Dalits condemn Labour fast

by Deepa Pathi (for rasmallai.com)

Members of an Indian group representing thousands of Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) in Britain are demanding an apology from Prime Minister Tony Blair over a ‘hunger fast’ conducted this week at the House of Commons.

Leaders of Voice of Dalits International (VODI) say the day-long fast held by Labour MPs Ashok Kumar, Tony Banks and John Cummings is ‘politically motivated’ and threatens the livelihoods of more than 250 million Dalits in India.

The MPs conducted the fast to urge the Indian Prime Minister to ban the transport of cattle between Indian states before they are slaughtered. The event was held on October 2 to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary and was backed by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

"Gandhi declared that the greatness of a nation could be judged by the way it treats its animals, " said Mr Jason Baker, PETA's India representative. ’’Lorry-loads of cattle are being taken without food or water for hundreds of miles to abattoirs in states where cow slaughter is not banned.’’ MP for Middlesborough South and East Cleveland Mr Ashok Kumar added: ‘’As a life-long vegetarian and a Hindu Punjabi, I feel strongly about this. Legislation against animal cruelty exists in India, but it needs to be enforced properly.’’

But Mr Eugene Culas of VODI said: ‘’The British MPs have acted as Hindu fundamentalists because in India it is only the fundamentalists who link cow slaughter with ‘sacredness’.

The same sections that consider cows ‘sacred’ also consider a large section of the society as ‘untouchables’ under the caste system.

‘’Before looking into the treatment of cows in India, the MPs who quote from Mahatma Gandhi should look into the treatment of more than 25 per cent of India’s’ population under the caste system’’

Dalits in India have relied on the leather trade for centuries because under India’s caste laws, they were denied land ownership or the right to grow their own food. And since caste Hindus are forbidden to work with dead animals, Dalits and Muslims were forced into the only occupations open to them.

All Indian states, barring Communist-run West Bengal and Kerala forbid the slaughter of cows on religious grounds, forcing leather workers to transport old cattle to legalised abattoirs in the two states.

Many politicians believe the only way to end the problem of inter-state cattle transport would be to lift the ban on cow slaughter in all Indian states.

Mr Culas said: ‘’This is the only logical solution but it is clear that PETA and these MPs have a hidden agenda. They are vying for the Hindu and vegetarian vote. This is nothing short of political expediency.

‘’We strongly object to our livelihoods being threatened by a group of Western politicians and animal protesters who do not know the whole story.’’

PETA representative in London Mr Andrew Butler agreed that lifting the ban on cow slaughter would end the problem but he admitted: ‘’PETA is also promoting vegetarianism in India so this fits in with our overall strategy. I agree the problem is not just confined to cattle, but cows are considered sacred there.’’

He said PETA had no plans to protest against the slaughter of cows and other animals in British abattoirs.

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