Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out on Sunday against mounting atrocities on Dalits across India, condemning caste discrimination and lashing out at self-styled cow protectors accused of targeting Muslims and the scheduled castes.
At an event in Hyderabad, Modi described attacks on Dalits as blot on humanity but said such assaults were being exploited by some leaders for political gains.
“If you want to attack Dalits, attack me first. If you want to fire at Dalits, fire the first bullet at me. But the nation will not forgive us if attacks on Dalits continue like this,” Modi told a massive gathering of BJP workers.
Modi’s comments come roughly a month after four Dalit men skinning a dead cow were flogged by alleged cow protectors in Gujarat.
A video of the incident went viral, triggering massive protests and hurting the BJP’s chances in assembly polls next year in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat – where the sizeable Dalit community may vote against the party.
Opposition parties have repeatedly alleged that Modi’s silence on the mushrooming cow protection vigilantes and Dalit atrocities encourage fringe groups to take the law into their own hands.
Earlier on Sunday, Modi urged people at a separate event to be alert against “fake” cow protection vigilantes. He said “fake” cow protectors should be exposed and punished, asking state governments to take action against such elements.
“These so-called gau rakshaks (cow protectors) have nothing do with cow protection. All they want is to create tension in (the) society,” the Prime Minister said. This was the second time in 24 hours that had lashed out at self-styled cow protectors.
Dalits form almost a fifth of India’s population and have traditionally stayed away from the BJP, which is seen as a party of dominant castes. But in the past two years, the saffron party has repeatedly attempted to reach out to the scheduled caste community with funds, programmes and induction of Dalit ministers in the cabinet.
The outreach plan, however, hit rough weather in January when PhD student Rohith Vemula committed suicide at the University of Hyderabad after alleged caste discrimination. The death sparked nationwide protests and allegations that the BJP was anti-Dalit.
But in Hyderabad, Modi defended his government’s record of Dalit empowerment, saying the issue was being politicised to malign the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) administration.
“We are ensuring all central schemes reach every Dalit family. The Opposition fears that if it happens, the NDA will remain in power for another 50 years,” he said.
He also regretted India’s centuries-old caste system, saying it was unfortunate that untouchability was still prevailing at a time India was advocating the concept of treating the world as one family. “Dalits had been subject to discrimination for ages. This has to go and we have to protect their rights,” he said.
He recalled that during his visit to the United Nations, he mentioned the services of not only Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi, but also Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution.
“The NDA government, along with the Maharashtra government bought Ambedkar’s residence in London. We have constructed Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai. When we celebrated Ambedkar birthday as the national festival, the Opposition parties were shaken,” he said.