Politicising the holy cow, alienating India's minorities

Updated March 05, 2015

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A woman worships a cow near the River Ganges. —AP
A woman worships a cow near the River Ganges. —AP

Can the dietary practices, of an animal which is worshipped as a mother by a section of the Indian population, be brought in on the political arena?

While it sounds surreal, it is true, as far as the role of the cow in the Indian political firmament is concerned.

Recently, the Maharashtra Government got the President’s assent to the bill “Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill 1995, which will now ban the slaughter of bulls and bullocks as well.

The defaulters will face a prison term of five years and a fine of Rs. 10,000. When I first read the ‘Animal Preservation’ part of the title of the bill, I thought this was bill was related to all animals used for human consumption or which deals with the use of animals for different purposes by society.

Also read: After beef ban, Hindu groups force Indian abattoirs to close

Contrary to that, it turned out that this bill applies only to the cow and its progeny. A decade ago, I was shocked to read that one of the most outstanding scholars of ancient Indian History, Professor Dwijendra Nath Jha received regular threats on the telephone prohibiting him from publishing his book, ‘Holy Cow Beef in Indian Dietary tradition’. This scholarly work traces the place of beef in the Indian diet from centuries.

The idea is to target minorities for beef eating, and cow slaughter.

One recalls that one of the slogans which rent the air in the run up the 2014 General Elections, and was also propped up on the ‘Cow Development Cell’ of the BJP, was:

Modi ko matdan, gai ko jeevadan,
[Vote for Modi, give life to the cow],

BJP ka sandesh, bachegi gai, bachega desh
[BJP’s message, the cow will be saved, the country will be saved]".

As such emotive-identity issues are the hallmark of the politics in the name of religion.

The BJP built itself up on another identity issue, that of the Ram Temple. The cow has always been an accompanying and a parallel issue for political mobilisation by the RSS-BJP.

It has also been the point of triggering violence in many cases. With the formation of the VHP by the RSS in 1964, the cow issue has systematically propped up time and time again.

Many a misconceptions about beef eating have been constructed.

The building of misconceptions has also extended to the dietary habits of the ‘Muslim’ community. The profession of a section of Muslims, who are Kasais (butchers), those in the trade of beef selling, has been brought in to add to the ‘Hate other’, ‘social common sense’ aspect of the Indian culture in particular. The result being that it is perceived, at the broader layers of the society, as beef eating being compulsory for Muslims.

The notion which has been popularised is that the Cow is Holy for Hindus: Muslims kill her! With a strong view that Muslim invaders brought beef eating into India. These misconceptions have by now, become a part of the ‘social common sense’ of a large number of people in the Indian society.

Also read: Modi says animal slaughter will 'ruin' nation

All the components of this are, however, myths and stereotypes, which have been constructed over a period of time.

Time and again one hears about some communal violence, the killing of Dalits and traders of cows, leading to communal polarisation. Many a Dalits dealing with cow hides have been killed in places like Gohana in Hariyana and the VHP leaders have justified such acts each time.

Contrary to this, beef eating and the sacrifice of cows was prevalent in India from the Vedic period. The sacrifice of cows in the Yagnas (ritual around fire) is extensively mentioned in the scriptures; in fact, there is mention about beef eating in various books. A phrase in Taitreya Brahmin states ‘Atho Annam Via Gau’ (Cow is in veritably food). Additionally, different gods are mentioned to be having their preferences for particular types of cow flesh.

The preaching of non-violence in India came with the rise of agricultural society.

Jainism called for total non-violence, while Buddhism consistently talked of non-violence; the prevention of wasteful animal sacrifice in particular.

It was much later that Brahmanism picked up the cow as its symbol in response, and as a reaction to the non-violence of these religions. Since Brahmanism has asserted itself to be the Hinduism system, it projects the cow as holy for Hindus overall.

As a matter of fact, many sections of the society, more particularly the Dalits and Tribals have been eating beef all through. It is another matter that lately with the rising assertion of Hindutva, many a communities which are dependent on beef as a rich and cheap source of protein are gradually being forced to give it up.

Also read: Where's the beef? Not at Burger King's new India restaurant

In contrast to what is being asserted by the BJP and company, Swami Vivekanand had a different take on the issue. He points out;

‘You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it.’

[Vivekananda speaking at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California, USA (2 February 1900) on the theme of ‘Buddhistic India’, cited in Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1997), p. 536].

The hope is that the society will overcome such blatant abuse of ‘identity issues’ for political goals. And, let the people have their own choices in matters of food habits.