Why the humble cow is India's most polarising animal

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The cow is worshipped and decorated during festivals

Why do Indians love cows so much?

One of the reasons, writes historian Mukul Kesavan, is that 'for Hindus the desi cow is a beautiful thing".

"Its large eyes, its calm, its matte skin tinted in a muted palette that runs from off-white to grey through beige and brown, its painterly silhouette with its signature hump, make it the most evolved of animals," he says.

It is also a sacred animal for the majority Hindu community, and they amble unmolested in traffic-choked streets. The animal is worshipped and decorated during festivals; holy men take around cows, with their foreheads smeared in vermillion, to seek alms.

There is even a journal called Indian Cow; and a Love 4 Cow Trust to "propagate and promote love" for cows. A right-wing Hindu organisation has actually launched cosmetics using cow urine and dung.

The cud-chewing, sedentary bovine also provides fodder for humour. A hugely popular - and possibly apocryphal - story relates to an essay on the animal by a civil service aspirant. "The cow is a successful animal," it began. "Also he is quadruped, and because he is female, he give milk, but will do so when he is got child. He is same like God, sacred to Hindus and useful to man. But he has got four legs together. Two are forward and two are afterwards."

Virulent campaign

But let's not digress.

More seriously, most states forbid cow slaughter, and the ban on beef has been criticised by many because the meat is cheaper than chicken and fish and is a staple for the poorer Muslim, tribal and dalit (formerly untouchable) communities.

Not surprisingly, the cow is also India's most polarising - and political - animal.

Earlier this month, Hindus and Muslims clashed over rumours, again, of cow slaughter in Uttar Pradesh. A row over banning beef is threatening to stoke religious tensions in restive Kashmir.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Holy men travel with cows to seek alms

While campaigning for his party in the crucial state elections in Bihar state, Mr Modi ridiculed a regional rival for saying many Hindus eat beef.

There are worrying reports that supporters of the BJP and right-wing Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the state have launched a virulent campaign against cow slaughter and beef.

Although the government's own animal census shows that the cow and buffalo population has grown - a 6.75% increase between 2007 and 2012 - and cow slaughter is banned in most states, there is hysteria being whipped up that the bovine is under threat.

Vigilante cow protection groups have mushroomed. They claim to have a strong network of informers and say they "feel empowered" because of the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government in Delhi. One of these groups actually managed to get a court order against a beef and pork festival at a Delhi university in 2012.

That's not all. The BJP-ruled state of Rajasthan has a cow minister. There are campaigns going on demanding that the cow should replace the tiger as the national animal - a minister in Haryana, also ruled by the BJP, promptly began an online poll.

'Martyred innocence'

Mr Modi must partly share the blame for whipping up the unfounded and perilous frenzy over cow slaughter. On the general election campaign trail last year, he accused the Congress government of promoting a "pink revolution" - slaughtering cows and exporting meat for money. "Should we feel proud of this endeavour of the UPA government led by Congress, which is founded on the killing of our mother cow?" he wrote in a blog in 2012. It's another matter that under Mr Modi, India continues to be the world's largest exporter of beef - 80% of it buffalo meat.

But historian Mukul Kesavan sees one argument offered for cow protection as "just a belligerent assertion".

"It goes like this: I am a Hindu, the cow is my mother, and I won't have her killed. What's being invoked here isn't morality or sentimentality or chivalry or economics: this is an assertion of fictive kinship that effectively argues that all cows are Hindu women."

This is not the first time the cow has become mixed up with politics.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The cow has become a polarising animal

The first organised Hindu cow protection movement was launched by a Sikh sect in Punjab in about 1870. In 1882, Hindu religious leader Dayananda Saraswati founded the first cow protection committee. "It made the animal a symbol of the unity of a wide-ranging people, challenged the Muslim practice of its slaughter and provoked a series of serious communal riots in the 1880s and 1890s," says historian DN Jha.

'Myth of the holy cow'

Conflicts over cow slaughter often sparked religious riots that led to the killing of more than 100 people in 1893 alone. In 1966, at least eight people died in riots outside the parliament in Delhi while demanding a national ban on cow slaughter. And in 1979, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, considered by many as a spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to ban cow slaughter.

The "holiness of the cow" is also a myth, argues Dr Jha. In his masterly work The Myth of the Holy Cow, Dr Jha cites religious scriptures and ancient texts to show that Hindus did consume beef in ancient India. This flew against the Hindu right-wing assertion that beef-eating arrived in India with the coming of Islam. (Not surprisingly, he was threatened after the book was published in India.)

And American academic Wendy Doniger correctly argues that Hindus "do not always treat cows with respect or kindness; cows are sometimes beaten and frequently half starved".

India's most revered leader Mahatma Gandhi may also have been responsible for the Hindu veneration of the cow. He once said that the "central fact of Hinduism is cow protection", and spoke about the "idea of penance and self-sacrifice for the martyred innocence" it embodied. Today, in an ironical twist, the Hindu radicals seem to have hijacked the cow, and all it stands for.