Politics over beef  — the Hindutva project to undermine Indian democracy

The ascent of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP to power in India has rekindled a brand of politics that many thought had been consigned to history  —  that of the cow. It has created a discourse that is not only questions many of the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution, but also raises doubts over the future of the country as a secular and democratic republic.

A “rule of mob”, supported by the ruling dispensation in many cases, has descended upon the country. The Sangh parivar’s target is clear — it wants a country of upper castes, for the upper castes and by the upper castes. They have also chalked out a strategy to achieve that goal — periodic outbreaks of violence against Muslims and Dalits.

Politics over beef is not new to India. Wendy Doniger, noted author and a scholar of Sanskrit for over 50 years, traced the origin of politics over the cow to the 19th century as an implicit objective to oppress the Muslims.

Mahatma Gandhi attempted to make vegetarianism, particularly the taboo against eating beef, a central tenet of Hinduism, tying it to his idea of nonviolence.

In the modern age, the pioneer of the cow protection movement was M.S. Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. A thorough reading of the autobiography of Verghese Kurien — the Milkman of India — provides an insight into Golwalkar’s thoughts.

Golwalkar was the brains behind the 1960s’ cow protection movement that forced the government of the day to set up a committee to consider the demand of a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The committee lasted 12 years.

Kurien opposed this ban for economic reasons. “It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilised for healthy and productive cattle. I was prepared to go as far as to allow that no useful cow should be killed,” Kurien wrote in his autobiography.

He then cited a conversation with Golwalkar where the then RSS chief outlined his vision, and it had nothing to do with gau bhakti (cow reverence). It was a political move then; today it is a social move to finally create the India of Golwalkar’s vision.

In India, traditionally, the slaughter of cattle has always been associated with either the Muslims and Christians or the Hindu lower castes — the Dalits. Beef forms an important part of the diet for Muslims. The Dalits, on the other hand, were scavengers and their eating habits still reflects their ancient status at the bottom of the food chain, forced to eat even rats. Beef presented an alternative source of nutrition to them and has since been included in their diet — it was more of an economical habit than a cultural one.

Amid the hoopla, the consumption of beef by Hindus is forgotten. Doniger wrote that even “after the fourth century BC, when the practice of vegetarianism spread throughout India among Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, many Hindus continued to eat beef”. She paraphrased ancient ritual texts, known as the Brahmanas and others, that taught religious duty (dharma), from the third century BC. These texts said a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when a guest arrived.

Doniger credited the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, to explain the transition of Hindus to non-eating of cows: “Once, when there was a great famine, King Prithu took up his bow and arrow and pursued the Earth to force her to yield nourishment for his people. The Earth assumed the form of a cow and begged him to spare her life; she then allowed him to milk her for all that the people needed.”

The cattle slaughter legislation was the BJP’s attempt to live up to its 2014 election manifesto, where it promised to protect “the cow and its progeny” in a nod to its Hindu nationalist roots. This was an attempt to appeal to India’s Hindu population, which holds cattle — particularly cows — to be sacred. State Assemblies have also begun to follow suit and pass laws that would make cow slaughter a punishable offence.

Alongside their dietary choices, most of India’s leather business is also handled by Muslims or the so-called lower castes. A blanket ban on the slaughter of cattle specifically aims to cut off their source of livelihood. For a nation that so reveres its gau mata (mother cow), India remains one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. Its buffalo meat export has grown from Rs 3,533 crore in 2007 to Rs 26,685 crore in 2016.

“The new rules of buffalo trade on which we were not consulted has come as a surprise and shock for the industry. It is not possible for individual farmers to sell their spent animals for slaughter (directly to us) without going to the nearest animal market,” Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, the trade lobby of buffalo meat exporters, said.

Incidentally, demands to stop cattle slaughter have not just been limited to the BJP or Sangh leadership. Rajasthan High Court recently recommended to the Centre that it should declare the cow as the national animal. Even a body of Muslim intellectuals said it would extend support to any proposal to ban cow slaughter and declaring it as the national animal.

Despite the political grandstanding over the cow’s sanctity, an ugly truth prevails: the animal is frequently mistreated, housed miserably, fed rubbish or left to fend for itself. Cow protection is just a smokescreen that the fringe needs to achieve their long-term goal of turning India into a Hindu Pakistan.

The mistreatment of cows has been widespread in India, said Naresh Kadyan, India representative of the International Organisation for Animal Protection. The politicisation of cattle welfare has distracted from the problem of how India’s cows — some 283 million, according to a 2003 census — are treated.

While cows used to be prized for their economic value, they are now “unproductive, as they have been replaced by machines,” Kadyan said, adding that cows had “become a tool of publicity and politics to divide society”.

In states such as Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh — where the consumption of beef is less common than in the south or north-east — cows are treated well until they are unable to provide milk. “When they become unproductive, they are then kept in animal shelters that are like full-time jails,” he said. “There’s no scientific care for the rest of their lives. They have no exercise, no freedom of movement, and no land to graze on,” Kadiyan said.

A 2010 investigation by the India chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) found rampant abuse of cows in the dairy industry. They were frequently injected with oxytocin, although the hormone causes stomach cramps and pain, to boost milk yields.

“Most (cows) are chained by their necks in narrow stalls, where they are unable to stretch or move normally,” according to Peta. “Lack of proper food causes them to suffer from digestive problems, and lack of exercise causes lameness.”

Unproductive cows may also be turned out of their farms, resulting in the sight that is so familiar in Indian cities: the solitary cow, wandering the streets and picking plastic out of refuse bins. The Peta report also said that at least half of the cows sold to slaughterhouses die before they even get to the abattoir because they are forced to walk there.

Firebrand Hindutva leader Yogi Adityanath, who became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has promised to improve the conditions of cows in the state. In May, his government announced a Cattle Healing Mobile Van Service — an ambulance for cows, which may be summoned by anyone who spots a cow in distress. He has also proposed to establish “cow sanctuaries”.

Some of these shelters are to be housed on the premises of penitentiaries because jails have land and manpower to tend to cattle.

However, not everyone agrees with this move. “These shelters will function without any sort of scientific approach,” Kadiyan said. “These are just so-called animal rights activists using the cow as a political tool — to misguide others to achieve their own political targets or for personal gain or profit.”

Kadiyan calls them animal rights activists. In reality, they are foot soldiers of an administration that is intent on imposing its brand and idea of Hinduism on all Indians. It doesn’t matter if they are not followers of Hinduism — they have two options: follow or perish.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.



Once hailed as Bengal’s messiah, the chief minister has set it off on a path to destruction

The last couple of years of Left Front rule in Bengal was unique. The power centre was, unofficially, almost divided into two — an elected government at Writers’ Building and a people’s one at Harish Chatterjee Street, the location of Mamata Banerjee’s ancestral home.

The loosening of the iron fist with which the Left had ruled Bengal for 32 years (at that time) coincided with Mamata riding high on a “wind of change”. She was being seen as the chief minister in-waiting, the unifying force who would deliver the once-great state to the promised land. The intellectuals, anti-Left voters and the media all lapped up her Badla Noy, Bodol Chai (no vengeance, only change) rhetoric; after all, she was the self-proclaimed “symbol of honesty”.

Bengal had seen an unprecedented “brain drain” during the Left Front rule — education and healthcare were in a mess, industrialisation hit a record low, dissent muffled — Mamata promised corrective measures. Gripped by the passion in her speeches and drawing from her long history of struggle against the Communists, Bengal slowly began to take her seriously. She also found support among the state’s intellectuals.

But then she made deals with the devils — the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the Maoist insurgents. Bimal Gurung and his Morcha had set the Darjeeling hills on fire, demanding a separate state for the Gorkhas — Gorkhaland. The hill town was burning, administration was non-existant and tourism suffered. Mamata promised to return peace to the hills.

Although there was no formal alliance with the Morcha, Gurung backed the Trinamul-Congress alliance in the 2011 Assembly polls. She repaid him in kind after the elections, creating the Gorkha Territorial Administration and signing a treaty that included, among other things, a loophole for further unrest on the demand for Gorkhaland.

Then there was the backing from the Maoists in the state’s disturbed western belt, collectively called Junglemahal, where the rebels killed over a hundred CPI(M) and Left workers between 2007 and 2011. Mamata and her party’s leaders shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, a local resident, who liaised between the Maoists under its leader Kishenji and the Trinamul.

Former Trinamul MP Kabir Suman confirmed that the Maoists had supported Trinamul during the Nandigram violence, corroborating the Left Front government’s allegation that Mamata used them to fan violence in the area.

But Mamata’s overwhelming charisma drowned those allegations. She played the Muslim card and began to court imams for their support. Being a border state and with a 28 per cent Muslim population, Bengal was always sitting on a tinderbox of communal violence. One of the greatest legacies of the Left Front government was restricting the outbreak of communal violence in the state. But it never tried to emancipate the traditionally backward Muslim community, even after publication of the Sachar Commitee report, and Mamata used this to her advantage.

Her slogan of “Maa, Mati, Manush” reverberated with the people and she won the 2011 polls in a landslide.

The story from then is one of decline, her carefully hatched strategies coming undone at every step of the way.

First, she got into a confrontation with the Maoists, culminating in the assassination of Kishenji. Although a decisive victory against the Maoists won her plaudits, allegations of human rights violations were also levelled at her.

The relationship with Bimal Gurung and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha also did not take long to sour.

Mamata’s hankering for more power and an Opposition-less state led to drove her into registering cases against the Left, Congress, the Morcha, et al. The plan was to scare them into joining the Trinamul. If that didn’t work, money was thrown at them.

The chit fund scam and the arrests of proprieters of many Ponzi forms exposed how the ruling party used fear tactics into exploiting them for money. This money was then used for horse trading of MLAs and Opposition leaders.

Election after election saw the government use brute force and even the police to strengthen the ruling dispensation — be it the panchayat, municipal, Lok Sabha or Assembly polls. Such atrocities were not even seen at the height of “red tyranny”. Former Trinamul leaders had accused her of being a dictator, Mamata was living up to that allegation.

The first instance of this dictatorial trait coming to the fore was when she decided to ban all newspapers apart from those friendly to her government and party from public libraries. She even ordered the Opposition to sit silently for 10 years as she went about pandering to the lumpen elements in her party. The recent spurt in violence in Darjeeling was a direct fallout of this dictatorial trait. All of a sudden, Mamata imposed Bengali as a mandatory language in schools across the state, sparking resentment among the linguistic and ethnic minorities.

With industries unwilling to set up shop, and the existing ones shutting down, she offered tacit support to the syndicate raj that began to run amok in Kolkata and other parts of the state. Most of these syndicates are controlled by the Trinamul and consist of anti-social elements that come in handy to scare voters during elections.

As chief minister, Mamata has constantly blamed the previous government of saddling the state with a huge debt. Yet, she always found money to pay to local clubs, most of which are the breeding grounds for anti-social elements associated with the Trinamul. This diversion of public funds to local goons came at the cost of infrastructure development.

In order to keep the support of the Muslim community, she announced an imam bhata (stipends for imams), sparking widespread condemnation among leaders of other religious communities for such polarising tactics. There have been allegations of Mamata overlooking crimes committed by members of the community, inevitably giving rise to a sense of invincibility among their members. The ongoing communal riots in Basirhat, a town close to the Bangladesh border with a huge Muslim population, also has its roots in Mamata’s attempt to appease and the BJP’s plan to polarise. There have also been allegations that the local MLA tried to shield Muslims who had taken part in the vandalism of government property.

Instead of trying to increase literacy rates in Muslim dominated villages in the state’s backward areas, introducing them to secular studies or creating employment opportunities for them, she adopted a policy of appeasement, as many have claimed.

But the Hindus in Bengal are also not as secular as they are known to be. The Left Front had suppressed all kinds of communal polarisation during its 34-year tenure, but allegations of Mamata appeasing the Muslims have given rise to a new Hindutva brand of politics in Bengal. The chief minister’s desire to purge the threat to her government from the Congress and the Left led her to leave an open playing field for the BJP to flourish in the state, and that has sparked tensions even further.

The BJP’s agenda is simple — appeal to the upper-caste Hindu majority through fear mongering. The BJP began to hark back to times when the Bengali Hindus ruled as overlords. Its Ram Navami celebrations, armed with swords, was clearly aimed at fanning the communal divide, which Mamata began in the state, and use it to its advantage. This sets a dangerous precedent, the Calcutta Killings of 1946 still haunts many survivors from those times and the last thing that the state, already struggling with lack of jobs and infrastructure, needs is another communal violence.

If that happens, that will be the end of Bengal as we know it and Mamata and the BJP will both have to share the blame. It will be the unfortunate end of a cycle of events begun by Mamata, but brought to its natural conclusion by the BJP.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.