The many uses of the cow
While DN Jha marshals an impressive body of evidence to expose the alleged historical sanctity of the cow as a myth, he doesn’t trace the history of the cow’s rise to sanctity. Cow protection was en emotive issue during the Indian freedom struggle, and was part of the larger project of arresting and reversing the secular-political movement of the lower classes. Here are some excerpts from Braj Ranjan Mani’s book, Debrahmanising History:
Awash with religious symbolism, [Gandhian] nationalism was sharply opposed to the mass struggle for social and material change; whatever changes had to be effected had to come from above. The net result, of the real nature and impact of Gandhian nationalism, as Aloysius has shown, was to deflect the course of political awakening from the hard world of the economic and political to that of the nebulous and mysterious.
In short, the Gandhian synthesis meant little more than religion for the lower caste masses and politics for the upper caste nationalists, which in essence degraded both religion and politics.
Gandhi’s first major agitation against the British – Non-cooperation movement – was a case in point. Based on Khilafat, cow protection and anti-untouchability, it was not directed only against the British but also aimed at arresting and reversing the secular-political movement of the lower classes. Gandhi gave the mass of Hindu workers and peasants who aspired for material change, the issues of cow-protection and anti-untouchability, while his prescription for the Muslim masses who, like the Hindu lower classes, were agitating for education, social betterment, diversification of occupations, and such issues, was Khilafat (to restore the Caliphate in Turkey as the global Islamic head a la the Pope, when the Arabs and Turks had themselves turned their back on the Caliphate issue in favour of modern political establishment). The Khilafat, however, met the political aspirations of the Muslim elite who were looking for a separate constituency.
The elite segments of both Hindu and Muslim communities grabbed the opportunity that Gandhi provided them to reassert their leadership on religious lines, as it greatly helped them thwart the egalitarian aspirations of the common people. It was more than evident that the vested interests of both communities dreaded the socio-economic restructuring that secular politics would necessarily entail. The politics of religion, on the other hand, gave them the unique opportunity to conjure up an external threat — the Hindu threat to Muslims and the Muslim threat to Hindus — to divert attention from public pressure for socio-economic changes.
[As Nehru observed in his autobiography] it is nevertheless extraordinary how the bourgeois classes, both among the Hindus and the Muslims, succeeded, in the sacred name of religion, in getting a measure of mass sympathy and support for programmes and demands which had absolutely nothing to do with the masses, or even the lower middle class.
Little seems to have changed in the intervening decades, for we’re still in the grip of the politics of religion. As with the Ram temple movement, albeit to a smaller extent, the Sangh Parivar has sought to use cow-protection as a wedge issue to isolate and belittle the beef-eating Muslim monolith. For instance, a recent VCD released by the BJP just before the UP elections featured two beef-eating Muslims conniving to dispossess an I-love-my-cow-like-my-mother Hindu of his cow and slaughtering it. [According to Siddharth Varadarajan, the CD had a 50 second long graphic footage of a buffalo being slaughtered, including of the blood pouring out from its throat. Very interesting logic; to inflame anti-Muslim passions, the life of a buffalo is worth the price!]
Over the years, several of the Sangh’s pet peeves have found expression in the pages of the Organiser under the pretext of cow-protection. Sample these:
- According to this writer, the Congress’ hidden agenda of establishing Muslim hegemony throughout the Indian sub-continent is revealed in this letter by Nehru: You know how strong an advocate of cow protection Bapu is. Nevertheless, so far as I am aware, he is opposed to any compulsory stoppage of cow slaughter. His chief reason, I believe, is that we must not function as a Hindu State; but as a composite State in which Hindus, no doubt, predominate.
- According to this myth-maker, Nehru opposed the ban on cow-slaughter because: If the cow slaughter is banned, Muslims and others who eat beef will be provoked. Therefore, a ban on cow slaughter is not proper.
- This writer praises Muslims in Varanasi who joined hands with the Hindus to prevent the slaughter of cows and thanks them for doing their duty as true citizens of India. Another swayamsevak wonders whether any Muslims (sic) worth his blood will come forward like Rahmatullah [a cow-loving Muslim exemplar] to oppose cow slaughter. Yet another one avers that even Islam is against cow-slaughter, and that educated Muslims are aware beef is harmful for health as it causes various diseases, so avoid it. He also approvingly quotes the Shahi Imam of Fatehpuri mosque who argues against beef-eating since we [Muslims] need to maintain cordial relations with the communities with whom we have to live.
- This imaginative swayamsevak claims that honouring the Hindu sentiments, the then Muslim leadership (that participated in the 1857 war of independence) agreed on matters like ban on cow-slaughter, death penalty to the slaughterers of cows. And this pseudo-historian claims that both Christians and Muslims in the Hindu kingdoms of Kerala were culturally assimilated with the local traditions and social customs … even abstaining from cow-slaughter and beef-eating. … However, the entry of European colonial Christianity and the murderous Muslim armies from Mysore led by Hyder Ali and his fanatical son Tipu Sultan into Kerala … resulted in the degeneration of the mindsets and social outlook of the local Christian and Muslim communities. The writer then goes on to rant on the universality of Hinduism as opposed to narrowness of Islam and Christianity.
As recently as last week, the Karnataka Chief Minister (who is in power thanks to the BJP’s backing) participated in a Grand cow protection meet where Top Hindu leaders called for a ban on cow slaughter. I could go on and on, but you probably get the point by now. In short, the Sangh’s PR machine would want us to believe that:
- Hindus are a monolithic community, all of whom oppose cow-slaughter.
- The absence of a constitutional ban on cow slaughter in India is indicative of the Muslim hegemony in India (which itself is a consequence of the Muslim propensity to violence and Hindu docility).
- The prevalence of cow-slaughter and beef-eating in India is a consequence of the degradation induced by hostile Muslim and Christian invasions.
- Good Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority, and act accordingly.
The Sangh makes a lot of noise about the many uses of the cow (several of which are true), but what’s left unsaid is its most significant use — the ease with which it lends itself to Muslim-baiting. This, more than anything else, explains the Sangh’s love for the cow.