October 25, 2015

Modi's India: Holy Cows, Unholy People

Prabir Purkayastha

IN a meeting which I attended recently, a senior retired Air Force officer talked about the protest of the writers as a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. He was referring to writers returning their awards in protest against Mohammad Akhlaq's lynching in Dadri.

Two more incidents with extreme right-wing formations killing Muslim youth in cow related incidents have occurred, even after the furore over Aklaq's death. Panchajanya, the RSS mouthpiece, and the chief minister of Haryana, ML Khattar, both have justified Aklaq's murder. Panchajanya has quoted, or more correctly, misquoted the vedas to justify Akhlaq's murder, claiming that he had killed a cow. Khattar repeated Mahesh Sharma, the minister of state for culture on the Dadri killing, calling the murder “an accident”. He also proceeded to suggest, “If they want to stay Muslims, they will have to stop eating beef”. Clearly, there is an unsaid “or else” after it.

Why is cow made the major symbol of a campaign on hurt sentiment? The answer is quite simple. The primary agenda in any campaign in the Hindutva camp is for creating “the other” as a hate object. It is not that the cow is sacred to “us” that is important; but it is sacred to “us” and the Muslims eat it. This makes the Muslims “our” enemy.

The RSS-Hindutva agenda is to homogenise a Hindu identity based on hatred of the Muslims. The cow-protecting Hindus that kill those who “eat” cows, is a recent creation. It is created by a need to define Muslims differently from the Hindus, to create different markers for different communities. It also stamps out the pluralism that exists among the Hindus. The elevation of vegetarianism, a belief only among a section of the upper castes, is now sought to be made a Hindu marker. And all Muslims are supposedly longing to kill cows, as they love to eat what Hindus venerate. This is the Muslim marker. If any cow dies due to natural causes or is missing, a Muslim is assumed guilty of its slaughter. If cattle is being transported, it is being taken to slaughter houses by Muslims. And either of the two cases, they can be attacked and brutalised. Are not cows' lives superior to human lives?

The only response of the government and the PM on the Dadri incident has been to call it “saddening”; no condemnation, that too after 15 days of protests and people asking him to speak up. It is claimed that some of the vocal supporters of using violence to “enforce” the beef ban, have been called, and privately snubbed. This has been denied by those who were called, saying it was just a routine meeting. Such exercises make those, who support the Modi government, but are embarrassed by its medieval mindset, feel better; or delude themselves.




The BJP and its leadership are speaking in two voices. While Modi talks about development and digital India, his party men talk about killing those who eat cows, and the medical benefits of cow's urine. The attempt is to divide the people, creating a Hindu vote bank, while keeping an international profile of being pro-capital and pro-industry. As long as capital and the elite do well, how does it matter what happens to the minorities or the poor?

Through this campaign on the beef ban and violence, the BJP and the RSS are creating a new normalcy. Instead of talking about peoples' right to eat what they want, the focus shifts to whether it is right to kill people, who kill cows. The overarching theme becomes that the cow is sacred to Hindus, anybody killing it or eating it, is hurting our sentiments, and deserves severe punishment. This is supplemented by mumbo jumbo science on the benefits of cows in the economy, the medicinal value of its urine, etc. We also have the recent arguments regarding “scientific” vegetarianism, and why everybody should be a vegetarian.  

The reality is that eating bovine meat has always been a class issue. Cows and bulls are disposed of only when they become too old for giving milk, or for use in agriculture or transport. Nobody in his senses will dispose of, what are high value assets in the rural economy for a one time gain as meat.

So who eat the cows' (or bulls') meat? It is traditionally the poor; or those who collect fallen animals. Some of the traditional communities, who take away the animals after their death also eat the meat. In other cases, the animal is skinned, the meat and bones are cooked in carcass cookers, for fat to be extracted as tallow, the bones ground as bone meal, and the remaining animal matter converted to chicken feed. There is an entire economy that has been built on utilising the carcass of the fallen animal.

The cattle past their prime are also sold and transported to slaughter houses. Selling the meat is a by-product of slaughter of animals, who are past their economic prime. The argument that cow slaughter takes place solely for consumption of meat is a myth.  And it was always consumed by the poorer sections among both the Hindus and the Muslims, as it is cheaper than mutton or chicken.

Talk to any Muslim middle class household. They will tell you that bovine meat was always held to be inferior, and they never ate it in their homes. This is true for also the Christian households in Kerala, the other community that is supposed to eat beef. Yes, it is eaten in Kerala, North East, Bengal, and other places, but because it is cheaper meat, and largely by the poor.

The bulk of the slaughter that takes place in India in the abattoirs, are of buffaloes and goats. The attack on the abattoirs is an attack on the economic activities of the Muslims, who are involved in this trade. Though the bigger slaughter houses are owned by Hindus as well as Muslims, a large proportion of those involved in this trade or in the slaughter houses, are Muslims. To ban all trade in cattle for slaughter, is an economic attack on the poor and the Muslims.

Banning cow (or bull slaughter) sounds great, when appealing for votes or creating a communal divide. What happens to all those animals who are now “saved” from slaughter? Who maintains them to the end of their lives? Are the farmers, who are abandoning agriculture in large numbers, or committing suicide, to take on this additional economic burden, based on the beliefs of upper caste Hindus? How come a practice that has continued for hundreds of years, without becoming a communal issue, is now seen as a Hindu-Muslim issue?

The large number of cattle being abandoned in Himachal, is due to banning cow slaughter without giving farmers an alternative. The High Court has recently passed an order to embed an electronic chip for identification of all cattle, so that its owner can be identified; an Aadhar chip for cows!

For those, who would like to argue “scientifically” that non-vegetarian food is ecologically not sustainable (Pallava Bagla: PTI, October 11, 2015), they need to understand that Indian meat consumption is much smaller than in the west. India has an average consumption of a paltry 4.4 kg per head per year, as compared to 41.9 kg globally and 120 kg in the US. Here, cattle are not bred for the table; neither is agricultural land set aside for grazing; or corn fed to the cattle as is done in the US. The cattle in India, unlike the west, are fed on agricultural waste. Arguments using studies that use western data, with very different practices from India, are fallacious and only provide “scientific” fodder to the Hindutva lobby.

How vegetarian is India? In a State of the Nation Survey, conducted in 2006 by CNN-IBN_Hindu in 2006, only 31 percent of Indians were found to be vegetarians. Late Kumar Suresh Singh, in his seminal work on the People of India, had shown that the majority of communities in India are non-vegetarian. He also showed that while 55 percent of Brahmins were vegetarians, only 12 percent of tribals were. He also showed that land-locked states had a higher percentage of vegetarians, while the coastal states had very few. What such surveys and studies confirm, is that vegetarianism is more connected to cultural practices of communities than religion.




The creation of vigilante squads for extortion, or for prevention of transportation of cattle, has been growing over time. These local goon squads of Bajrang Dal or variants of Hindu Sena, have been levying “hafta” on such trade. Dara Singh, of the infamous Stein murders, was the leader of such a gang in his area. This has always been a combination of cow protection and an extortion racket. What has now been added in this mix, is the lynching of Muslim youth in the name of cow protection, and its justification by leading figures in the government and the ruling party.

India had rejected the two nation theory of Jinnah of the Muslim League. But Jinnah's Muslim League had its counterpart in the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. They wanted a Hindu nation, the same way Jinnah argued for a Muslim one. 

Modi, in his maiden speech in parliament, talked about 1,200 years of servitude, a claim he repeated to his NRI constituency in Madison Square Garden, New York. In this history according to Modi, the British did not colonise India; the Muslims did. That is why in the national movement, RSS had no role. Their only struggle was against the Muslims and not the British, who they regarded as the lesser evil and therefore a possible ally.

BJP believes that they have now seized power with Modi's victory, and can build their Hindu nation. Modi's signals are clear. He has selected known hate mongers as ministers: Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Mahesh Sharma and Sanjeev Baliyan. Sanjeev Baliyan still has cases against him for Muzaffarnagar riots. Modi himself talked sarcastically about “pink revolution” during his election speeches in UP, and attacked the meat industry. Amit Shah openly made communal comments on Muslim butchers, after which the Election Commission banned his public meetings in UP. Newsclick has uploaded videos of his communal comments against Muslims, who own abattoirs and have become “arabpatis”. To expect that Modi and Shah are “disciplining” others, is to fool oneself. What they are doing is a PR exercise, for the benefit of the gullible.


The writers have voiced the conscience of the nation. They have expressed what the Indian nation has always stood for: a plural nation built on common foundations. Instead, the BJP is sowing the wind of hatred. Let it beware that it does not reap the whirlwind.