Narendra Modi’s speech to the annual conference of state police chiefs in Gujarat on December 22 provides a glimpse into why he has largely maintained a stony silence over gruesome mob lynchings in the name of the cow. The prime minister thinks caste-based faultlines represent a far greater crisis for India than the religious chasms. He did not say it explicitly but this is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the points he chose to emphasise and those he glossed over.

According to a statement on the prime minister’s website, he cautioned the police chiefs against divisive elements who exploit caste faultlines for short-term gains. By contrast, he did not seem concerned about those widening the religious gulf.

In fact, whatever concern he displayed was from the perspective of terrorism. He applauded police forces for countering terrorism and confining it to a small geographic area of the country (read Kashmir). He then urged them to counter “the dark forces of radicalisation and to engender trust among all communities across the nation”.

In India, the word “radicalisation” is mostly employed for Muslim youths who pick up the gun, in Kashmir or elsewhere. Even if it is assumed that Modi used the word to describe the growing extremism among all religious communities, it is bewildering why he should have been so evasive and circumspect. He did not refer to the widening of the religious chasm despite the alarming spurt in the lynching of Muslims ferrying cattle, or the battering of Christians for allegedly converting Hindus.

Modi’s refusal to unequivocally address the problem of religious conflict appears particularly glaring in the wake of the killing of Subodh Kumar Singh. The police officer was killed as he tried to pacify a mob agitated over the discovery of cow carcasses in a village in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. Afterwards, Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Sanjay Sharma seemed to justify the murder when he said, “You are seeing the death of only Sumit [another person killed in the incident] and a police officer but not the deaths of 21 cows [whose carcasses were found].”

The ruling party’s apparent endorsement of violence prompted 83 former bureaucrats last week to write an open letter reminding public servants of their “constitutional duty to fearlessly implement the Rule of Law rather than the perverse dictates of their political masters”. Among such political masters, they named Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, whom they described as a “high priest of the agenda of bigotry”.

This was the sentiment Modi should have expressed, loudly and unambiguously, in his address to the police chiefs. After all, one of their conscientious officers had been killed performing his constitutional just over a fortnight ago. Modi’s reference to Bulandshahr would have sent a message to police officers that Hindutva lynch mobs are not to be mollycoddled.

A hierarchy of priorities

Contrast Modi’s silence on lynch mobs to his cautioning the police chiefs against divisive elements exploiting caste faultlines and exhorting them to “strengthen forces that promote unity, and isolate divisive forces at the grassroots level”.

Modi’s is a typically Hindutva worldview which perceives caste and not religion as a mortal threat to India. In fact, Hindutva ideologues believe their philosophy can paper over its caste divisions to unite Hindus, who, since they are 80% of the population, would then weld India together. From Hindutva’s perspective, all those who wish to flatten the caste hierarchy are viewed as divisive forces because they seek to alter the status quo. Their project necessarily entails organising the lower castes to fight for land rights, education and employment opportunities. It also demands an end to discrimination and exploitation. It is impossible to achieve these goals without the subaltern groups acquiring a greater share in power than they currently have.

The politics of caste seeks to challenge the hegemonic groups, and depicts their relationship with the lower castes as one of conflict. Unlike Hindutva, this politics seeks to aggravate differences, not paper over them. There is no escaping conflict because the basis of the caste system is occupation – the more polluting the occupation the lower the social status of the group performing it. This principle of social organisation has created an extremely unequal social architecture.

Hindutva, by contrast, seeks harmonious change, a process which appears interminable precisely because it is incremental. It is to weaken the pull of caste politics that Hindutva’s footsoldiers are engaged in othering the religious minorities. They realise that religious conflicts will not redistribute power or reconfigure caste relationships since the basis of India’s social hierarchy is located in caste, not religion.

This is why Modi wants the police chiefs to isolate those who emphasise caste to usher in social change. The politics of caste threatens to impose a high cost on the BJP, as is evident from the growing alienation of Dalits, Patels and Jats from the party. As the 2019 Lok Sabha election draws near, the possibility of an alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will, subliminally, accord greater salience to the politics of caste than that of Hindutva. From this perspective, Modi could have been conveying to the police chiefs what their position ought to be in the Hindutva versus caste battle.

More ominously, Modi’s speech was a subtle threat to Dalits against assembling in Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. There, they celebrate the victory of the East India Company’s Mahar Dalit regiment over the Brahmin Peshwa’s army. The celebration has become a symbol of Dalit assertion. In 2018, the celebration led to violence and subsequently to the arrest of 10 civil rights activists. They were dubbed “Urban Naxals”, a term the BJP uses to demonise educated urban Indians who oppose the state’s treatment of the poor and marginalised. They are the same people who work to flatten the caste hierarchy and whom Modi perceives as divisive.

Through his speech, Modi established for the police chiefs a hierarchy of priorities – crush terrorism, isolate activists fighting for caste equality and ignore the mobs running amok in the name of the cow.