Hindu Rashtra, Cow and Muslims Part (1)

Upper-caste Hindus and Hindu nationalist organisations have had an ambiguous attitude toward the 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 the cow as a sacred symbol - not because cow is considered as sacred in the wonderfully diverse and plural religio-philosophical texts of Sanatan Dharma but because it is a good tool to mobilise Hindus around and to project Muslims as a binary opposite - the process of "othering" them. For, Muslims are not only not forbidden from eating cow meat, a section of them are also involved in the slaughter industry and cattle trade. Muslim rulers and religious leaders, too, had an ambiguous attitude towards the animal - at times forbidding slaughter of cow in spirit of living together with Hindus and at other times asserting their cultural rights and signifying their separateness.

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

Buddhism and Jainism gained salience in the later period and Emperor Ashoka showed concern for wellbeing of all animals and for their health by arranging for their medical treatment and prohibiting animal sacrifice. 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, the cow continues to be a 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 in 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 sacrifice 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. In his will the Moghul Emperor Babar prohibited cow slaughter and directed his son Humayun to follow this example. 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 the Ali brothers campaigned for giving up beef-eating.

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 the 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 Khatiks and other non-Muslims. Their resistance to regulations and prohibitions is largely motivated by their occupational interests. If FICCI and CII want a regulation-free regime for their industries, so do these small time professionals involving both 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 practise 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 practise religion is rejected on the argument 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. 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". The 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 poor. It was on appreciation of 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 penalising the consumer of beef. In fact, in MP even equipment 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 the cow, so did Hindu nationalist organisations. Hindutva ideologue V D Savarkar opposed revering the cow. For him, cow was a useful animal and we should have a humane approach towards the animal and Hindus should protect it out of compassion. However, to him, the 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 criticised 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 nationalists then, the cow ceased to be an emblem that could be profitably exploited to rally round Hindus and for "othering" Muslims. But there is another reason why Savarkar was not happy with Hindus worshiping the 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 whereas he wanted to Hinduise nationalism and militarise Hindudom.


Hindu nationalists revisited the issue of the cow sometime in 1966. A newly-created Vishwa Hindu Parishad attempted to mobilise the Hindu community, not very successfully, in their anti-cow slaughter movement. In 1967, thousands of sadhus could be mobilised to march on Parliament to demand ban on cow slaughter. Gradually, the issue of the cow and distribution of water of Ganges packed in small bottles worked its way up to become icon of Hindu nationalist organisations and a useful tool to project Muslims as butchers of the cow. The sacredness of the cow was exploited and mythologised. The utility of cow urine and dung was overplayed and projected as cure for all sorts of diseases. Posters depicting all gods and goddesses inhabiting the cow's body were displayed 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 the cow's urine.
Numerous gaushalas were opened in various states and state funds were utilised to fund expenses on caring for old cows. In Haryana there are numerous gaushalas which are well-funded by state and donations from individuals, but old cows are underfed and are suffering. Same is the story, more or less, of other gaushalas in other states with few exceptions. The gaushalas, however, develop vested interest in keeping underfed and under-cared for cows. More cows would mean more funds from the state. They therefore develop a vested interest in lobbying for ban on cow slaughter and over-projecting utilities and benefits of even old cows.

Gau raksha dals and 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 the police, who instead of charging the squad for the offence they committed, book the vulnerable driver.
This author has investigated such cases in Kachchh and has been 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 and uploading photoshopped pictures on social media has led to numerous instances of communal violence. The 1969 communal violence in Ahmedabad was triggered off after rumours of Muslims beating cows were spread. Communal violence in Dhule on October 5 2008 was triggered off after posters were pasted in the town by Hindu Rakshak Samiti showing a cow being slaughtered by a bearded man wearing a skull cap. The Dy.S.P. we talked to said that some posters showed the cow as a victim of a bomb blast. The poster had objectionable text, but the police stuck a strip of paper to cover the portion of the text that they found objectionable.
Hindu nationalists exploit the cow as a symbol to extort money from cattle transporters, promote hatred against the Muslim community and to trigger off communal violence. The symbol of the cow is exploited for wider political objectives also - to forge political unity among various upper castes who altogether amount to less than 15 per cent of the Hindu population and between upper castes and sections of OBCs. The political programme of cow protection has proved to be a useful tool to unite the otherwise politically divided upper castes and a sections 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, marginalising the Dalit and adivasi culture and dietary traditions. Worshipping the cow as gau mata undermines the cultural diversity, diversity of religious practices and beliefs. Imposing cultural hegemony of the cow as gau mata is not divorced from political hegemony of worshipers of gau mata over the rest who do not have the tradition of worshipping gau mata and beef is 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 cows 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 Muslims 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 at all 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 in Gohana and in scores of other cases of anti-Dalit violence is next to nil with a few exceptions wherein Dalits and human rights organisations 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 for cow slaughter - up to 7 years of imprisonment - 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 Muslims and to promote cow reverence as a means of consolidating the Hindu community behind the BJP. The cow is more important than Dalit humans, adivasi humans and humans from the minority communities. Acharya Giriraj Kishore is on record asserting that the life of one cow is more important than that of five Dalits.

Cultural State
A state that protects the cow more than it does human beings from marginalised communities, a state for which, security of the cow and criminals is more important than that of human beings from marginalised 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. A cultural state invests heavily on snooping into bedrooms, kitchens, scrutinising dresses that women prefer to wear, publishing houses, entertainment industry, media, etc., rather than prioritising 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 against 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 of 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 a non-violent life. The Cow was not an instrument to promote hatred against anyone, even the butcher. It called for 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."

The author is director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, 603, New Silver Star, Near Railway Bridge, Prabhat Colony Road,, Santacruz (E), Mumbai, India. PIN: 400055. email:;;