Caste, environment and the holy cow

By Arpitha Kodiveri

The term “Dalits” refers to the untouchables or outcastes, they fall outside of the Indian caste system and the term translates to ‘broken people’. Caste identity in India continues to determine the nature of occupation, practices of untouchability and marriage. In a recent spate of events four Dalit youth were subjected to physical violence by a group of right-wing Hindu cow vigilantes who have organized themselves in the form of Gau Rakshak Dals (Cow Protection Units) in Una, Gujarat. The incident occurred when the Dalit youth were skinning a cow, which is an occupation that lower caste communities have been practicing. The assailants assumed these youth had killed the cow for meat. This has triggered the largest Dalit movement to fight against caste-based oppression in recent history. What fascinates me about this movement is the claim being made by the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (A committee to fight against the caste based atrocities in Una): they will volunteer to forgo their caste-prescribed occupation of cleaning dead carcasses and manual scavenging, but, as an alternative, they demand land for Dalits which has not reached them despite the land reforms that have been experienced in Gujarat.

This is a poignant moment in environmental politics in India, where right-wing Hindutva sentiments of protecting the cow took on a militant form. As Omvedt explains in her article ‘Why Dalits dislike environmentalists’, there is a deep alienation between two of the most powerful social movements in India: the anti-caste movement and the environment movement. This alienation might be located in what Mukul Sharma describes as the push within the existing environmental movement to protect traditional occupations, which reinforces the caste system. In this case, the violence that the Dalit youth were subjected to was intrinsically linked to the practice of their caste-prescribed occupation of skinning dead cows, and the movement that arose was about challenging the caste-induced labor constraints for Dalits and opening up a new avenue of demands for land.  This development, in many ways, bridges the alienation between the two movements.

This right-wing Hindu environmental sentiment primarily focused on the protection of the cow does not acknowledge the cultural practice of beef consumption. In a seminal book by Sharmila Rege Isn’t this plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food it reads “In a caste based society like India, foods eaten constitute one of the key elements that distinguish the most valued attributes from the lowest valued ones in terms of pure and impure within the pyramidal structure of the caste system”. Our food is politicized on the axis of caste and the purification of the plate through historical efforts of banning cow slaughter and consumption of beef is now doused in the environmental politics of changing our diet to protect animals. Ambedkar argues in The Untouchables: who were they and how they became untouchables? that the consumption of beef and animal sacrifice, which is an aspect present in most Hindu scriptures, was thawed away from its practices in order to prevent the popularization of Buddhism which denounced animal sacrifice. The cow which was earlier sacrificed now became sacred and needed protection. The protection of the cow is seen as a symbol of Hindutva environmentalism as it is considered sacred and fits within the frame of contemporary environmental movements who fight for animal rights and welfare.

The economic argument made for cow protection is a very limited view of the economic life of the cow. It states that cow protection will protect the livelihoods of the farmers by yielding milk, digging the soil, cow urine has medicinal value and cow dung can be used for biogas and lining of the floors. These are valid economic arguments. However, lower caste communities eke out a living by skinning dead cows and cleaning their carcasses. The economic view of the cow is also one divided into the pure and impure. These lower-caste-based economic priorities do not feature in the historical arguments made for cow protection. The stand taken by the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (A committee formed to fight the atrocities against Dalits in Una, Guajarat) is an interesting one, for it states that the material basis of reliance on the cows can be done away with; instead, they make a claim for land. This claim for land is an important one given that property rights were historically denied to Dalits on the basis of their caste. The land reforms in Gujarat have not had the desired impact on these communities. This Dalit movement, then, argues that if the cow needs to be protected, then the economic dependency of the lower caste communities will have to be shifted from skinning cows to having land. The slogan that shapes this campaign is “Keep the Cow’s tail and give us our land back”.

Like the economic argument, the ecological argument in defense of caste-based occupations ignores marginalization and discrimination. Gadgil and Malhotra have argued that the caste system plays a role in limiting conflict over natural resources and thus has an ecological function, if not justification. However, this assessment ignores the social discrimination that is embedded in maintaining the caste system, and, in particular, its occupational markers. There has always been an intrinsic link between the marginalization on the basis of caste and access to resources as opposed it being an ecologically sustainable social structure. The Mahad satyagraha (a march led by B.R Ambedkar in 1927) was a struggle to gain access to water in public wells. The struggle now is for land.

This new Dalit movement has the potential to reshape environmental justice politics by infusing it with the caste-based struggle for access to resources. This would also signal a move away from the right-wing Hindu sentiment of protection of the cow, which criminalizes Dalit occupations and diets. In other words, this movement has the potential of refocusing the environmental movement’s views of Dalits, which, largely because of the criminalization of their occupations and diets, has viewed them as disrespecting values of animal protection (especially of the sacred cow). Instead, the movement could shift the environmental justice argument of Dalit communities to equitable access to resources.

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