10 March 2003 National Cover Story

The Milky Way

How now, brown cow? The political class is in a holier-than-thou debate over a mute creature.
The Milky Way
Manmohan Sharma
The Milky Way

Gau's That?

Cow protection in the house

  • 1966: Parliament gheraoed, police firing, 8 deaths. Gulzarilal Nanda Commission appointed.
  • 1979: Resolution banning cow slaughter passed by Lok Sabha, subsequently Bill tabled by Janata government.
  • 1982: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi writes to state governments to enforce ban
  • 1985: Private member’s Bill by A.K. Patel. Not approved.
  • 1990: Private member’s Bill by G.M. Lodha, BJP. Resolution moved, rejected despite support by Congress MPs like Vasant Sathe.

The following bills were not taken up:

  • 1994: Private member’s Bill by K.R. Rana, BJP

  • 1996: Private member’s Bill by K.R. Rana, BJP

  • 1999: Private member’s Bill by Aditya Nath, BJP
  • 2000: Private member’s Bill by U.V. Krishnamaraju, BJP

  • 2000: Private member’s Bill by S.S. Ahluwalia, BJP

  • 2000: Private member’s Bill by Prahlad Patel, BJP

  • 2001: National Commission on Cattle appointed

To Ban Or Not To Ban?

  • 2003: Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digivjay Singh demands a countrywide ban, BJP government promises to introduce a Bill in the budget session.
  • Opposed to the ban: CPI, CPI(M)
  • For the ban: BJP, SHIV SENA
  • Undecided/Non-Committal: Congress, Samata Party, TDP, RJD, DMK, Trinamul Congress

India's Bovine Population And Beef Exports

India has the world's largest cattle population and a quarter of its cow population.

  • Cattle: 204.58 million
  • Adult Cows: 64.36 million
  • Buffaloes: 84.21 million

(As per the central government’s livestock census of 1992)

Beef (Buffalo meat) Exports:

  • 1999-2000: 1,67,291.41 metric tonnes
  • 2000-02: 2,43,355.58 metric tonnes

(Up by 45 per cent)

Hami hua jo gai ka ahle yakeen hai
Samjha woh dil mein gai ke sar par zameen hai

(Supporters of the cow are the true believers
because they know that it is on the horns of a cow that the world rotates!)

—Akbar Illahabadi, 20th century Urdu poet and satirist

The Indian political class is again on the horns of a dilemma over the holy cow. In year 2003, the debate would have been downright ridiculous were it not so deadly serious. An animal whose slaughter is banned in most parts of India has become the symbol of a competitive 'I'm-a-better-Hindu-than-you' politics of the BJP and the Congress. The country which gave the term sacred/holy cow to the English language is yet again unable to rise above politics over an animal whose physical condition in most parts of India is truly pathetic. The bovine absurdities of Mother India are again on display for the world to see.

"Cow and temple have now become the two pillars of Indian democracy—it's as if our politicians believe India has solved all its other problems," says D.N. Jha, former head of Delhi University's history department, whose book The Myth of the Holy Cow had raised a storm two years ago.

Most respond to the cow debate with a mix of incredulity and weariness. Says historian Mushirul Hassan, "It reflects the bankruptcy of the political class." Adds Romila Thapar, also a historian, "I see the cow debate as a travesty of Hinduism. The enlightened aspects of our religion are lost and the cow issue is raised to target a community which is frightened anyway."

Sangh parivar ideologues see it as a necessary assertion of Hindu rights. Says RSS ideologue Devendra Swaroop, "If the cow and temple are becoming central issues, it is because of an old malady our country is suffering from. Muslims have to rethink their positions on these issues which are so dear to Hindu hearts. I see the cow issue as part of the global struggle against jehadi fundamentalism."

The irony is that Kamadhenu, the eternally bountiful cow of the celestial realm, bears little resemblance to her starving, sickly and stunted earthly counterpart (bos indicus), callously left to wander rural droughtscapes and urban jungles. But so potent a symbol of Hindu identity is the cow, and so emotive is the issue of cow slaughter, that it could not but become an instrument of realpolitik.

Over the years, the debate has raged on, leading to a spate of abortive legislations, reams of research and a lot of bloodshed. This year began with riots over the killing of a cow in Ganj Basauda in MP, which quickly snowballed into a game of political one-upmanship between the Congress and the BJP, prompting PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to announce—somewhat prematurely—a bill banning cow slaughter countrywide.

Vajpayee's haste and, apparently, hurt stemmed from banners put up by the MP Youth Congress wing alleging "Maas ka vyapari, Atal Behari (Trader of beef, Atal Behari)" and "Gau hamari mata hai, Atal Behari khata hai (Cow is our mother, Atal eats her)". The youth brigade had taken their cue from chief minister Digvijay Singh's casual reference to the state krishak mandal's claim that beef production and exports had gone up during the BJP regime. Diggy's dig was in response to the BJP's campaign on Ganj Basauda. In what some Congressmen felt was a case of overkill, the CM not only announced that he drank cow urine (available in Bhopal at Rs 6 per litre, he helpfully informed scribes) but wrote to the PM demanding a national ban on cow slaughter.

For Digvijay, projecting himself as a gau-rakshak (cow protector) was a logical extension of his soft Hindutva campaign, which observers see as an attempt to pre-empt the BJP and nullify the appeal of "sadhvi" Uma Bharati, his principal rival.More importantly, he was seeking to deflect attention from developmental issues—the acute shortage of power, poor road conditions and abysmal human development indices which are, often, worse than that of Bihar. The strategy seems to have boomeranged. The Sangh parivar now has one more plank to fight their battle for the Hindu rashtra. The government has announced its intention to table a legislation banning cow slaughter in the budget session of Parliament.

The subtext of the VHP campaign is that Muslims are the beef-eaters. But the truth is more complex. As Karan Singh, who writes on Hindu philosophy, points out, in Muslim-majority Kashmir, no one eats beef. In the cow-belt—it has been trapped in cow politics for over a century—cow meat is banned. Prosperous Muslims here eat mutton while the poor buy buffalo meat. In Kerala, with the exception of Brahmins, most Hindus, Muslims and Christians are not averse to cow beef. In the seven states of the Northeast, beef is a staple meat with all the tribal communities.

The last time there was a debate on banning cow slaughter in Parliament, former Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma, who is from Meghalaya, had declared that a national ban would create a food crisis among the people of the Northeast.

Of the top five exporters of buffalo meet in the country, three are Hindus. "There's such a hue and cry over cow slaughter but it is bullocks and buffaloes which are being killed," says Aspi Dinshaw, vice-president of the All India Meat and Livestock Association. "Most of the money in the bovine trade is made by Hindus," says Mumbai-based animal rights activist Vilas Sonawane.

There is much ambiguity over the legal position. West Bengal, Kerala and the northeastern states, including Assam, are the only regions where cow slaughter is legal. While slaughtering cows can trigger a riot in the north, the situation is different in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In these southern states, the ban extends to slaughterhouses and is not really imposed when individuals quietly kill their cows for consumption.

Interestingly, says Hyderabad-based academic Kancha Ilaiah, "In the south, 90 per cent of Dalits eat cow beef, apart from Christians and Muslims. Several backward communities eat cow beef. Most of the poor would starve to death if there is a national ban," he says.

The response of Dalit intellectuals to the cow debate provides an interesting twist. Says columnist Chandrabhan Prasad, "If they say Hindus are demanding a ban on cow slaughter, then they don't consider Dalits to be Hindus. Dalits have no objection to the consumption of cow beef. They don't do so in the Hindi belt because if they kill a cow, they will be killed. But in the south, it's one of the most important sources of food for scheduled caste communities."

There is confusion among the political class about the issue. Bar the Left parties, which are opposed to the ban, and the pro-ban BJP and Shiv Sena, all other parties prefer to remain non-committal. Says the RJD's Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, "Right now, only the Sanghis are making noises. A consensus will have to be evolved. As of now, this has not even been brought up for discussion. As and when that is done, the Opposition will have to discuss it since there are people in this country who eat beef." Adds the SP's Amar Singh, "The BJP is trying to derive political mileage. The Congress is also soft-peddling Hindutva. We would like to see a consensus on the issue. This is a Pandora's box. What if the Muslims demand that the consumption of pork should be banned? Is there an end to all this?"

Uma Bharati, who's leading the campaign in MP, says Muslims would have no objection to the ban as the cow is not a religious or emotive issue for them."But those who oppose the ban are afraid of being accused of minority appeasement." That sums up the dilemma of the Congress and non-Communist parties. In 1990, several Congress MPs supported a resolution by BJP MP Ghuman Mal Lodha on banning cow slaughter—thus embarrassing the National Front government which had opposed it.

For ex-socialists, opposing a ban is tricky. In a letter to the then PM, Indira Gandhi, in 1966, Jayaprakash Narain pleaded: "I cannot understand why in a Hindu majority country like India, where rightly or wrongly there is such strong feelings about cow slaughter, there cannot be a legal ban." In 1979, a resolution was passed by the Lok Sabha in favour of a Cow Protection Bill. In deference to Vinoba Bhave, who had observed a fast in support of a ban, the government moved a bill but fell before it could be passed. For the SP and RJD, it's even trickier because of the Yadavs' identification with Krishna, the cowherd. Also, a sizeable chunk of their votebase is Muslim.

The Constitution is clear on cow protection. "The state shall...take steps for...prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle," says the Directive Principles. Under the VII Schedule, the preservation and protection of livestock is a state subject. The export of cow meat is totally banned and attracts a fine and imprisonment under the 2002 to 2007 Exim Policy. What is being touted as 'increasing beef exports' refers to buffalo meat—its export has risen by 45 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2000-2002.

An anti-cow-slaughter law has been on the BJP agenda since its first stint in power. In 1996, the then president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, included it in his presidential address. Since then, BJP MPs have moved five cow protection bills which have not been taken up for discussion. The National Commission on Cattle was appointed in 2001. It recommended a central law banning cow slaughter and inter-state transport of the animal for any purpose, be it beef or leather. The expert group appointed to work out the details will submit its report on March 15, after which a legislation can be drafted.

Significantly, while the debate raged in New Delhi and Bhopal, local papers in MP reported that several hundred cows had died of starvation and thirst near Gwalior. No party raised the issue. PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) has repeatedly begged for an end to the cruelties suffered by cattle in India. The Indian Veterinary Council estimates that there is enough food for only 60 per cent of Indian cattle. The rest are ruthlessly abandoned to starve, get killed or maimed in road accidents to slowly die in terrible pain with their intestines clogged with garbage, plastic bags, glass, paper and junk. The neglect of the Indian cow is shocking. As Dalit leader Udit Raj puts it sarcastically, "If the cow is the mother, then why don't they keep her at home instead of allowing it to eat garbage? And when she stops giving milk, they shouldn't sell her off to Dalits and Muslims. It's people who have no value for human lives who get so worked up about cows."

Bhavdeep Kang And Saba Naqvi Bhaumik With bureau reports

  • Comments (1)

Post a Comment

You are not logged in, To comment please / Register
or use
Next Story : We Believe, Ergo Sum
Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

or just type initial letters