– BR Ambedkar
The dalits account for 165 million of India’s one billion-plus human population. The population of cows is pegged at 206 million. There are more cows than dalits in India. The cows, therefore, have more rights than dalits. For instance, you can kill dalits before thousands of witnesses and get away with it. But the imagined murder of a cow will not be suffered. The state promotes the drinking of cow urine and dung, while dalits are forced to eat the shit and piss of caste Hindus.
Ambedkar was, perhaps, ironically, aware of the literalness of his metaphor. Hindus have proved that they can not only eat dung and piss but digest it too. However, while he was right about what brahminic Hinduism could not ever absorb, what he perhaps did not reckon with was that latter-day dalits would be forced to eat the shit and piss of caste Hindus.
In Untouchables or The Children of India’s Ghetto, published posthumously like many of his other works, Ambedkar devotes two sections to highlight the practice of untouchability in his time through newspaper sources from the 1920s and 1930s. Close to 50 reports, culled from a variety of sources, from The Times of India to Hindi publications such as Jivan, Milap and Pratap, are cited in an effort to convince the reader that various forms of untouchability were indeed in practice.
However, not one of these mentions that the dalit-untouchables were forced to consume human excreta. Not one talks about dalits being lynched by a Hindu mob for skinning a cow.
Brahminic Hinduism has always yoked together practices that are at such odds with each other that the meaning of one is to be found in the meaninglessness of the other. While it is the brahmin who ritualistically excludes himself from the rest of the caste heap and indulgently renders himself untouchable, it is the dalit – whose touch of labour informs perhaps everything that is consumed and used by society – who is condemned to be untouchable.
The brahmin, to protect his untouchableness, has to render others untouchable. Such a play of contradictions that binds the brahminical social order is as historical as it is contemporary. In such a binary, the ridiculous and the unimaginable jostle with each other; the claim to superiority and merit of the one depends on the making inferior of the other. The ridiculous easily invites sarcasm, even critique by rational-scientific voices that unwittingly participate in the ridiculous, but the unimaginable defies words, language – it demands outrage but forces aphasia.
Demonstrative of this dichotomy, we see in New Delhi, India’s human resource development minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, proudly asserting the legitimacy invested upon the use of cow’s urine for therapeutic purposes by the United States patent authorities, while in Thinniam, an obscure village in Lalgudi taluq, Tiruchirapalli district, Tamil Nadu, two dalits are forced to eat dried human shit.
The state and the brahminical social order play equally proactive roles in both cases – promoting cow urine drinking among caste Hindus, and in forcing human shit and piss down dalit throats. The bizarre patenting of cow-urine therapy elicited three kinds of reactions: sniggers from the ‘secularists’ who were amused, at best; a sense of pride from a mostly-Hindutvaised brahmin-dominated media fraternity, among whom there could be several members who practice cow-urine therapy; and sheer indifference. How-ever, Thinniam went unnoticed, uncommented upon.
On 21 May this year, a caste-Hindu thevar family in Thinniam branded two dalits, Murugesan and Ramasamy, with hot iron rods and forced them to feed dried human excreta to each other. After local activists of the Dalit Panthers Movement heard about the incident on 30 May, they informed a human rights activist-lawyer and sometime in mid-June a press conference was organised where the dalits presented their testimonies. The mainstream media in India, which has almost no dalit members, ignored it.
About a month and a half later, the media splashed the news that the United States Patent and Trade Office had granted Patent No 6410059 to an "Indian innovation which has proved that cow’s urine can make antibiotics, anti-fungal agents and also anti-cancer drugs more effective" (The Hindu 4 July 2002). The product, cow-urine distillate (CUD), was the result of a joint enterprise by the centrally funded Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra (cow science research centre) in Nagpur.
Seems Murli Manohar Joshi, union minister for science and technology as well, notorious for introducing ‘vedic astrology’ and reviving Sanskrit courses in universities, had asked the Centre for Science and Industrial Research in 1999 to investigate the chemical properties of cow’s urine. According to The Indian Express (4 July 2002), 10 lakh rupees were spent over three years by the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants at Lucknow to establish that "certain compounds in cow urine, when used in combination with certain antibiotics like the commonly used anti-tuberculosis drug rifampicin, can help kill more bacteria than a single application of the antibiotic".
In Tamil Nadu, the Thinniam incident did not make any impression on the government, media, civil society or the mainstream intelligentsia. Most newspapers and television channels did not report it and those that did, like The Hindu, ran shy of seeming scatological and referred to it as simply "a heinous incident".
This neglect led to another Thinniam. On 7 September, Sankan, a dalit, was drinking tea with a friend at a shop in Goundampatti, Nilakottai taluq, Dindigul district when he was attacked by six caste Hindus. He was verbally abused and beaten up, after which an off-duty constable urinated in his mouth. Sankan had earned the wrath of the caste Hindu gounder community because he had aggressively pursued his right to a piece of land of which he had been cheated.
Today in the village, even the dalits appear angry with Sankan because the caste Hindus are threatening the entire community with social boycott. Peace in a village can be maintained as long as the dalits accept oppression and learn to digest urine.
The profanity of the sacred
Before ‘discovering’ the medicinal values of cow-urine and dung, the brahmins, during the vedic and immediate post-vedic period, ate the meat of all kinds of animals (see Indian Food by KT Achaya, 1998). As evident from brahminic texts such as the Satpathatha Brahmana and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, beef was in fact a favourite food in vedic times.
Following the powerful discourse of spiritual democracy that Buddhism unleashed, brahmins were forced to give up beef and their cults of animal sacrifice. As the dalit-bahujan writer, Kancha Ilaiah, points out in God as Political Philosopher, "Though the use of animal power had been discovered, the killing of animals in the yajnas prevented their practical implementation". With the coming to power of the Buddhist king Asoka in the third century BCE, whose edicts proscribed the killing of animals for sacrifice (however, not necessarily for food), the brahmins not only gave up beef but slowly turned vegetarian and remained so in a post-Buddhist society; in a reversal, those who continued to, and were forced to, consume beef, specifically the meat of the dead cow – not in a grand sacrificial manner, but as ordinary food – were labelled untouchables. They became the ‘broken people’, literally "dalit", falling outside the pale of the fourfold varna system to which all caste Hindus belong.
According to this theory of the origin of untouchability that Ambedkar formulates, the broken people were the pre-untouchables of the ‘primitive society’. To paraphrase him: During the frequent wars between the ‘settled tribesmen’ and the ‘nomadic tribes’, those who were separated from their communities came to constitute the ‘broken men’; these were then captured and used by the agriculture-bound settled community to protect the villages from the invading nomads. Though there was no ritual untouchability imposed on the broken people, they were to live segregated from the main village. It was a time where there was no taboo on cow’s meat and it was consumed by all.
After the brahmins made the cow a sacred animal and made beef-eating a sacrilege, the broken people continued to consume beef. The broken people were not to own any wealth, land or cattle. They could not kill a cow for its meat because they did not own any. But why were they allowed to eat beef when the brahmins and non-brahmins had given it up? Because eating the dead cow’s meat was not a crime; killing a cow was. They could also not imitate the savarnas in giving up beef-eating, because they "could not afford it. The flesh of the dead cow was their principal sustenance. Without it they would starve. In the second place, carrying the dead cow had become an obligation though originally it was a privilege. As they could not escape carrying the dead cow they did not mind using the flesh as food in the manner in which they were doing previously". (Ambedkar, Untouchables: Who They Were and Why They Became Untouchables, Volume 7 of Writings and Speeches, 1990)
Having given up the most edible and nutritious part of the cow, and forcing the outcastes to consume the same, the brahminic caste Hindus began sacralising the cow, specifically the humped zebu breed found in the Subcontinent, which finds mention in the Rig veda and is common on Indus Valley Civilisation seals. The black buffalo was not endowed with any such sanctity in spite of its more nutritive milk. They also sacralised and consumed every product and by-product of the cow – milk, ghee, curd, dung and urine – substitutions for the real thing, beef. They mixed these five ingredients to make panchgavya, assigned it therapeutic value, and ascribed a place for it in the purity-pollution binary.
Hence the Manusmriti, a post-Buddhist text dated around the second century CE, ordains that "a twice-born man so deluded that he has drunk liquor should drink boiling-hot cow’s urine, water, milk, clarified butter, or liquid cow dung until he dies"(chapter 11, verses 91-92). Another verse decrees: to make up for the crime of "stealing raw or uncooked food, a carriage, a bed, the cleansing is swallowing the five cow-products" (Chapter 11, verse 166, from the translation by Wendy Doniger, Penguin, 1991).
Several Hindu temples, such as the one at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, serve panchgavya and cow’s urine as prasadam (divine offering) for a price. Cow’s urine has since remained ‘sacred’ and Murli Manohar Joshi, while announcing the patent achievement, recalled with pride the contemporaneity of it: "When I was young and went to Chennai on an educational tour, I saw people drinking cow’s urine straight from the source. Everybody thought it was dirty. Today, I realise that all traditional practices from ancient Indian medicine have a strong scientific base" (The Indian Express, 4 July 2002).
And today, that a patent on cow-urine therapy is being bestowed by the largest consumer of beef in the world does not bother the rightwing Hindu fundamentalist Sangh Parivar or Joshi.
The brahmins and brahminic Hindus (dwijas – twice born) have been consuming cow’s urine and other waste for centuries and continue to do so. The bovine becomes divine – Kamadhenu, gau-maata (the cow as the mother) – but the dalit-untouchables are rendered subhuman.
Ambedkar says, "In Manu, there is also a provision for getting rid of defilement by transmission – namely by touching the cow or looking at the sun after sipping water". Meaning, a dwija, defiled by the sight or touch of a dalit-untouchable, has simply to touch a cow to be cleansed. The pollution caused by touching the wrong human being can be nullified by touching the right animal. Hindus believe that some 330 million gods and goddesses reside in the bowels of the cow. Yet, when a cow dies, caste Hindus would stay away. Touching the dead cow and burying it are jobs assigned to the dalit-untouchables.
And yet, today we witness in India an episode that against this backdrop defies explanation. In Dulina, Jhajjar district, Haryana, two hours from the capital, New Delhi, five dalits were lynched by a mob on 15 October. The dalits were reportedly sighted skinning a cow, but the local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) rumour mill, in collusion with the police, spread the word that the dalits had slaughtered the cow (The Indian Express 17-18 October).
Within three hours, a mob – of four to five thousand according to the police – gathered near the police station where the dalits were sheltered, pulled them out, burnt two of the them alive and lynched the other three with stones and sharp implements. At least 50 police personnel, three sub-divisional magistrates, the deputy superintendent of police of Jhajjar and Bahadurgarh and the block development officer watched the carnage. It was the last day of the Dussehra festivities, and the Sangh Parivar of which the VHP is a member – which has been working overtime to raise the consciousness of Hindus on issues bovine – found it easy to mobilise villagers from the surrounding areas to "avenge the killing of the cow-killers".
A post-mortem report of the cow was ordered by the superintendent of police, Mohammad Akil, and a case filed against the dead dalits under the Cow Slaughter Act 1960. It was reasoned by the SP that if the post-mortem proved that the cow was alive before the dalits skinned it, "it will show how the mob got emotional when they saw an act like this". The priest of the local temple, Mahendra Parmanand, was quoted as saying: "If they can kill our mother then what if we kill our brothers who kill her". The cow, Kamadhenu, is the mother being referred to. And we need to console ourselves: at least in death a brahmin priest was referring to the dalits as brothers. The VHP justified the killings saying, "According to Hindu shastras a cow’s life is very important".
Here is a country where the imagined murder of a cow can cause more outrage than the death of a human being. Again, the root of such attitudes lies in ancient brahminic injunctions. After the brahmins gave up beef-eating, cow-slaughter was made a punishable crime and equated with the killing of the brahmin, the ultimate crime. According to the scholar of Hinduism, DR Bhandarkar:
We have got the incontrovertible evidence of inscriptions to show that early in the 5th century AD killing a cow was looked upon as an offence of the deepest turpitude, turpitude as deep as that involved in murdering a Brahman. We have thus a copperplate inscription dated 465 AD and referring itself to the reign of Skandagupta of the Imperial Gupta dynasty. It registers a grant and ends with a verse saying: ‘Whosoever will transgress this grant that has been assigned (shall become as guilty as) the slayer of a cow, the slayer of a spiritual preceptor (or) the slayer of a Brahman’… A still earlier record [412 AD] placing go-hatya [cow-slaughter] on the same footing as brahma-hatya [brahmin-killing] is that of Chandragupta II, grandfather of Skandagupta… (Some Aspects of Ancient Indian Culture 1940, quoted in Ambedkar 1948).
Commenting on Bhandarkar, Ambedkar notes: "The law made by the Gupta emperors was intended to prevent those who killed cows. It did not apply to the Broken Men. For they did not kill the cow. They ate only the dead cow". Ambedkar, probably, did not reckon with how the law against cow killing could become an excuse to lynch dalits. He also perhaps did not know that one day cow-urine therapy would make its way to the US patent office, that India would have a law that prohibits cow-slaughter (Cow Slaughter Act 1960), and dalits would be lynched for dealing with the hide of a dead cow, or that dalits would be forced to eat shit and piss. What is unfolding against the dalits in India is something that even the Gupta period, ‘the golden age of Hinduism’, would not have witnessed or justified.
The Thinniam ‘rebellion’
In Thinniam, what was Murugesan and Ramasamy’s crime? They beat the thappu – a traditional leather drum used by dalits – and went about the village announcing that Rajalakshmi Subramani and her husband Subramani had cheated their friend Karuppiah of 2000 rupees. About two and a half years ago, Karuppiah had paid 5000 rupees to Rajalakshmi who was then the president of the village panchayat (citizens council) – though her husband Subramani, a former schoolteacher, was the de facto president – for a house under a government scheme for his sister. Karuppiah’s sister was never allowed to occupy the house, and despite repeated requests, neither was the house allotted nor the money refunded. Eventually, Subramani returned 3000 rupees but Karuppiah insisted on the whole sum. When Subramani refused to pay up, Karuppiah decided to tell everyone in the village how he had been cheated.
Murugesan and Ramasamy accompanied Karuppiah as he went around the village with his thappu. Inebriated, and thus made bold, they declared that they would no longer render their traditional caste-based service as vettiyans (a dalit sub-community involved in burial ground work) to the caste Hindus if they did not get the money back from Subramani. In the villagers’ words, "They got drunk and made some noises they would otherwise not make".
Learning of this, Subramani summoned Karuppiah the next morning on 20 May. The entire family beat up Karuppiah, who then quietly returned home and left the village the same night. He rarely spends time in Thinniam these days.