Cow has been holy for Hindus for a long time, but recently it — Gau Mata — has become the most talked animal in India. In ancient Hindu scriptures, cow is celebrated for its ability to nurture humanity and is compared to deities.
In India, where cows are venerated by a large segment of the population, cow vigilante violence involving mob attacks in the name of “cow protection” targeting mostly illegal cow smugglers, has swelled since 2014. Groups of blood-thirsty mobs have been striking fear in the hearts of minorities, as they’ve gone about lynching or attacking people, especially Muslims and Dalits, in the name of so-called cow protection. Cow vigilantism has become a grim reality in India – with potentially poisonous effects for communal harmony.
The recently emerged cow vigilante groups, claiming to be protecting cattle, have been violent leading to a number of deaths. According to indiaspend.com (a data journalism site), 86% of those dead in cow-related violence since 2010 are Muslim and 97 per cent of the attacks took place after 2014. Since 2014 till 2019, 122 incidents of cow-related violence took place in India. The numbers speak for themselves, and no doubt that there has been a rise in the number of incidents of cow vigilantism since the BJP-led government came into power.
The surge is attributed to the recent rise in Hindu nationalism in India. Many vigilante groups say they feel “empowered” by the victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP in the 2014 election. Following Narendra Modi’s rise to power, extremist Hindu groups have led attacks across the country that have targeted Muslim and Dalit communities. These attacks have been carried out with the stated intention of protecting cows.
Cow protection vigilante groups were estimated to have sprung up in “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of towns and villages in northern India. The gangs consist of volunteers, many of whom are poor labourers. The volunteers often tend to be young, and it so because it’s easy to motivate a youth. Often the youth are given “emotional” motivation by being shown graphic videos of animals being tortured. According to BBC News, many cow-protection vigilantes attend training camps organized by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is BJP’s parent organisation.
With elections just around the corner, in February 2019, speaking at a programme in Vrindavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has underlined the significance his government attaches to cow protection, stating that the animal is an important part of India’s tradition and culture and the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog announced in the interim budget, with an allocation of Rs 500 crore, will contribute towards its conservation and development. Modi said, “We cannot repay the debt of cow’s (gau mata) milk. Gau mata is an important element of India’s tradition and culture.”
By doing this, the BJP has brought back the cow back in political discourse. With the Lok Sabha elections fast approaching, cow protection has taken centre stage in the political narrative. In the recently elections in 3 states — Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — both the BJP and the principal opposition party – Congress — were competing with each other to offer much support and care for the holy cow in these three north Indian “cow belt” states.
Since then, political parties have competed with each other for protecting the holy cow. Despite that, the number of recognised cow shelters in the country is merely 1,802 while 5.3 million stray cattle rule the Indian roads and graze fields. Since the BJP-led NDA government came to power in India in 2014, lynching of Dalits and minorities in the name of protection of cow have become a central theme in north India. So will this change in the coming years? Only time will tell.