On one end of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) headquarters in Delhi is the Bharat Mata building. Among the many offices the building houses is one of the ‘Bhartiya Govansh Rakshan - Sanvardhan Parishad’. Literally, the Indian Cow Breed Protection - Development Council. The room is plastered with posters of cow protection, the uses of cow products, there’s even one of different breeds found in different parts of India.
One sticker on the door asks: “When Lord Krishna was born in Bharat to establish a religion here, how can such a country be run without that religion?”
The words are from a speech by Hukum Chandra Sawala, who looked after the VHP’s cow protection programme for many years before moving on to become the organisation’s vice president. Fortunately, he is visiting today to attend a VHP meeting. Wearing a fading saffron lungi and a tilak on his forehead, Sawala has it all thought through about cows.
“Cow protection is the favourite issue of Hindu society. It is the focal point of Hindu honour. Around this issue, Hindus get together and unite,” he says, adding that over the last ten years, old men have been replaced by young blood when it comes to cow protection.
The new Ram Mandir
Uniting Hindus across caste, class and geography has been a key objective of the Hindutva project. In the ’90s, the symbol of uniting Hindus was the Ram Mandir. Hindus from across India were invited to do kar sewa, go to Ayodhya and do their bit for the agitation to replace a mosque with a temple.
Is cow protection the new Ram Mandir? The issue did have traction before Partition and for many years in the ’60s. Increasingly, it seems to be back with a vengeance. State governments have been passing strong anti-cow slaughter bans, Muslims have been attacked and even lynched on the rumour and suspicion of eating beef or selling cows, and now even Dalits are being targeted by cow protection organisations.
Just as the Ram Mandir was the polarising issue 25 years ago, increasing the polarisation between Hindu and Muslim, secular and communal, cow protection is doing the same again. It is no secret who Hindus are being sought to be united against: Muslims. On 11 July in Una in Gujarat, four Dalits were stripped and flogged for skinning dead cows – their caste profession. The Hindutva project does not seek to exclude Dalits, so how is it turning on them?
“What happened in Gujarat was wrong,” says Sawala, “Those who skin dead cattle as part of their tradition should not be beaten up. The issue is not Dalit or upper caste. No one is allowed to take the law in their hands. The VHP or the Bajrang Dal is in no way associated with those who are using violence,” he says.
He does not oppose skinning of dead cows by Dalits for the leather industry, as this has been their traditional occupation. He emphasises tradition, parampara. Yet the ideal way of handling the death of a cow is the remove its horns and use them as “horn fertiliser” and then bury the cow in a grave of 6x8x8 feet. Six months later, dig the grave again, remove the bones, and use the soil as fertiliser.
“Traditional leather skinning is okay only if an animal has died a natural death. But what we see today is that old cows are sold and killed only because of the demand from the leather industry,” he says.
For Muslims he has no exceptions. “There is no religious or other compulsion that Muslims have to eat cow meat,” he says, asking, “Can you eat pork in Pakistan?” What about Dalits or tribals, or even upper castes in Kerala, who have been eating cow meat? “If there is a majboori (helplessness), then we are not stopping anyone. But many want to eat cow meat only to insult and humiliate Hindus,” he says.
The local bully
Veteran BJP leader Arun Shourie, who coined the memorable phrase “Congress plus cow” for the Modi government, compares Hindutva to organised Islam, which turned into conflicting sects, or how communism annihilated itself with its divisions. “Ultimately such ideas turn against themselves, because you are constantly looking for purity.” The encounter of cow protection with Dalits in Gujarat is an example of that.
The Ram Janambhoomi movement, Shourie says, was a “corrective to the state bending over backwards to Bhindranwale and to the proponents of Sharia in the Shah Bano case. The Ram Mandir movement was seeking to shift the pendulum back from another extreme. But now with the BJP in power, cow protection is seeking to shift the pendulum to the far right.”
Shourie says the cow protection programme has nothing to do with veneration of the cow. “It is just a way of mobilising voters. One purpose is electoral, the second is domination, just what a local bully does. Anybody, even the liberal who opposes you, is to be bullied. The idea may be thought of at a high level with faith, but it only gives the local bully a rationale for domination through violence.”
That is exactly what seems to have happened in Gujarat: relatives of the Dalits who were flogged say the real issue was land grab. Martin Macwan, Ahmedabad-based Dalit activist who runs a skill centre to take Dalits out of caste occupations, says the Una incident was no exception. “Cow protection is giving vigilante groups a cover to get away with land grab,” he says.
The Gujarat incident can only help it lose Dalit votes in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat itself. For about two weeks in the Bihar campaign last year, the BJP tried to make political capital of Lalu Yadav’s claim that some Hindus also eat beef. It did not work, putting a question mark on whether the issue can really unite Hindus and deliver votes.
A BJP intellectual, not wanting to be named, says the “fringe groups” are out of control because the Hindutva project is now too large.
He says cow protection cannot be compared with Ram Mandir. “Unlike Ram Mandir, cow protection is not being taken up in our national agenda. Modi spoke of the pink revolution in the 2014 campaign but you have to see he did so only in some areas. In Kerala or Goa for instance, we are not asking for a beef ban. The issue is mainly germane in Muslim concentration areas in north India, such as west UP and the Bihar-Bengal districts near the Bangladesh border,” he says.
The summary of his argument, again, is that cow protection is a political tool to unite Hindus against Muslims and establish Hindu cultural dominance – not very different from what the Ram Mandir wanted to achieve.
Right to life
The cow protection programme seems to exclude too many people, from Kashmir to Kerala, north east to Goa, Dalits and tribals, foreigners and leather traders, all are being othered. “India requires insaan raksha samitis, not gau raksha samitis,” says Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi. “The right to life in the Constitution is for human beings. These cow protection laws are made from directive principles, but they can’t override the most important right to life.”
With forensic laboratories pressed into service to investigate whether a said piece of meat was beef or not, the cow protection programme is indirectly targeting all meat eaters. Mahtab Alam, a human rights activist, was travelling to Delhi by train from his home in Bihar last year, soon after the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri. His mother cooked him mutton to take along for the journey, but he refused. “All it will take is someone in the train to question if it is beef and I could get lynched,” he says.
The economic impact of cow protection programmes is being felt in many directions.
Vijay Jawandhia, a farmer in Wardha whose farm was famously visited by prime minister Manmohan Singh, says cows can’t be saved before farmers. “The beef ban is making it difficult to sell old cattle, increasing the economic pressure on farmers in Vidharbha,” he says.
Thanks to the beef ban in Maharashtra, the lower availability of hide has hit leather manufacturers and exporters in Tamil Nadu. Effectively making the selling of old cattle impossible is adversely affecting the Kolhapuri chappal. All these Hindus can’t possibly be united by gau raksha.
HOW THE COW PROTECTION PROGRAMME BEGAN
MS Golwalkar, the RSS chief between 1940 and 1973, was the brain behind the cow protection movement in the 1960s. The government set up a committee to consider the demand of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The committee lasted twelve years. In that period, Golwalkar became friends with one of the committee members, Verghese Kurien, known as the ‘Milkman of India’.
Kurien opposed the ban on cow slaughter for economic reasons — the dairy business needs to get rid of old and unhealthy cows. In his autobiography, Kurien revealed Golwalkar’s real reason for the cow protection movement.
Kurien quoted Golwakar as saying he started the cow protection movement only to embarrass the government. He went around India collecting a million signatures for his petition, and saw in a village in UP a woman who went from house to house in the scorching heat to get more signatures.
Kurien quotes Golwalkar, “This is when I realized that the woman was actually doing it for her cow, which was her bread and butter, and I realized how much potential the cow has… I saw that the cow has potential to unify the country — she symbolizes the culture of Bharat… you agree with me to ban cow slaughter on this committee and I promise you, five years from that date, I will have united the country. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m not a fool, I’m not a fanatic. I’m just cold-blooded about this. I want to use the cow to bring out our Indianness, So please cooperate with me on this.”
PROTECTING THE HOLY COW: A TIMELINE
July 30: A mob attacked the house of a Muslim family on suspicion of cow slaughter in UP’s Muzaffarnagar district.
J uly 26: Two Muslim women were beaten up at Mandsaur railway station in Madhya Pradesh on suspicion of carrying beef.
July 11: Seven members of a Dalit family were beaten up by about 35 gau rakshaks for skinning a dead cow in Una, in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district.
J uly 10: Bajrang Dal members brutally attacked a Dalit family in Koppa in Karnataka, claiming there was beef inside their house.
June 10: Two ‘beef transporters’ were beaten up and force-fed cow dung allegedly by the Gurgaon Gau Raksha Dal in Haryana.
May 6: The Bombay High Court ruled that it will no longer be illegal to consume or keep imported beef but upheld the Maharashtra government’s ban on slaughter of cows and bullocks.
April 2: Mustain Abbas was killed, allegedly by Gau Raksha Dal members in Kurukshetra, Haryana while he was transporting a buffalo. The High Court of Punjab and Haryana ordered CBI to probe the murder on May 9.
March 18: Two Muslim cattle-traders, including a 15-year-old, were beaten and hanged from a tree in Jharkhand’s Latehar district. Five suspects, including a member of a local gau raksha vigilante group, were later arrested.
January 13: Cow protection group attacked a couple at Khirkiya railway station in Madhya Pradesh over allegations that they were carrying beef.
December 3: Violent clashes broke out in Haryana’s Palwal district when villagers stopped a truck allegedly carrying cow meat.
October 19: Hindu hardliners threw black ink at J&K MLA Engineer Rashid in Delhi. He was thrashed earlier for holding a beef party in Srinagar.
October 16: A village mob lynched a man in Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh for alleged cattle smuggling.
October 9: A petrol bomb attack on a Srinagar-bound truck left three men — two Kashmiris and a policeman — battling burn injuries (one of them died later). The truck was set on fire allegedly by rightwing activists in Jammu’s Udhampur district.
October 9: A mob went on a rampage following rumours that a cow had been slaughtered in Mainpuri district in UP.
October 6: A cattle trader in Karnataka had a narrow escape after Bajrang Dal activists attacked him with metal rods on a rumour about a stolen cow.
October 1: Six students of Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur, Kerala, were suspended for organising a beef fest on campus to protest against the Dadri lynching.
September 28: A mob lynched Mohammed Akhlaque in Bisada village, Dadri, on allegations of killing a cow and consuming its meat on Eid.
August 29: Residents of Chilla village, near east Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, clashed with four truck drivers night who were reportedly transferring buffaloes to a slaughter house in Gazipur.
March 16: Haryana passed a stringent bill banning the sale of beef. The law mandated five years of rigorous imprisonment for selling beef — same as that in Maharashtra — and a fine of up to ₹50,000.
March 4: Maharashtra banned beef; anyone found in possession or sale would face five years of jail and a ₹10,000 fine. While a 1976 law prevented the slaughter of cows in Maharashtra, the new Act banned the slaughter of bulls as well as bullocks.