People from India's low-caste community shout slogans as they block traffic during a protest against the flogging of four men accused of skinning a cow, in Ahmedabad, India, July 20, 2016.
People from India's low-caste community shout slogans as they block traffic during a protest against the flogging of four men accused of skinning a cow, in Ahmedabad, India, July 20, 2016.

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly condemned so-called cow protection groups and urged an end to their attacks on low caste Hindus.

The most shocking attack came to light when a video of four low caste men being stripped, tied to a car and flogged in the western Gujarat went viral last month. The video, uploaded by the attackers, was meant to warn the low castes.

The furious low caste community, called Dalits, said the young men were taking the dead cow to be skinned — a traditional occupation of the low castes.

The attack in Modi’s home state, Gujarat, was not an isolated episode. Cow vigilante groups have become increasingly active since the BJP came to power two years ago and incidents of violence targeting low castes and Muslims suspected of killing cows or eating beef have increased.

Rescued cattle are seen at a "goushala", or cow sh
Rescued cattle are seen at a "goushala", or cow shelter, run by Bharatiya Gou Rakshan Parishad, an arm of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), at Aangaon village in the western state of Maharashtra, in this Feb. 20, 2015 file photo.

Modi frustrated

Speaking in southern Hyderabad state, Modi said it was frustrating to see discrimination persist against the community even after decades of independence. Saying “It is our duty to protect and respect those on the lowest rungs of society, ” he called on anyone to attack and shoot him, but not “my dalit brothers.”

Modi also sought to distance his party from the cow vigilantes, saying they were not legitimate cow protection groups. “Seventy to 80 percent were involved in anti-social activities and masquerading as cow protectors to save themselves," he said.

He accused the cow vigilantes of trying to deepen social tensions in the name of cow protection and called on state governments to prepare dossiers on such groups.

The strong comments came as Modi faced criticism for not speaking out on a volatile issue that has brought angry Dalits on the streets and led to accusations by opposition parties that the community is facing growing atrocities under BJP rule. The low castes have pledged to boycott their traditional tasks such as disposal of dead animals and manual cleaning of sewers.

FILE - A low-caste sweeper cleans excreta flowing
FILE - A low-caste sweeper cleans excreta flowing out of a public toilet at Ajmer, India.

Impact on upcoming elections

Sanjay Kumar, director at New Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies, said Modi is reaching out to the community as the party prepares for key elections in two states, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, in the coming year.

He said the attacks by cow vigilantes have alienated the low castes, whose support had boosted the BJP’s electoral fortunes in 2014.

“With all that was happening in many states, it is clear that Dalits would turn their backs on the BJP and If that would happen, BJP would suffer a huge loss electorally,” said Kumar.

But he believes that Modi was not off the mark in saying that these groups were not genuine cow protection groups.“To some extent these are kind of lumpens [trouble makers] I would say. They are trying to hide in the overall ideology of BJP, Hindutva, protection of Hindu, cow etc,” he said.

Political analysts say Modi’s comments against the cow protection groups may stem the attacks for the time being, but they will anger hardline Hindu groups linked to the BJP for whom cow protection is on top of the agenda. Under pressure from such groups, several BJP-ruled states have tightened laws on cow protection.

The centuries-old caste system traditionally divides Hindu society into four main castes with Dalits or “untouchables” at the bottom and priests on the top. Dalits performed the lowest tasks such as cleaning bathrooms. Social prejudices against the lower castes persist and despite affirmative action programs, the community remains poor and marginalized.