Another day, another gau rakshak attack. On Wednesday, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh, where two Muslim women were punched, slapped and abused by a mob incensed at the possibility they might be carrying beef, which is considered taboo by many Hindus. The assault occurred under the supervision of police officers, who stood by and let the beating take place.

Not only that: the attack was precipitated by the police, who, acting on a tip-off, had gone to arrest the two women at Mandsaur town’s railway station for allegedly selling beef. Currently, the two assaulted women have been detained by the police even as their assailants roam free.

The attack is surprisingly similar to another that took place in Gujarat on July 11. Here too cow protection extremists proceeded to assault people in order to protect the animal. In Gujarat too, the police looked on, facilitating the attack and, in the end, ironically, detaining the victims for allegedly harming a bovine. The only difference, of course, was that in Gujarat, the victims were Dalits. They were, in fact, the second Dalit victims of gau rakshaks this month. Five days after the Gujarat attack, a 50-strong Bajrang Dal mob assaulted a Dalit family in Karnataka, accusing them of eating beef. Even here, it was the victims who were booked by the police.

This fact that Dalits and Muslims were being targeted by cow vigilantes didn’t go unnoticed. In Parliament, Mayawati, leader of the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party, took the initiative in criticising the BJP for its bovine politics. With the Uttar Pradesh elections up next year and the Bahujan Samaj Party looking for Muslim votes, will this wave of gau rakshak attacks across India help precipitate a Dalit-Muslim alliance?

Cows and caste

The relation between cows and caste is one that has been apparent for a long time now. As far back as 1927, Mohandas Gandhi’s prescription for ending untouchability placed the onus on Dalits to adopt upper-caste cultural practises. Gandhi advised the Dalits to give up “serious defect” such as uncleanliness, liquor, adultery and beef eating since “cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism”. BR Ambedkar was well-aware of this bias and therefore called beef-eating the “root of untouchability”, writing:

No Hindu community, however low, will touch cow’s flesh. On the other hand, there is no community which is really an Untouchable community which has not something to do with the dead cow. Some eat her flesh, some remove the skin, some manufacture articles out of her skin and bones.

Ambedkar’s prescription has held: violence against Dalits linked to the cow is an endemic feature of Indian life. In 2002, for example, five Dalits were bludgeoned to death by a gau rakshak mob in Jhajjar Haryana.

Hindutva + Dalit politics

The rise of Hindutva politics since 1991 made the issue worse, as the idea of gau raksha got enshrined as a number of states in India proceeded to draft theological laws to criminalise cow slaughter. In Gujarat, for example, Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government passed a draconian law that carried a seven-year sentence for cow slaughter. In 2014, the theme of a “pink revolution” was a major campaign plank of Modi’s: a conspiracy theory that held that the Congress was insidiously planning to mass slaughter India’s cows.

Unsurprisingly, after the Bharatiya Janata Party took power in Delhi, gau raksha extremists exploded into the headlines. In 2015, a Muslim man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh was beaten to death for allegedly eating beef even as a Union minister condoned the lynching.

But Hindutva wasn't the only political movement that was growing: Dalits were mobilising too. The suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in January after being hounded by BJP Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya set off a storm of Dalit protest. So did the July 11 assault by gau rakshaks, with Dalits bringing large parts of Gujarat to a halt. While Dalit oppression is nothing new, the Dalit response was. This large-scale fight back was unprecedented.

A Dalit-Muslim coalition, while obvious on paper given their mutually disadvantaged positions in society, has never actually materialised. But given this new Dalit movement as well as increased gau rakshak extremism, this alliance might have a better chance to get off the ground. Or at least, that’s what Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party would be hoping to achieve come the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections.