The Cow in Indian Politics

A naive and simple quadruple, the cow, exercises considerable influence in Indian politics. Since primordial times its economic worth and religious significance has been acknowledged. That the predominance utility alone has assigned the cow the religious nuance in Hindu religion is very hard to believe because in India since ancient times a variety of birds, animals and even reptiles are revered and they have been associated with different deities indicating thereby a deep understanding of the inter-dependence of different species in the ecological system. The cow has been traditionally considered as ‘mother’ and it’s slaughter has been discouraged. An effort to indicate any specific time or period as the beginning of the traditional cow worship in India would practically lie in the realms of speculation.

The cow veneration in ancient India probably originated from the pastoral Aryans in the Vedic period, whose religious texts called for non-violence towards all bipeds and quadrupeds, and often equated killing of cow with the killing of a human being, especially a Brahmin. The hymn 10.87.16 of the Hindu scripture Rigveda (1500 BC – 1200 BC) condemns all killing of men, cattle and horses, and prays to God Agni to punish those who kill. Significantly, horse is specifically mentioned here, and not cow, which gives a clear hint that economic reason itself must not have played the key role for assigning religious importance to the cow. The holiness which is attached to the cow cannot be assigned to its economic worth alone. As a matter of fact, when it comes to faith, logic takes a break.

Undisputedly, the cow has served as the ‘political symbol’ since the majority Hindus, descendants of the Vedic culture, have always considered attack on cow as the attack on their religion, culture and political influence. The Muslim invaders in India who were determined to crush the prevailing Indian culture chose cow-slaughter as a means to humiliate the Hindu rulers and the common Hindu masses. In turn, cow-protection became a symbol of Hindu chauvinism. This cultural and religious enmity confounded with political rivalry continued throughout the medieval era in India. The Mughal period was no exception to this.

It may be mentioned that neither Islam, as a religion, nor the ‘Holy Quran’ itself, attaches any significance to cow-slaughter as an essential ingredient in the observance of Muslim religion. The Muslim rulers deliberately gave significance to cow slaughter in India basically to demonstrate political supremacy and irk the Hindu rulers and the masses.  In the context of cow slaughter it is of significance to quote Zahir-ul-Hasan Lari, a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution, “I for one can say that this is a matter on which we will not stand in the way of the majority if the majority wants to proceed in a certain way, whatever may be our inclinations. We feel – we know that our religion does not necessarily say that you must sacrifice cow: it permits it.” (Constituent Assembly Debates, Chapter VII, 7.59.153).

The cow, as a symbol of political power and unification of Hindu strength, not only provided verve and vigour to the Hindu religion and culture to survive the Muslim onslaughts throughout the medieval period, but in modern era also it provided the much needed force and energy to the Indians in their fight for independence to throw the yoke of foreign British domination.  Lord Linlithgow, who was the British Viceroy in India from 1884 to 1894 is said to have remarked, “The cow protection movement has transformed the Indian National Congress from a foolish debating society into a real political power, backed by the most dangerous elements in the native society.” This statement was made in the backdrop of massive cow protection riots in the last decades of the nineteen century (1880s and 1890s) in the country. Swami Dayanand Sarswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, had emerged as the main protagonist of the cow-protection movement who was also an ace freedom fighter. The cow protection movement had revived the dormant Hindu power and helped in raising the confidence of Hindus in their own culture and civilization.

It is fallible definitely to trace the Hindu-Muslim rivalry which had manifested in the cow-protection riots of 1880s and 1890s, and even thereafter, as the British design to separate the Hindus and the Muslims as part of their ‘divide and rule’ policy since the two communities had seen centuries old rivalry over the issue of slaughter of cows. Conversely, the Christian British officials had put their own demands also on the meat of cows which led to more slaughter of cows.

All the efforts of Hindu-Muslim unity tried by the nationalist leaders of the country failed miserably primarily because the Muslims regarded themselves as a ‘nation within the nation’. Even Mahatma Gandhi who is regarded as apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity in India had miserably failed in all his efforts to create a lasting bond between the two communities to present a united front in his fight against the British colonial policy in India.  Gandhiji, however, is also criticized for promoting Hindu elements in the Congress which alienated the Muslims from the Congress movement. The cow protection move advocated by Gandhiji happened to be one such ideology. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that Muslim participation inside the Congress movement was never phenomenal. The movement of the Congress did not suffer any big jolt even when the majority of the Muslim leaders decided to sing a different tone of separate homeland for Muslims and the leadership to this demand was provided by many eminent Muslim leaders, the most prominent of them being Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The British theory of ‘divided and rule’, howsoever brilliantly it might have been pushed forward, would certainly not have succeeded without a willing majority of the Muslims clamoring for a separate homeland which found an expression in ‘Pakistan’.  

The country witnessed numerous Hindu-Muslim riots during the entire period of freedom movement, the most furious one on the ‘Direct Action Day on 16th August, 1946’ – a call by the Muslim League for creation of Pakistan – and in all such riots  cows were also specially targeted by the Muslim fanatics. India got independence in 1947 and two different homelands were created, one for the Hindus (modern day India) and one for the Muslims (West Pakistan, modern day Pakistan and East Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh).

An indebted Indian nation tried to return it’s obligations that it owed to the cow by putting a ban on the slaughter of cow. The Constitution of India in Article 48 mentions: “The state shall endeavor to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattles.”

Needless saying that this Directive Principle in the Constitution would have failed to protect the slaughter of even a single cow in the country but for the mention of an amending clause without which the Hindu members of the Constituent Assembly would not have agreed to compromise on its placement in the Directive Principles Chapter. The amendment which reads as, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall in particular take steps for preserving and improving the breeds of cattle and prohibit the slaughter of cow and other useful cattle, specially milch and draught cattle and their young stock”  finds a mention in item number fifteen of the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution based on which several State governments and Union Territories have put a ban on the slaughter of cows.

At present, barring Kerala, West Bengal and North- East States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura , all Indian States and Union Territories (UTs) have put a ban on the slaughter of cow. The rules relating to cow slaughter varies from state to state.

However, in the states and UTs where cow slaughter is banned, illegal trafficking and slaughter of cows are widely reported as also the vehement opposition by the Hindu activists which often result in violent clashes and deaths. These incidents have increased in the recent past, although such clashes have always been in the news. According to a Reuters report a total of 63 cow vigilante attacks had occurred in India between 2010 and mid 2017 in which 28 Indians- 24 of them Muslims-were killed and 124 injured. These attacks mostly targeted illegal cow smugglers. No body in the country should have the right to take law in their hands, those who kill the innocent animals illegally as well as those who indulge in vandalism and claim themselves to be ‘gau rakshaks’ or protectors of cow.

An effort to ban the slaughter of cow on country-wide basis by the BJP government led by Mr. Narendra Modi was attempted when on 26th May, 2017 the Ministry of Environment of Government of India imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal market across India under Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Statute, but the Supreme Court of India suspended the ban on the sale of cattle in it’s judgement in July, 2017, giving relief to beef and leather industry. The weakness lies in the political will and dual standards of Muslim appeasement followed in the country so far that is accountable for absence of a total ban on cow slaughter in the country. The injunction of the Supreme Court would hardly come in the way of a determined political leadership because there are constitutional ways available for an elected government to give a legal expression to a provision contained in the Directive Principles chapter. The main reservation related to protests indicating Hindu-Muslim animosity. The more pragmatic leaders of the country preferred a conflicting issue to perpetuate than to find a lasting solution.

The cordial relations between the Hindus and the Muslims will grow only when the long standing disputing issues are set to rest for ever. The slaughter of cow and consumption of beef happens to be one such big issue which needs to be resolved by a country wide ban on slaughter of cows. The Muslim community will not go against any decision of the government that aims at fostering a lasting peace in the country provided they get a cheap substitute of beef. The opinion expressed by one Muslim member of the Constituent Assembly, Syed Muhammad Saadulla, is worth mentioning here: “Fortunately or unfortunately the Muslims are a meat-eating people. The price of mutton is so high that many poor people cannot buy it. Therefore on rare occasions they have to use the flesh of the cow.” (Discussions in Constituent Assembly , Chapter VII, 7.59.143)

In vain, the problem always lied in the minds of majority Hindu leaders having half-baked liberal thought flavoured with Communism whose prime motive remained to secure Muslim votes by the policy of appeasement. While condemning this duality and confusion in the minds of Hindu leaders Zahir-ul-Hasan Lari had remarked,” “Let those who guide the destinies of the country, make or mar them, say definitely ‘this is our view’, and we will submit to it. We are not going to violate it. This is the only thing I have come to say. I hope you will not misunderstand me when I say this. It is not due to anger, malice or resentment but it is out of regard for cordial relations between the communities, and what is more, due to the necessity of having a clear mind that I say this. Henceforward the Muslim minority must know where they stand so that they may act accordingly, and there be no occasion for any misunderstanding between the majority and the Muslims on this point.” (Constituent Assembly Debates, Chapter VII, 7.59.153).

Unfortunately more than seventy years after independence , the situation has not improved and the same confusion persists. Had a total ban on slaughter of cow been implemented since independence the country would not have witnessed many riots and killings and the relations between the majority Hindu population and the minorities would have been much cordial. A national level ban on slaughter of cow must not be seen as a coercive measure by the majority Hindus on the beef-eating minorities of the country, the Muslims and the Christians. A complete ban on slaughter of cow and beef does not impinge upon anyone’s right to life. The Right to choose one’s food cannot be connected in any way with the Right to life of a person or the Right to profess his religion, particularly when the religion does not specify anything in this connection.

A ban on slaughter of cows will certainly not shatter the secular credentials of the country. Conversely, it will protect the same by checking unnecessary violent clashes on this issue between the Hindus and the Muslims which present a picture of continued barbaric medieval culture in the country. This creates an impediment in the path of development as it distracts foreign collaborators in the economy. It may be mentioned that after opening up the economy in 1991, India was available as a destination for the Western, Japanese and American Companies for setting up their manufacturing units, which if turned into reality, could have reduced the problem of unemployment and added to revenues in the exchequer in the form taxes. However, they Chose China as their destination. It was not because of availability of cheap labour and simplified labour legislations alone, but it was due to the fact that China assured political stability, good law and order, world class infrastructure, and skilled workforce. On the other hand, in India we are still entangled with cow protection and lynching incidents presenting a very miserable picture of the country as regards law and order situations and political uncertainties. The lesser it is said about the availability of skilled labour and world class infrastructure the better it would be. Unfortunately, the basic are comfortably forgotten. We believe in quick-fix techniques to hurriedly suspend labour laws in the hope that this is the sole demand of the companies leaving China after the Corona outbreak. With the growing competition for survival in the current tough times and shrinking opportunities owing to heavy pressure on the resources due to population explosion, conflicts between communities are bound to escalate. This is true for other geographies of the globe. In India, it is difficult to contain the aspirations and religious sentiments of Hindus on this issue of cow-slaughter which is several centuries old and runs in their blood and which will never allow the peace to prevail unless the issue is solved permanently. It will certainly not subside.

Political wisdom lies in stretching conflicting issues and twisting and turning them to attain political power. National interest lies in solving them one after another in the larger interest of the country. Till the time wisdom prevails on all policy makers to effectively put a country- wide ban on the slaughter of cow and put an end to this centuries old contentious issue between the Hindus and the Muslims, the cow will continue to see the locking of horns by the two communities and curse the fate of this country. ‘India Shining’ will remain unaccomplished and unfulfilled till this issue is set to rest. That is the powerful influence of seemingly simple and harmless animal, the cow, in the politics of India. (Concluded)

(The author is a Senior HR Professional and a Writer, and the current article is from his forthcoming book ‘What Will Make India Shine’)

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