Before locating the violence over the cow in the immediate political context, note that one of the main triggers of the 1857 revolt was the cartridge laced with tallow, made of cow fat. Contrary to a perception that the cow became a sacred marker of Hindu political identity with the emergence of revivalist organisations only in the second half of the 19th century, an army platoon of a slave nation had rebelled long before the birth of Arya Samaj and the like.
Precisely therefore, the politics of cow can’t be decoded without appreciating a genuine cultural rift that pervades several spheres, linguistic to ideological. Many primary school students in the Hindi belt may easily write in a classroom essay on the cow: “Gaay hamari mata hai (the cow is our mother).” But the same student takes a different tone in English: “The cow is a domestic animal.” If the Hindi expression ‘gaay ek paaltu pashu hai’ appears inauthentic to many, the English ‘the cow is my mother’ may invite ridicule.
If there are some descriptions of beef-eating in ancient scriptures, there also exists ample literature that treats the cow as a sacred being, Kamdhenu, the abode of deities, the reservoir of prosperity. Premchand placed her at the pantheon of modern Indian literature with his iconic novel Godan (The Gift of the Cow) published in 1936.
If there are some unfounded and bogus medicinal claims, there’s a genuine worth as well. Cow dung is a widely used source of fuel in villages. Millions of rural families apply its paste over the floor and walls as disinfectant. Not to mention the nutritional value of cow milk and its products. The sentiment is not confined to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Congress government in Chhattisgarh, for instance, has made cow urine and dung the nucleus of its ambitious rural revival schemes.
The atmosphere gets vitiated when a group derides the other’s faith or demonises the other for their culinary habits. Or, when polity trades in cynicism and opportunism. The party that supports the vigilante violence in Hindi-speaking states adopts different colours in the Northeast. In 2015, Kiren Rijiju had famously said, “I eat beef. I am from Arunachal Pradesh. Can somebody stop me?”
Two years later, Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh termed beef to be a part of the “traditional diet” in the region and underlined that his party, the BJP, would respect “people’s right to eat”. Contrast this with Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who asked Muslims to leave India if they wanted to eat beef. The political discourse on the cow is fairly old, with the Constituent Assembly witnessing vigorous debates that eventually led to Article 48 of the Constitution, which underlines that the state shall take steps for “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. While it is a mere directive principle, several Constituent Assembly members had demanded cow protection be made a fundamental right. Significantly, they didn’t always resort to religion and culture, but gave an economic argument.
Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava argued that “during the Muslim rule”, and “even in the reign of Aurangzeb, cow slaughter was not practised in India” because “it was unprofitable”. He claimed that “the value of the refuse and urine of a cow is greater than the cost of her maintenance”.
Another member Shibban Lal Saksena countered the claim of India having too many useless cattle by arguing that the country has “only 50 cattle per 100” people, whereas the figure is 74 in Denmark, 71 in the US, 80 in Canada and 150 in New Zealand.
While Seth Govind Das demanded that cow slaughter be declared an offence like untouchability, Raghu Vira went on to equate “Brahma hatya” with “go-hatya”, that is “the killing of the learned man, the scientist, the philosopher or the sage” with “the killing of a cow”.
R.V. Dhulekar made passionately contested the argument about how the protection of an animal could be made a fundamental right of a citizen. He asserted that it is “my fundamental right to protect my mother”. Dhulekar proclaimed that there are “thousands of persons” who will not kill someone to save “their mother or wife or children”, but “they will run at a man if that man does not want to protect the cow or wants to kill her”.
One can trace in these debates the idea of mob violence which got legitimised after the Sangh Parivar launched a series of movements after Independence. The RSS also passed numerous resolutions in its annual conventions for cow protection. Its 1952 resolution termed the cow “a point of cultural sanctity and a symbol of our national oneness”, and called upon the Swayamsevaks “to organise meetings, processions and such other programmes with a view to giving powerful expression to the feelings of millions all over the country”.
The 1966 resolution praised a “countrywide agitation by the Sarvadaliya Goraksha Mahabhiyan Samiti for a total and unreserved ban on the slaughter of cow species”. The 1995 resolution recorded “its deep appreciation” of various movements to close down slaughterhouses in the country, and “the protest by Jain organisations against loan schemes of IDBI to such slaughter houses”.
Cow politics intensified after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government set up the National Commission on Cattle in 2001, which presented its report a year later. The 1,400-page-long report made several recommendations
including the prohibition of cow slaughter, a ban on the export of beef and veal and encouraging the use of cow dung and cow urine in agriculture.
The Commission’s chairperson Dharampal, a Gandhian, blamed “Islamic invaders” who “encouraged cow slaughter on Islamic feasts and other days of Islamic celebration”. He wrote that the “molestation, ill treatment and ultimately slaughter of the cow has been a matter of great distress and sorrow to most Indians”. The report, available on the website of the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, both creates and cements the rift between the two communities.
State patronage gradually obliterated the thin line between reverence and rage. The BJP’s political dominance since 2014 convincingly abducted faith for political gains, with the 2015 lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri being a direct product of cow campaigns. Soon after his lynching, Mahesh Sharma, the then union minister of state for culture and tourism, almost rationalised the violence in an interview with me, saying, “Our soul shakes at the sight of gaay ke maans (beef). We have linked the cow with our mother.”
In October 2015, the RSS-affiliated weekly Panchajanya carried a cover story defending the Dadri accused, claiming that “Veda ka adesh hai ki gau-hatya karne wale pataki ke pran le lo (The Vedas order to kill the sinner who kills a cow).” Invoking Newton’s law, the journal termed the killing a “natural reaction” to the sin of cow slaughter, underlining that society always remembers those “martyred to prevent cow-slaughter”.
But the party, whose soul shivers at the sight of beef, will conveniently abandon its cow campaign in the Northeast and observe bovine silence in the poll-bound states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland. The BJP vividly remembers that its West Garo Hills district president Bernard N. Marak had resigned in 2017, protesting against the regulation on cattle slaughter and asserted that beef “is part of our culture”. He was followed by North Garo Hills district president Bachu Marak, who accused the BJP of “dishonouring” their culture and underlined that they wanted to celebrate the third anniversary of the Narendra Modi government with a “beef party”. “Beef is our traditional food. I have quit the BJP because it is anti-Garo, anti-Christian and anti-traditional food habits,” he had said.
The cow has now become an unfortunate anvil on which a fresh idea of India is being forged. India, thus, has two competing sentiments for the cow. Both could have co-existed, but a cynical polity has pitted the believers against the rationalists. But is the discourse free of other prejudices? Could those who take themselves to be evolved, tolerant and conscience-keepers of the Constitution have avoided ridiculing the beliefs of millions, who were not violent to begin with? The millions for whom the cow is a vital source of energy and life.
One must oppose cow politics and violence, but could the debate be framed in a different lexicon to honour the concerns of both claimants, giving lesser space to politics? Because if one derides the faithful, the trail will go back to the platoon that had revolted against the British.
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Bovine RIDDLE")