Electorally Holy Cow
By Afroz Alam
06 June, 2016
For many of us, beef has become ‘news’ of unpleasant sort. There is now a forensic report after eight month from a lab in Mathura which claims that the meat found inside the lynched man, Mohammad Akhlaq’s home at Dadri “belonged to beef or a cow progeny”. It is in contrast with an earlier report by the Greater Noida Veterinary Officer which declared that the meat was mutton. Be it beef or mutton, no respectability is shown to the right to food, the notion of privacy and right to life of the citizens of India. On the contrary, the present forensic report is now widely circulated with right-wing bias. There is now a cynical-switch to ramp up communal narratives. The hype around this report is just an attempt to keep the electoral theology in circulation well in advance in the election bound Uttar Pradesh. In other words, beef is back to deliver for the Brahminical right-wing in the cow-belt region of India as a part of the ‘Mission 2017’.
There appears now a tactical design on the ownership of the reports. The Mathura Lab report is now owned by the right-wing groups like BJP whereas the report of Veterinary Officer enjoys the backing of Samajwadi Party (SP). BJP is working on the utilitarian design of ‘beef’ to keep the majoritarian passions on bowling point in the state to draw electoral advantage. Similarly, minoritarian victimhood is invoked by the SP to keep the Muslim vote intact with the party. There appears a strategic consensus between both the parties to turn ‘beef’ into a political agenda in the forthcoming election. There is every possibility that cow-mobilisation will speed up with the active engagement of SP and BJP during the coming months when the Muslim festivals like Ramazan, Eid and Eid-ul-Adha are due.
It must be noted that the invocation of ‘beef’ in Bihar election did not yield desired results for BJP. At the same time no serious attempt was made by the party to make beef as an agenda in the recently held Assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. The reasons were clear. The electorates of Puducherry and Tamil Nadu are completely indifferent to any symbols deployed by the Hindutva brigand. Elections in these states are purely on local and regional issues and party loyalties. The issue of ‘beef’ become dysfunctional in Assam, Kerala and West Bengal despite the sizable presence of Muslims in these states. However, the strategy of the BJP in these states was to avoid the concentration of Muslim vote in favour of any political party. The overplaying of ‘cow’ would have backfired like Bihar. Another reason for BJP not to invoke cow-mobilisation was the absence of legal restrictions on cow slaughter in Kerala and West Bengal.
It does not mean that cow-mobilisation was completely absent in Assam. The issue of beef was invoked much before the election as a preparatory instrument to subtly mobilise the Hindu passions in the state. For instance, there were communal tensions in Agomoni area of Dhubri when a communally charged group beat two Muslim youth alleging that they kept ‘beef’ near a temple in Kaldoba area. In a similar incident, tension gripped Silchar town of Cachar district after the recovery of a cow's head near a Kali temple in Meherpur area. In both the cases, the self-styled radical right-wing groups were held responsible for inciting communal tensions.
To polarise voters, intense communal antagonism was also created in neighbouring states with a broad national coverage to influence the conscience of Hindu voters. For instance, the age-old tactic of putting beef outside temples in Ranchi, Lohardaga, Palamu and Chatra districts of Jharkhand took place. Similarly, a Muslim man was beaten to death in Saharan, Himachal Pradesh in October 2015 for allegedly smuggling cows. New Delhi also witnessed cow-mobilisation in Bawana region over the rumour of cow-slaughter on the day of Eid-ul-Adha. Similar movements happened in Hyderabad and Kerala too.
We also witnessed an opposite trend when we saw certain Muslim clerics, intellectuals and organisations called on Muslims to refrain from sacrificing cows on the day of Eid al-Adha to avoid communal conflict. But sadly, no political party wished for the same. For them electoral dividends are more important than the communal harmony.
The appeal to avoid cow-slaughter has a history in India. To respect the religious sensibility of people, the Mughal emperor Babar declared that killing cows was forbidden and also asked his son Humayun in 1529 to do the same through his Wasiyyat Namd-i-Majchfi. Babar wrote: “And in particular refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan; and the subjects of the realm will, through royal favour, be devoted to you.” We found a remarkable incident pointed out in Major Charles Stuart’s translation of the reminiscences of Zohar, the servant of Humayun. During a journey to Iran, Humayun asked his staff to fetch food from his stepbrother Kamran who was camping nearby. Food consisted of vegetables and meat was served to Humayun. Humayun doubted the meat as beef and said: “Oh Kamran, is this the way to fill your stomach? You feed the same meat to your holy mother. Now you are incapable of getting four goats for your mother.” As per Zohar’s account, Humayun did not touch the food and left.
A decree of 5 June 1593 from Akbar’s reign barred the killing of cow. Later Mughal Kings exercised selective restrictions on cow slaughter. However, Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore (1761 to 1782) declared cow slaughter a punishable offence. Similarly, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and later Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar banned cow slaughter throughout their domains.
Here I argue that unlike the present day politicians, the ruler and the ruled during ancient, medieval and early modern time but before British took the issue of ‘cow’ very compassionately and without vengeance. The cow became a political animal only when British used it for their survival in India after 1857 revolt. We already know the united front of Hindus and Muslims on the issue of paper cartridge greased with cow and pig fat. As a sign of Hindu-Muslim unity, Muslim Ulemas also called Muslims to avoid the slaughter of cows or buffaloes durin Eid-ul-Adha. Thus, cow mobilisation during this period was not against Muslims but purely against British.
However, the cow protection movement became intense when Dayanand Sarasvati published a book Ocean of Mercy for the Cow in 1881 and in 1882, he founded cow protection committee which later spread all over India. The first agitation over cow slaughter took place in Punjab when British refused to acknowledge the cow slaughter as capital offence. In 1886 certain Hindu organisations have demanded a legal ban on cow slaughter within municipal area of Allahabad. The issue reached to the court from here to rest of India. In 1888 the North-Western Provinces High Court decreed that a cow was not a sacred animal. Shrewdly, British turned the whole cow-mobilisation against Muslims. The first explicit Hindu-Muslim violence took place in 1893 in Mau, now a district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh, over the conflicting interpretations of British local magistrate’s order on cow slaughter. The very confession of Queen Victoria in a letter dated 1893 clearly reflects the British design on the issue of cow protection movement. She wrote: “Though the Muhammadan's cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact, directed against us, who kill far more cows for our army, &c., than the Muhammadans.” After two decade from 1893, Ayodhya in 1912-13 and Shahabad in 1917 witnessed communal conflagration on cow slaughter. John McLane is right when he argues that the disappearance of cow protection movement thereafter “suggests that popular sentiment was not broad or adamant and that Hindu leaders regarded the alienation of Muslims and the government as too heavy a price to pay for any possible benefits.”
Interestingly, Congress’ support to Khilafat movement had the pretext of cow protection. Gandhi appealed to Hindu elites that “the best way and the only way to save the cow is to save the Khilafat.” Shaukat Ali and Mohammad Ali renounced beef. Abd al-Bari of Firangi Mahal asked Muslims to stop cow slaughter. Muslim League too passed a resolution in 1919 recommending the substitution of “the sacrifice of other animals in place of cows.” Similarly, the Nizam of Hyderabad banned cow slaughter.
Nevertheless, cow movements remained more or less anti-British campaign before and a decade after the creation of right-wing organisations like Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha. Tragically, it was only post 1920s witnessed a phenomenal rise in Hindu-Muslim antagonism due to the aggressive campaign of Hindu Mahasabha and Jan Sangh which by then entered into electoral fray to gain mass support on the issue of reviving Hindutva symbols. At the beginning of 1920s Lord Meston, former Lieutenant Governor of United Province remarked that: “With us the rule was simple, that the owner of a cow has a right to kill it, so long as he does not thereby cause such reasonable annoyance as it likely to provoke a breach of peace; and we held that, where cow slaughter has been customary, annoyance would not be reasonable. This rough, very British, rule of thumb has served out purpose and prevented much bloodshed; but we cannot hope that it will acceptable either to Moslem zealot or to humanitarian Hindu. Yet some modus Vivendi will have to be established; and the fitness of the people to govern themselves will be judged before the world by their success in composing such a difficulty.”
Whatever may be, the issue of cow slaughter was never dealt by any organisation, party or individual to settle the matter once for all by building consensus between both the communities. But politicians from both the religious groups found the ‘cow’ electorally relevant to build internal unity and nourish Hindu-Muslim conflict for political gain. Cow is used now to incite violence and mobilise voters. The noble animal has become political and thus ‘unholy’ in bad sense. A great deal of what is really a senseless propaganda is not only delivered through the cultural apparatus of the right-wing but also churned out by media, knowingly or unknowingly. We are undergoing through an explosive time. Anything and everything is justified to attain the winning margin in elections.
As a consequence, there were aggressive campaigns to ban cow slaughter by the Hindu right-wing in post independent India. There was a demand for a national law to ban cow slaughter. The 10 August 1947 just five days before Independence was observed as Anti-Cow-slaughter day. The government of Jawaharlal Nehru was against the national law to ban cow slaughter for which he had to bear the brunt of Hindu right wing. His father Motilal Nehru was accused as beef eater. In 1952 Nehru through an office memo asked the Congress men to keep themselves away from the campaign of national ban on cow slaughter. In fact in April 1955, Nehru threatened to resign if a bill to ban cow slaughter was passed by the Lok Sabha. The bill was defeated. Here Nehru’s adamant approach was meaningless on two grounds. First, cow-slaughter has never been the only and sole concern of Muslims nor Muslims were going to gain anything. In fact the overplaying of cow-slaughter gimmick by the Congress strengthened the right-wing politics in India. Secondly, the policy regarding cow slaughter has already been declared “the exclusive sphere of the State legislatures”. It was by now made a part of Directive Principles of State Policy as Article 48 which says, “The state ... shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” It must also be noted that many state governments by the end of 1947 already banned cow-slaughter before this article came into force.
A major agitation for national ban was engineered in 1966 by the united front of all communal parties guided by the Rashtrya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) with a plan to attack Parliament followed by hunger strike. Though the agitation was crushed but the cow protection became the major electoral agenda against Congress in 1967 elections. We have already seen that how the BJP governed states like Maharshtra, Haryana and Rajasthan gave communal colour to ban the sale of beef at the time when Bihar election was due in 2015.
While carrying the historical legacy, polarity is now engineered in Uttar Pradesh over the issue of ‘cow slaughter’. To serve the purpose, cows have emerged electorally ‘holy’ animal. Though, it is disproportionately senseless. But, alas, we have suspended our rational sensibility to understand the overall cost. As per the report of Indian Express published on 8 October 2015, ‘at least 330 incidents of communal violence over alleged cow slaughter have been reported in Uttar Pradesh since June 2014.’ Surprisingly, of the 330 incidents, 216 alone were reported from Western UP, a communally charged region of Uttar Pradesh. Saharanpur and Aligarh witnessed communal violence on the alleged cow-slaughter and the sale of beef in September 2015. Similar was the case in Mainpuri in October 2015. There was communal uproar by the right-wing on beef-biryani at Aligarh Muslim University canteen in February 2016. Gautam Budh Nagar, Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur districts of Uttar Pradesh are already on boiling point on the question of cow-slaughter.
If I am to put it very strongly, I would say that a host of right-wing politicians and polemics are trying to succeed in stirring up the anxieties of the so called ‘touchable Hindus’ for the noble cow to suit the Mission 2017. They are deployed to commit senseless hate speeches with a great sense of impunity. Is it not a strategic attempt by the present-day politicians to polarise the consciousness of Indian electorates in binary terms?
In the overall number game, the sole object of the political parties is to treat ‘we the people’ merely as electorates but certainly not humans. It is really painful. It is also dangerous for another reason. Given the profound spirituality, communal passions are easily mobilised in the name of holy cow to bring electoral incentives to the right-wing political parties. Let us save of our ‘holy cow’ from becoming the subject of vulgar stereotype by the right wing politics of the country.
Afroz Alam, Ph.D., Associate Professor & Head. Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org