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Hindu Rashtra, Cow and Muslims

Irfan Engineer

(Secular Perspective March 16-31, 2015)

Upper caste Hindus and Hindu Nationalist Organisations have had ambiguous attitude toward cow as an animal and as a symbol of Hindu Rashtra oscillating between reverence and irreverence. It is only lately that Hindu Nationalists have settled for projecting cow as a sacred symbol – not because cow is considered as sacred in wonderfully diverse and plural religio-philosophical texts of Sanatan Dharma but because it is a good tool to mobilize Hindus around and to project Muslims as binary opposite – process of “othering” them. For Muslims are not only not forbidden to eat cow, a section of them are also involved in the slaughtering industry and cattle trade. Muslim rulers and religious leaders too had ambiguous attitude towards the animal – at times forbidding slaughtering of cow in spirit of living together with Hindus and at times asserting their cultural rights and signify their separateness.

Study of D.N.Jha, a professor of history at Delhi University, “The Myth of Holy Cow”, reveals that beef was not only consumed in the ancient times, it was one of the sacrificial animals and sacrifice of cow formed part of certain rituals. There are references to Lord Indra savoured beef of sacrificial cow. As the society was transiting from pastoral to agricultural economy, the cattle wealth played important role, particularly oxen, bulls and cow. Prohibiting sacrifice of cow and reverence was later development as mentioned in Brahamanas – commentaries on Vedas written between 7th and 5th Centuries BC.

Buddhism and Jainism gained salience in the later period and Emperor Ashoka showed concern for well-being of all animals and their health by arranging for their medical treatment and prohibiting animal sacrifice, but not cattle. Kautilya’s Arthashastra also refers to slaughter of cattle as common. The Hindus of Bali islands in Indonesia still eat beef. Among some adivasi communities, cow continues to be sacrificial animal on certain festive occasions. Some Dalit communities too continue to consume beef. The practice of beef eating might have stopped sometime after 8th Century CE as Adi Shankaracharya’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta gained salience. Anti-Buddhist propaganda was also reaching its peak during the 8th century when Shankara modeled his monastic order after the Buddhist Sangha. An upsurge of Hinduism had taken place in North India by the early 11th century as illustrated by the influential Sanskrit drama Prabodhacandrodaya in the Chandela court; a devotion to Vishnu and an allegory to the defeat of Buddhism and Jainism. The population of North India had become predominantly Shaiva, Vaishnava or Shakta.  By the 12th century a lay population of Buddhists hardly existed outside the monastic institutions and when it did penetrate the Indian peasant population it was hardly discernible as a distinct community. Vaishnavites eventually frowned upon animal sacrifices and practised vegetarianism.

Muslim Ambivalence

The attitude of Muslim rulers and religious leaders oscillated from respecting the sentiments of the dominant upper caste Hindus to asserting their space and cultural rights. The Moghul Emperor Babar prohibited cow slaughter and directed his son Humayun to follow this example in his will. Emperors Akbar, Jehangir, and Ahmad Shah, it is said, prohibited cow slaughter. Nawab Hyder Ali of Mysore made cow slaughter an offence punishable with the cutting of the hands of the offenders. During the Non-Cooperation movement and Khilafat agitation, cow slaughter had stopped considerably as fatwas (religious edicts) were issued and none less than the Ali brothers campaigned for giving up eating beef. One of the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi asked Hindus to support the Khilafat agitation (launched by Muslims demanding that Britishers leading the Allied Forces being victors of First World War should not undermine Islamic Caliphate) was that Muslim leaders in turn could be persuaded to give up eating beef. Muslim religious leaders indeed returned the favour campaigning against cow slaughter and there was unprecedented Hindu-Muslim unity in the country struggling against the British Empire through non-violence.

However, every restriction, regulation and prohibition on cow slaughter legislated by various states has been resisted by those involved in the industry and avocation of beef trade, which happens to be dominated by the Quraishi Muslims, but also involves the Hindu khatik castes and other non-Muslims. Their resistance to regulations and prohibitions is largely motivated by their occupational interests. If FICCI and CII wants regulation free regime for their industries, so do these small time professionals involving Hindus and Muslims both. However, media unduly highlights the resistance of Muslims while under-reporting the resistance of non-Muslims. The challenge to the regulation and prohibition of cow slaughter legislation is mounted on multiple grounds, including freedom to pursue any occupation and trade under Art. 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, and for convenience, Art. 25 providing for freedom to profess and practice religion. These grounds of challenge are promptly rejected by the Supreme Court that regulation or prohibition that is in public interest (being conservation of milch and draught animals and cattle wealth) does not amount to unreasonable restriction placed on freedom of occupation. Challenge on the ground of restriction on freedom to practice religion is rejected on the ground that beef eating is permissible but not essential and integral part of Islam.

The first generation of anti-cow slaughter legislations was more regulatory in nature and avoided total prohibition of cow slaughter. Those legislations prohibited slaughter of cows, calves (whether male or female) and heifer but permitted slaughter of animals after certain age by competent authority appointed by the state. These legislations were in fact challenged by the vegetarian spirited citizens on the ground that they did not fulfill the objectives of Article 48 of the Constitution included in the chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy, viz. which provided for “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. Supreme Court in Mohd. Hanif Quareshi v. State of Bihar rejected the challenge on the ground that cow progeny ceased to be useful as a draught cattle after a certain age and they, although useful otherwise, became a burden on the limited fodder available which, but for the so-called useless animals, would be available for consumption by milch and draught animals. The response of the States in setting up Gosadans (protection home for cow and cow progeny) was very poor. It was on appreciation of the documentary evidence and the deduction drawn therefrom which led their Lordships to conclude that they were inclined to hold that a total ban of the nature imposed could not be supported as reasonable in the interests of the general public.

The subsequent generations of anti-cow slaughter legislation veered towards not only prohibiting slaughter of cow and progeny but also penalizing the consumer of beef. In fact the MP even equipments storing beef could be seized, which includes refrigerators and utensils in which beef is likely to be stored or cooked. We now have legislations enabling the state to enter kitchens. Punishment for contravention of the provisions of the Act would be upto 7 years!

Hindu Nationalist Organisations and Cow Slaughter:

If Hindu and Muslim religious and political leaders had ambivalent attitude towards cow, so did the Hindu Nationalist organizations. Hindutva ideologue V D Savarkar who wrote a treatise on Hindutva in fact opposed revering cow. For him, cow was a useful animal and we should have a human approach towards the animal and Hindus should protect it out of trait of compassion. However, to him, cow was like any other animal, no less, no more. He writes, “Animals such as the cow and buffalo and trees such as banyan and peepal are useful to man, hence we are fond of them; to that extent we might even consider them worthy of worship; their protection, sustenance and well-being is our duty, in that sense alone it is also our dharma! Does it not follow then that when under certain circumstances, that animal or tree becomes a source of trouble to mankind, it ceases to be worthy of sustenance or protection and as such its destruction is in humanitarian or national interests and becomes a human or national dharma?” (Samaj Chitre or portraits of society, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 2, p.678) Savarkar goes further and states “…A substance is edible to the extent that it is beneficial to man. Attributing religious qualities to it gives it a godly status. Such a superstitious mindset destroys the nation’s intellect. (1935, Savarkaranchya goshti or tales of Savarkar, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 2, p.559)”. “…When humanitarian interests are not served and in fact harmed by the cow and when humanism is shamed, self-defeating extreme cow protection should be rejected…(Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 3, p.341). “I criticized the false notions involved in cow worship with the aim of removing the chaff and preserving the essence so that cow protection may be better achieved. (1938, Swatantryaveer Savarkar: Hindu Mahasabha parva or the phase of the Hindu Mahasabha, p. 173).

When Muslims had given up eating beef and opposed cow slaughter during Khilafat movement, for Savarkar and the Hindu Nationalist then, cow ceased to be a emblem that could be profitably exploited to rally round Hindus and “othering” Muslims. But there is another reason why Savarkar was not happy with Hindus worshiping cow. He wrote, “The object of worship should be greater than its worshipper. Likewise, a national emblem should evoke the nation’s exemplary valour, brilliance, aspirations and make its people superhumans! The cow exploited and eaten at will, is an appropriate symbol of our present-day weakness. But at least the Hindu nation of tomorrow should not have such a pitiable symbol. (1936, Ksha kirane or X rays, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 3, p.237). “The symbol of Hindutva is not the cow but the man-lion (*Nrsinha or Narsimha is considered the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He was half-man, half-lion). The qualities of god permeate into his worshipper. Whilst considering the cow to be divine and worshipping her, the entire Hindu nation became docile like the cow. It started eating grass. If we are to now found our nation on the basis of an animal, let that animal be the lion. Using its sharp claws in one leap, the lion fatally knocks and wounds the heads of wild mammoths. We need to worship such a Nrsinha. That and not the cow’s hooves, is the mark of Hindutva.” (1935, Ksha kirane or X rays, Samagra Savarkar vangmaya, Vol. 3, p.167). Savarkar found an overdose of gratitude, compassion, notion of all living beings being one in the cow worship of Hindus. He wanted to Hinduize nationalism and militarize Hindudom and cow was not an appropriate object to worship or emulation to achieve that end. Narsimha was!

The Hindu Nationalists revisited the issue of cow sometime in 1966. Newly created Vishwa Hindu Parishad attempted to mobilize Hindu community, not very successfully, in their anti-cow slaughter movement. In 1967, thousands of sadhus could be mobilized to march on the Parliament to demand ban on cow slaughter. Gradually cow and distribution of water of Ganges packed in small bottles worked its way up to become icon of Hindu Nationalist organizations and a useful tool to project Muslims as butchers of cow. The sacredness of cow was exploited and mythologized. Utility of cow urine and dung was overplayed and projected as cure of all sorts of of. Posters depicting all Gods and Goddesses inhabiting cows body were pasted in millions all over the country. In 2010, two leading newspapers reported that Go Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra, a RSS affiliate, got a US patent for an anti-cancer drug extracted from cow’s urine.

Numerous gaushalas were opened in various states and state funds were utilized to fund expenses for caring old cows. In Haryana there are numerous gaushalas which are well funded by state and donations from individuals but the old cows underfed and suffering. Same is the story more or less of other gaushalas in other states with few exceptions. Thegaushalas however, develop vested interest in keeping underfed and under-cared cows. More cows would mean more funds from the state. They therefore develop vested interest in lobbying for ban on cow slaughter and over projecting utilities and benefits of even old cows.

Gau raksha dals and the Hindu Nationalists

Gau raksha dals (cow protection squads consisting of 4-6 members) have sprung up in various states, and are particularly numerous, well networked and enjoy informal state patronage in the BJP ruled states. The squads on receiving information, blockade vehicles transporting cattle from seller to buyer if the owner of the vehicle or the driver is a Muslim, even if accompanied with proper permissions and necessary documentation. They often mercilessly beat up the driver thereby committing an offence and misappropriate the cattle unless their palms are greased. The driver so beaten up is then paraded before the press in order to portray Muslims as cow slayers and then handed to police. Police instead of charging the squad for the offence they committed, book the vulnerable driver.

This author has investigated such cases in Kachchh and told about such incidents in Rajasthan in the Mewat belt and other places in MP. In Ahmedabad alone there are 64 such squads. Constant reportage in media portraying Muslims as cattle slayers, uploading photoshopped pictures on social media has led to numerous communal violence. The 1969 communal violence in Ahmedabad was triggered off after rumours of Muslims beating cows were spread. Communal violence in Dhule on 5th October 2008 were triggered off after posters were pasted in the town by Hindu Rakshak Samiti showing a cow being brutally slaughtered by a bearded man wearing a skull cap. The Dy.S.P. we talked to said that the poster showed cow as a victim of bomb blast. The poster had certain objectionable text but the police stuck a strip of paper to cover the portion of the text that they found objectionable.

The Hindu Nationalists exploit cow as a symbol to extort money from the cattle transporters, promote hatred against Muslim community and to trigger off communal violence. However, the symbol of cow is exploited for wider political objectives – to forge political unity among various upper castes who altogether amount to less than 15% of the Hindu population and between upper castes and sections of OBCs. Political programme of cow protection has proved to be a useful tool to unite the otherwise politically divided upper castes and a section of OBCs and to wean away these sections from Congress and regional parties. It helps perpetuate the cultural and political hegemony of the upper caste and constitute non-negotiables of the “Hindu” culture, marginalizing the dalits and adivasis culture and dietary traditions. Worshipping cow as gau mata undermines the cultural diversity, diversity of religious practices and beliefs. Imposing cultural hegemony of cow as gau mata is not divorced from political hegemony of worshipers of gau mata over the rest who do not have tradition of worshipping gau mata and forming part of their dietary tradition.

No wander, in Gohana (Haryana) 5 dalits were brutally murdered while they were skinning a dead cow – their traditional occupation. They were falsely accused of skinning the cow alive, just as Muslim drivers / owners are routinely accused falsely of transporting cow to slaughter houses. The objective is not to protect the cow, but to assert cultural and political hegemony over dalits, adivasis and minorities. The MP and Maharashtra anti-cow slaughter legislations are precisely that political statement. Probability of punishment for the offence of communal violence in which scores and even hundreds of Muslim humans are killed is next to nothing – they are asked to forget the riots and get along in life with FIRs either not registered or registered improperly, if registered, cases not investigated properly and closed as A summary or B summary cases and criminal trials being mockery of criminal justice system. Punishment for killing dalit humans in Gohana and in scores of other anti-dalit violence is next to nil with a few exceptions wherein dalits and human rights organization mount a massive campaign and put in humongous effort to get the guilty punished. Punishments for offences under Atrocities Act are milder compared to punishment of cow slaughter – upto 7 years – and with certainty of punishment! The anti-cow slaughter Act also gives officials draconian powers of search and arrest and, worse, put the burden of proof on the accused. Immediately after the bill became law, there was a spate of attacks on the Muslim community by Hindu Nationalists. This was not unexpected, since the purpose of the law was, indeed, as much to harass them and to promote cow reverence as a means of consolidating the Hindu community behind the BJP. Cow is more important than dalit humans, adivasi humans and minority humans.

Cultural State

A state that protects cow more than it does human beings from marginalized communities; a state for which, security of cow and criminals is more important than that of human beings from marginalized and vulnerable sections of society, including women, is a state to worry about. A cultural state, as indeed a theocratic state is an anti-democratic state spending massive resources on defence, policing and security of a tiny minority rather than on food security and livelihoods of the needy. Cultural state invests heavily on snooping into bedrooms, kitchens, dresses that women prefer to wear, publishing houses, entertainment industry, media, etc., rather than prioritizing equitable development and provisioning of health care and education to all citizens. A cultural state leads to denial of liberties to its citizens, widens inequalities and therefore increases instability.

Gandhiji’s Approach:

Cow protection was an important mission for Gandhiji and a part of his non-violence. He was against violence on all animals. “The cow is a poem of pity.”, Gandhiji wrote, “One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God… The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless.” (YI, 6-10-1921, p. 36) “…The cow is the purest type of sub-human life. She pleads before us on behalf of the whole of the sub-human species for justice to it at the hands of man, the first among all that lives. She seems to speak to us through her eyes: ‘you are not appointed over us to kill us and eat our flesh or otherwise ill-treat us, but to be our friend and guardian’.” (YI, 26-6-1924, p. 214)

However, he was against killing of human beings in order to protect cows. He wrote, (YI, 18-5-1921, p. 156) “I would not kill a human being for protection a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious.” Gandhiji wanted to persuade every slayer of animal and consumer of animal meat to give up and live non-violent life. Cow was not an instrument to promote hatred against anyone, even the butcher. It was an act of compassion towards other lives and practice of non-violence. Gandhiji could secure cow protection much more effectively by appealing to Hindus to support Muslim demand of restoration of Khilafat during the non-cooperation agitation, which even a mighty arm of a state with all draconian powers would not be able to. He wrote in Harijan (15-9-1946, p. 310) “Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it.” In his speech in Champaran, reported in YI 29-1-1925, Gandhiji said, “Unfortunately today we seem to believe that the problem of cow-protection consists merely in preventing non-Hindus, especially Mussalmans from beef-eating and cow-killing. That seems to me to be absurd. Let no one, however, conclude from this that I am indifferent when a non-Hindu kills a cow or that I can bear the practice of cow-killing… But what am I to do? Am I to fulfil my dharma myself or am I to get it fulfilled by proxy? … But supposing even that I myself do not kill the cow, is it any part of my duty to make the Mussalman, against his will, to do likewise? Mussalmans claim that Islam permits them to kill the cow. To make a Mussalman, therefore, to abstain from cow-killing under compulsion would amount in my opinion to converting him to Hinduism by force. Even in India under swaraj, in my opinion, it would be for a Hindu majority unwise and improper to coerce by legislation a Mussalman minority into submission to statutory prohibition of cow-slaughter… My religion teaches me that I should by my personal conduct instill into the minds of those who might hold different views, the conviction that cow-killing is a sin and that therefore it ought to be abandoned. My ambition is no less than to see the principle of cow-protection established throughout the world. But that requires that I should set my own house thoroughly in order first.”


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