IT does appear somewhat ironic that an animal, long venerated as mother, a symbol of the earth, the nourisher, a goddess who fulfils every wish (kamadhenu), symbol of wealth and good fortune (lakshmi), and so on has, for at least a century and a half, been at the centre of aggressive communitarian mobilization and, unsurprisingly, violence. Unfortunately, the strident deployment of the cow as a central, non-negotiable marker of Hindu identity, both in itself and in opposition to the ‘other’ – those who do not venerate the cow, if not slaughter and consume its flesh – has made it near impossible to engage in a non-acrimonious, rational discussion about the cow and its role in human affairs, both material and symbolic.
In modern political terms, however, cow protection first assumed national importance during the Khilafat movement of 1919 in support of the khalifa (caliph) of Turkey. At the time, primarily at the behest of Gandhi, the Congress supported the Khilafat cause as a ‘nationalistic programme of non-cooperation’, in the expectation that this would help improve Hindu-Muslim relations. This support, expectedly, was used by the more strident votaries of cow protection as a bargaining point to persuade Muslims not to slaughter cows. Despite Gandhi’s firm opposition to this mixing of issues, given substantial differences within the Congress over cow slaughter, the party’s eventual position came to be marked by ambiguity and compromise, a legacy that influenced subsequent law making and continues to haunt us to this day.
Akshaya Mukul’s brilliant book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, graphically details how in the run-up to Indian independence, Hindu religious groups across parties, assiduously mobilized opinion in favour of cow protection and for a complete ban on cow slaughter. The Gau Ank of the influential magazine, Kalyan, carried contributions from a range of religious and political leaders to ‘prove’ the indissoluble link between the cow and national identity since times immemorial, adroitly sidestepping the more nuanced reading of Indologists like P.V. Kane, Laxman Shastri Joshi or H.D. Sankalia. Similarly, the views of animal husbandry experts more concerned with the economic contribution of the cow and working out the ‘scientific basis’ for determining herd size, possibly of greater interest to the farming and pastoralist communities, were downplayed. Clearly, as much if not more important than the veneration for the cow, was the political project of piggy-backing on this sentiment to primarily put the Muslim community, derided as beef eaters, in its place.
No surprise that while Article 48 of our Constitution, in the chapter on the Directive Principles of State Policy, enjoins the state to ‘take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle’, care was taken to not advocate a complete ban. Since then, a rash of legislation has been passed in different states, resulting in bewildering, often contradictory, policies in different states regarding both slaughter and consumption of beef.
Even a cursory examination of the arguments advanced in the debate on either side of the divide makes it clear that over the years our public discourse has barely advanced. All through those actually engaged in farming and animal husbandry have a more practical, and less ideological, view about the role of the cow in their lives. Even as they continue to nurture and venerate the cow, they are aware of the constraints/difficulties in holding onto them once they are no longer productive or economical. No wonder, if restrained from selling them, they just let the ‘unwanted’ animals loose in the forests or on the streets to survive as they may. Equally, the debate among Indologists, historians, archeologists and other social scientists on the changing role of the cow in our material and ritualistic lives seems as polarized now as then. Evidently, more than evidence or logic, what matters is ideological posturing.
It is possible that the current phase of unrest around the cow, as has happened in the past, too may peter out. Attempts to impose a monochromatic view in a diverse and federal society usually extract a political cost, as the current BJP regime is realizing. However, the party leadership appears more driven by ‘cultural-ideological’ compulsions of consolidating an imagined Hindu political community and putting the ‘other’ in its place, often through the ‘illegal’ deployment of gau rakshak vigilantes. Far more insidious is the proposal to invoke the National Security Act against those accused of breaking laws relating to the trade in cattle or their slaughter and consumption and, worse, make such offences punishable with a death sentence – surely a short step to a Hindu Rashtra. One wonders how this squares with Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a new and resurgent India.