, by self-styled gau rakshaks, cow vigilantes. This was one in several incidents of violence, particularly towards Dalits and Muslims, in the past few months. A recent report shows that over the past eight years there have been 63 incidents of cow-related-violence. 61 of these incidents occurred after May 2014. The first such case that garnered much attention in the media was the Dadri mob lynching of 2015, where a 50-year-old man named Mohammed Akhlaq was killed, and his family members beaten for allegedly killing a cow and consuming it. The Mota Samadhiayala incident followed in 2016.
The Dalit youth in Mota Samadhiyala were targeted for skinning a dead cow, something their community is traditionally tasked with. The incident led to large-scale protests in Gujarat and landless Dalits refused to handle carcasses of cattle and demanded land. The refusal to dispose of dead cattle means that the upper castes are forced to find ways of ridding themselves of the ‘pollution’. Dalits refusing to associate themselves with this ‘polluting’ task and finding other means of livelihood, such as tilling land (one of their demands) is a step towards gaining respect.
While the cow may be sacred in Hinduism and revered as a mother, it is vital as a means of livelihood and sustenance for Muslims and Dalit communities. It is important to note that the ban on beef, which spurs cow vigilantes, deals a blow to both livelihood and sustenance. For Dalits, the carcasses of cattle also become a source of nourishment – each part of the carcass is processed and prepared for consumption. Beef is also cheaper in India than other types of meat and thus a staple for poorer communities, whose interests are ignored by those demanding the ban and enforcing it.
With the recent rise of cow vigilantism in India, cow symbolism in Dalit poetry takes on renewed significance. Here are two poems in translation by Gujarati Dalit poets Shankar Painter and B. N. Vankar, written many decades before cow vigilantism in its current form reared its head. Shankar Painter’s poem addresses cow vigilantism and relates it directly to the political project of Hindutva, while B N Vankar’s poem re-imagines not only the language of Dalit poetry but asserts Dalit identity through a rejection of the cow as sacred.
A Cow Worshiper’s Ramrajya by Shankar Painter
The cow’s milk may be for the calf,
we are skilled at snatching the rights
of others. Calves are speechless beings!
We have destroyed the consciousness
of our slaves and made them eternally
silent. This cow worship is our religious
politics. Progress for science and the world!
We want to bring back our ten-thousand-year-
old Ramrajya. No Shambhuka should exist
under any circumstance. With much cunning
Drona chopped off Evlavya’s thumb. We are
descendants of the same Eklavya.
Ramrajya: Literally the rule of Rama, believed to be a golden and just time.
Shambhuka: In the Valmiki Ramayana, a sudra ascetic beheaded by Rama for performing penance.
Eklavya: Another character from the Ramayana, a tribal whose thumb claimed by the Guru Drona as fees (gurudakshina) with the knowledge that it would rob him of the ability to wield the bow and arrow. Eklavya excelled at archery despite the offering of his thumb to Drona.
Overbridge by B. N. Vankar
The cow has never
or given milk
in our house
What is this debate about then?
We will build an overbridge
to cross the vaitarni.
Vankar begins with a rejection of the cow as sacred because for the Dalit it has never fulfilled the role of kamdhenu, the cow that gives plenty. What he has received is the carcass of the cow, to skin and eat its dead meat. He also alludes to another Hindu belief – the dead soul holds the tail of a cow in order to cross the vaitarni, the river of death. The poet’s rejection of the cow – he will build an overbridge across the vaitarni — is a rejection of the monolingual Hindutva order and an invitation to the invention of a new language as he builds his overbridge.
Gopika Jadeja is a joint PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore and the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Her research project focuses on Dalit Literature in the western Indian state of Gujarat and questions of identity and nationhood. Image Credit: CC by Indian Dalits/ Flickr