The government’s decision to issue ‘Cowdhaar’ cards is the latest in a series of absurd theatrical maneuvers to protect cows. If history is anything to go by, our ancestors had no such concern for the herbivore
It is official. Cow protectionism has now traipsed over from the territory of the absurd to sheer lunacy. A wedding in Uttar Pradesh was called off because the squeeze in meat supply due to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s cattle ban had ensured that no non-vegetarian dish could be served. The bridegroom wanted the guests to be served meat dishes. The bride chose to marry another man as he had agreed to marry her without demanding any meat dishes at the wedding. For a nation that reveres the bovine species so much, it is perhaps strange that the sight of a cow on the road is usually met with benign indifference. A jaywalking milch cow on a Delhi street usually has the same status as a stray canine with the sole exception that no SUV threatens to run over a cow. Perhaps the reason we as a nation love the cow so much is because it is white as opposed to the more muscular and thug-looking buffalo which is as black as the night. Even in our veneration of animals, we are decidedly racist. Some of this illogical veneration was shared by some of our nation’s founding fathers. If one reads the notes of the Constituent Assembly debates, then an important passage stands out. The passage reads, “So holy and auspicious is this gentle creature regarded in our country that it is believed to be able to ward off any evil. Accordingly, if a child is born on an inauspicious day or under an inauspicious sign, it is ceremonially placed beneath the standing cow (Shantipooja) and she is asked to save the child from any evil.” How the cow could protect a child from garden variety evils like dengue fever and diarrhoea that Indian children routinely fall prey to remains unclear. What is amply clear is that cow protection laws in India have a twisted history. Gaukarunanidhi, a book written by reformist Dayanand Saraswati, labelled cow slaughter as an anti-Hindu act. Saraswati and his followers travelled across India, giving lectures and founding societies. The advent of trains, buses and printing presses aided much wider dissemination of their messages. The nascent movement also gained momentum when Allahabad High Court ruled that cows are not “sacred” animals as defined in Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code and Muslims could not be held accountable for slaughtering them. Protection of gaumata (mother cow) became one of the most important issues of the incipient Hindu nationalism of pre-independence India. One of the causes of the revolt of 1857 was the rumour that the Enfield cartridges issued to soldiers were made of cow and pig fat. While the desecration of a ‘divine’ animal had the Hindus riled sufficiently, the usage of fat from a supposedly ‘filthy’ animal got the Muslim community angry as well. Mahatma Gandhi, despite his stated love for the Dalit community, declared that “as for me, not even to win Swaraj will I renounce my principle of cow protection.” It was another matter altogether that the bread and butter of the community were the hides and skins procured from carcasses. BR Ambedkar himself linked the status of Dalits to their eating the meat of the dead cow in The Untouchables: Who were They and Why They became Untouchables? If the debates during the Constituent Assembly were any indication, independent India would have put this issue to rest once and for all. The cow did not find protection in the draft Constitution prepared by the Assembly. It was the first President of India, Rajendra Prasad, who secretly championed the issue. He repeatedly lobbied newly anointed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to issue some sort of symbolical reprieve for the exalted animal from the hands of murderous slaughterhouses. Thus came into existence Article 48, which reads, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and other milch and draught cattle.” One by one, most of the states promulgated cow protection laws that were anti-people and gave the police and the administration a tool to harass citizens for their dietary preferences. In the past few years, emboldened by a sympathetic ruling dispensation, self-styled cow vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to enforce this directive principle. Disturbingly, this has been repeatedly done in a violent and murderous manner as the hate crimes in Una, Dadri, Latehar and Alwar show.
It must be noted that the cow never had the sort of adoration that it has received in the last two centuries. As DD Kosambi put it in his Ancient India (1965), “A modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic Brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef.” Historian DN Jha also drew much flak from the Hindu right wing when he reiterated this fact. A particular passage from Jha’s The Myth of the Holy Cow is instructive. Jha writes, “Animal sacrifices were very common, the most important of them being the famous asvamedha and rajasuya. These and several other major sacrifices involved the killing of animals, including cattle, which constituted the chief form of the wealth of the early Aryans. Not surprisingly, they prayed for cattle and sacrificed them to propitiate their gods. The Vedic gods had no marked dietary preferences. The Taittiriya Brahmana categorically tells us, ‘Verily the cow is food’ (athoannamvaigauh) and Yajnavalkya’s insistence on eating the tender (amsala) flesh of the cow is well known.” Like many other social customs that mimicked evolution in reverse, Indian society went from an enlightened stance to a regressive hardline one.
As of March 2017, cow slaughter has been prohibited in 84 percent of India’s states and Union Territories (UTs), which account for 99.38 percent of the country’s population. The cow is perhaps the only animal in the Indian sub-continent that has no known predators. If this position at the top of the food chain was not enough, the government is intent on bestowing more privileges on this divine creature. The central government has decided to issue an Aadhaar-like unique identification number to cows and calves. As per the notification, 88 million cows in the country will get a tag containing a 12-digit unique identification number inside the ear. The ‘Cowdhaar’ card raises some interesting questions. How exactly does a cow provide biometric identification? Do footprints suffice? Also, why stop at this? Why not provide Jan Dhan accounts too? Eager to outdo the strident cow love of Yogi Adityanath, the BJP-led Rajasthan government, in an unprecedented step, introduced a surcharge for cow protection on all non-judicial instruments. The introduction of a cow surcharge in Rajasthan means that anyone who makes a lease agreement, loans money or rents property, will have to pay an additional surcharge of 10 percent on stamp duty. Amidst all this frenzy, the cows are unavailable for comment. No one really knows whether a cow on the street considers herself special and the panacea for all ills.