In the last week of February 1897, about four and a half years after Swami Vivekananda’s landmark speech in Chicago, a north Indian organiser of a Gau-rakshini Sabha (Cow Protection Committee) came to meet him at his Bagbazar residence in north Calcutta, seeking financial help for their programme. The dressing down he received from the young Bengali monk has since become one of the more popular stories around Vivekananda’s humanitarian outlook.
Cow protection programmes, which started in the early 1880s in north India as part of Dayanand Saraswati’s reformist-revivalist Arya Samaj movement, entered Bengal soon after. In fact, Calcutta was part of the larger plan right from the beginning. Saraswati set up the first cow protection committee for national coordination in Calcutta in 1882, with the help of the Maharaja of Banaras. It also ran a signature campaign. By 1885, Marwari traders had established the Calcutta Pinjrapole Society and the first gaushala (cow shelter) in the northern outskirts of the city. A few more came up over the following decades.
At the Bagbazar home, the unnamed cow protection organiser informed Vivekananda that their movement found financial backing mostly from the Marwari community and that they needed more. Vivekananda asked them how much they spent on people affected by the famine that wreaked havoc on the Central Provinces and other parts of the country, killing nine lakh people. He was furious when he came to know that the committee was not meant for spending its resources on human beings. “People are dying for their past sins,” the organiser said. Vivekananda told him that he had no sympathy for people who did not care for their brethren and asked why the same logic was not true for the cows.
The organiser argued that scriptures described the cow as mother. Breaking into laughter, Vivekananda said, “I can well understand that the cow is our mother—who else would give birth to such luminaries?”
Sarachchandra Chakroborty, a Vivekananda devotee, who noted down this conversation and later published it in the authoritative book titled Swami Shishya Sambad (Discourse Between the Swami and the Disciple), wrote that the cow protection organiser did not get the sarcasm in the monk’s words and still begged for financial help. Vivekananda did not oblige.
That two of the most influential spiritual personalities of modern Bengal, the vegetarian Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his beloved, non-vegetarian disciple, Vivekananda, never linked food practices to spiritual attainment, speaks a lot about the kind of influences that shaped the Bengali Hindu mind. None of them ever condemned beef-eaters.
The vast majority of Bengali Hindus do not consume beef, but worshiping the animal has never been part of popular culture either. It has remained the humble animal that it really is, both loved and made fun of. Goru-r buddhi, or a cow’s intelligence, has been a common usage to refer to one’s stupidity for over two centuries. Besides, the number of Bengali Hindus who have savoured the beef steaks at Park Street restaurants or beef kebabs and rolls at roadside shops near Esplanade or Anwar Shah crossing in the city would not be small.
Social tension over beef, however, is not new. In modern history, the origin can be traced to the Bengal Renaissance in the 1820s, when the new radicals of the native society not only ate beef but also flaunted their newly acquired culinary tastes to declare their departure from the Hindu orthodoxy and from Hinduism in some cases. But it came as European influence rather than having anything to do with Muslims.
The scenario during the Renaissance is quite aptly reflected in Peary Chand Mittra’s A Biographical Sketch of David Hare. Speaking of Radha Nath Sikdar, the renowned mathematician credited with the first accurate measurement of Mt. Everest, Mittra wrote, “His hobby was beef, as he maintained that beef-eaters were never bullied, and that the right way to improve the Bengalees was to think first of the physique or perhaps physique and morale simultaneously.” Mittra also wrote about Ramgopal Ghosh, a wealthy social reformer, who played a significant role in promoting women's education. Despite Ghosh’s family excommunicating him, their neighbours nicknamed his father as ‘goru-khor’ (beef-eater) for his son’s deeds. It was an urban phenomenon, confined mostly to Calcutta.
When the cow protection movement reached Bengal in the early 1880s, its main theatres were Calcutta and rural eastern Bengal. Amrita Bazar Patrika, the Calcutta-based English daily, played a key role in championing cow protection and the British police suspected many petitions placed in other parts of the country to have originated in Calcutta. Historian Peter Robb quoted colonial administrator Antony P. MacDonnell as saying, “We should be setting an evil precedent by recognising all-disposed cliques of Bengali journalists as legitimate exponents of alleged grievances in other provinces.”
Nevertheless, during the early 1880s when conflict over the cow caused a series of riots in northern and northwestern India, British rulers were not apprehensive of any major trouble breaking out in Bengal. In 1884, the administration opined that the “Hinduism of the upper classes was too lukewarm” in Bengal to cause any concern, pointed out Robb in his essay titled, “The Challenge of Gau Mata: British Policy and Religious Change in India, 1880-1916.”
In 1889, amidst the rising tensions, Mir Mosharraf Hossein, who was based in eastern Bengal and considered the first Muslim novelist in Bengali, wrote an essay titled, “Go-Jiban” (The life of cows), in which he argued that agrarian societies should never indulge in cow slaughter. He was dragged to court for this essay and later, under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, he withdrew the publication.
In Calcutta, the cow protection movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was driven mostly by Marwari traders. Debraj Bhattacharya wrote in his essay, titled “Kolkata ‘Underworld’ in the Early 20th Century”, how the Marwari Association’s complaints against cow slaughter on the occasion of Bakri Eid at a mosque near north Calcutta’s Marwari neighbourhood led to a riot that claimed six lives in December 1910, while injuring many others.
Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, in his book Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth Century Calcutta, offers another interesting insight into the same chain of events. After the riots, the police investigation concluded that the demand for stopping cow slaughter at that mosque had more to do with business interests than religion. Bhagat Ram, a Marwari trader who had cleared a vast slum area opposite the mosque and intended to build real estate, feared that he would find no buyers from his community on that prime land if cow sacrifice at the mosque continued. That was his motivation behind not letting the movement die down, the police report said.
By the late 1920s, however, the cow became a major political conflict, in both urban and rural areas, in both parts of Bengal, with a significant participation of Bengali Hindus. It continued throughout the communally tense 1930s and 1940s, especially with the efforts of the Hindu Mahasabha and Bharat Sevashram Sangh, on the one hand, and the Muslim League and other Muslim organisations, on the other. The movement, however, lost relevance and appeal after Partition.
In 2014, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre, the party, along with other Hindutva organisations did make initial attempts of cow vigilantism, but without much success. The party’s cow protection cell in Bengal is one of the most inactive ones, in comparison to other states, a senior leader of the BJP in Bengal tells Outlook.
The everlasting popularity and iconic stature of novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s short story Mahesh, published in 1922, is perhaps an indicator of the Bengali Hindu mindset. The story contrasts famine-hit, starved, landless Muslim farmer Gofur Jola’s true love for his beloved, old cow Mahesh, which can no longer work but needs food, with the fake cow worship of a heartless Brahmin and Hindu landlord.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Piggybacking ON THE COW")