Political heft of the holy Indian cow

The Indian cow, Bos indicus, has multiple identities: sacred animal, economic animal and more recently, political animal. She is venerated in all three roles and thus worthy of protection. However, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reminded us, the law bans cow slaughter but does not mandate cow protection. So gau rakshaks are free to assault suspected cow killers while turning a blind eye to cow abuse, like stuffing them full of plastic.

But are all cows holy? Can a similar status be accorded to Bos taurus, which includes foreign breeds like Jersey and Holstein-Friesen and their mixed race offspring, or is the holy umbrella restricted to the 37 indigenous breeds of cow? Cow connoisseurs may turn up their collective nose at non-native breeds, but the law does not discriminate between Bos taurus and Bos indicus. The beef of either will land you in jail, unless the gau rakshaks get you first.

When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, he was rumoured to enjoy the occasional beefsteak, which prompted the Madhya Pradesh Youth Congress to come up with the slogan “Gau hamaree mata hai, Astal usko khata hai.” The standing joke in political circles was that he replied with “Woh toh videshi gaaye hain.” Regardless of its DNA – desi or videshi – cows cannot be slaughtered in 20 of 29 states and in Maharashtra and Haryana, even possession of cow beef is a crime.

It is fashionable to justify the ban on cow slaughter by emphasising the importance of the cow in Indian agriculture and the economy and in preserving the environment. There’s no gainsaying that cow dung and urine are of prime importance as bio-inputs in farming. Organic cultivation would certainly be impossible without cattle.

Why then, does the buffalo, Bubalis bubilis, not enjoy a similar protection? Indeed, India’s buffalo beef export business is booming. And yet, the humble buffalo’s economic contribution and potential is quite as much as that of the cow. Buffalo urine and dung is every bit as good for agriculture. It also serves as a draught animal and is a major source of the milk that finds its way into our households. The higher fat content of buffalo milk, in fact, makes them more popular with milk producers than cows. A similar – in fact, a more stark – situation obtains in Nepal, where killing a cow can invite a long prison term but buffaloes are slaughtered in their thousands during the Gadhimai festival celebrations.

So what makes the Indian cow so special? Her milk, we are told, is nectar and this has now been scientifically proven through studies which show Indian cow milk contains the A2 rather than the A1 beta casein protein. A2 milk is far better for human health than A1, which is found in the milk of “foreign” breeds. Companies in the US are marketing A2 milk on this premise. By that argument, Holstein-Friesian and Jersey cows lack that special something that desi breeds have. But the law, blind to A1 versus A2, treats them on an equal footing.

Another poser for the gau rakshaks, outraged by the smuggling of an estimated 10 million heads of cattle into beef hungry countries, is where these unfortunate cows come from? Clearly, the unproductive cows are sold to smugglers for profit by their owners. The sacredness of the cow is forgotten when there’s money to be made!

PM Modi, by calling the gau rakshaks to account, has to tread a fine line between his government’s stated policy of cow protection and the dangers of cow vigilantism. The political heft of the cow is evident in the fact that both Congress and BJP governments have supported the ban on cow slaughter (Only two of the current BJP-ruled states have gone so far as to extend the ban to sale and possession of cow beef – in effect legislating dietary choices. The jury is still out on whether these laws will stand scrutiny in the light of constitutional freedoms). But the biggest political mobilisation on this issue goes back to 1966, when an angry mob gheraoed Parliament, demanding a cow slaughter ban. A curfew was imposed on the capital as Indira Gandhi refused the demand, although she would later endorse it, in 1982.

Now, with cow vigilantes running riot and PM Modi belatedly seeking to contain them, the cow is likely to be an issue in the forthcoming assembly elections – at least in Uttar Pradesh. By seeking to enforce – within and outside the law – the cultural standard which eschews consumption of beef, the BJP may well alienate substantive sections of the electorate, namely the dalits.

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