by Gautam Pemmaraju
On January 7th news publications ran reports of a young Muslim cattle trader being harassed by members of the Hindu right-wing Bajrang Dal in Madhya Pradesh. A group stopped 25-year-old Anish Aslam Kureishi, son of a cattle trader of Chhindwara district, on December 31st, who was ferrying cattle. The men demanded money from him and on his refusal, they damaged his pick-up truck, dragged him to a village close by, beat him up, shaved part of his head off, as well as one eyebrow and half his moustache, and left him there tied to a pole. While the group claimed that the cattle were headed to an illegal slaughterhouse, the father of the waylaid man stated that they were meant for sale at a nearby market, and his younger brother said that they often paid off the Bajrang Dal to escape harassment. There have been subsequent reports quoting the police and administration that the entire family has been involved in illegal cattle transport.
This incident followed a widely reported amendment to the state’s cow protection laws that received presidential sanction on December 22nd. The amendment, as several commentators have pointed out, extends the scope of the already stringent anti-cow slaughter laws, which expressly prohibits the killing of cows, by increasing the jail term for those caught killing cows, transporting or selling beef, to up to 7 years. In addition, the BJP led government, by way of this amendment, also invests public officials with extraordinary powers to enter, search premises on suspicion of cow slaughter and beef storage, as well as to make arrests. The burden of proof is also transferred to the accused, making this law not only dangerously harsh, but also of dubious constitutional character. The Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s ‘dream’ has come true, according to the state’s Culture & PR Minister, who further added that the administration was keen to enforce the provisions of the Act ‘in letter and spirit’.
Several commentators have been quick to attack the draconian provisions of this already pernicious Act, pointing out that they mimic those of anti-terror laws. The BJP led central government has in the past also attempted ‘more robust application’ (read here and here) by attempting to amend law to bring detention under the ambit of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was repealed by the Congress led UPA government in 2004.
There have been several instances of violence against Muslims, Dalits and other marginalized people, on the pretext of cow-slaughter, and this recent incident is but a manifestation of a deeper malaise. In 2002 in Jhajjhar, Haryana, 5 Dalit men were lynched by a mob on suspicion of cow slaughter (see Jodhka, S & Dhar, M, Cow, Caste And Communal Politics, EPW, 2003 for further reading). The Hindu right wing was predictable in response, and the then senior vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Acharya Giriraj Kishore was widely quoted as suggesting through invoking scripture, that that the life of a cow was more precious than those who were lynched. The saffron brigade has been consistent here: they have repeatedly sought to assert cow reverence, frame it as essential to the ‘Hindu’ socio-religious ethic, which in turn is emblematic of their brand of nationhood, deny historical evidence of widely practiced beef consumption, denigrate Muslims, Christians and Dalits by attempting to criminalize beef-eating (thereby abridging economic and religious rights), and valorize cow-protection. In 2010, when the Karnataka government also legislated on this issue similarly, the BJP leader VS Acharya was quoted to have said that the law was “in tune with the sentiments of the majority community”, not to mention the party’s election manifesto.
Hindutva discomfort with historical heterodoxies is well recorded and manifests from time to time. The recent removal by the Delhi University academic council of AK Ramanujan’s seminal essay Three Hundred Ramayanas from the syllabus, echoed similar incidents in the past, including a 1993 ban of an exhibition on the diverse versions of the Ramayana, the banning of the exhibition of the late artist MF Hussain’s ‘objectionable’ paintings, and the banning of Delhi University historian DN Jha’s book Holy Cow: Beef In Indian Dietary Traditions (2001) by a Hyderabad civil court. His Indian publisher went back on a commitment to publish the book. It was subsequently published elsewhere as The Myth Of The Holy Cow (see this review)
Jha examines a broad swathe of scriptural and doctrinal works to dispel the myth perpetrated by the Hindu right that beef eating was Islam’s ‘baneful bequethal’ to India and that abstention is a marker of ‘Hindu’ identity. Hindutva forces trace back the cow’s sacredness and associated inviolability back to the Vedas, and Jha dismisses this in no uncertain terms. From Rig Vedic references of sacrificial slaughter, particularly mentioned in the Taittiriya Brahmana, the Gopatha Brahmana of the Atharvaveda, to references in canonical works such as the Grhyasutras, Jha explains the many references to ritualistic killing for human consumption. From honouring guests (arghya or madhuparka), wedding feasts, funerary feasts (shraddha), to domestic rituals such as simantonayanna (parting of the hair of pregnant women) and upanayana (sacred thread ceremony), the historian argues for the wide practice of sacrificial cow slaughter and the consumption of beef. He also ascribes the growth of veneration of the cow during the late Vedic period to changing economic situations, increased agrarian settlements and animal husbandry, not to mention the gradual change away from Vedic sacrifice against the context of competing religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
The book was denounced viciously by the right wing, and alongside demands of a ban, there have been threats to DN Jha’s life.
The right wing counterfactual denial of beef eating is not just about ‘Hindu’ identity in opposition to ‘Muslim invasions’, but is also inextricably linked to attitudes towards lower castes and Dalits. The BJP led NDA coalition government has in the past successfully removed references to cow slaughter and beef eating amongst upper classes and Brahmins in ancient India from school textbooks published by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT). The author of the school text RS Sharma, was roundly attacked by the Hindutva gang, and Praveen Togadia, general secretary of the World Hindu Council, while claiming that the chapters in question were ‘poisoning the minds of our children’, was quoted to have very tellingly declared: “Most of the facts in the chapters are not true. Some low caste Dalit Hindus used to eat beef. Brahmins never ate it.”
Hindutva forces have successfully and dangerously appropriated cow veneration/sacredness as a rhetorical and political weapon, and its repeated deployment in the socio-political spectrum remains a profoundly divisive and malevolent exercise. Commenting on the issue of DN Jha’s book, Sukumar Muralidharan, rightly argued back in 2001, that it is the ‘patently counterfeit character’ of Hindutva which is at work: “By any criterion, this is an argument for suppressing scholarship and reasoned debate through the simulated rage of offended religiosity. It is a religiosity which is untrue to its own sources and inattentive to the requirements of historical authenticity”.
Writing on Karnataka’s legislation in this area, Vikram Doctor very interestingly points to ‘a candid admission’ by the RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar, as recorded by Dr Verghese Kurien in his autobiography I Too Had A Dream. Kurien, ‘the milkman of India’, and the man behind the largest dairy development programme in the world (Operation Flood), and Golwalkar, were both on a government committee to examine cow slaughter. Vikram Doctor also writes of their unlikely friendship despite diametrically opposite positions on the issue – whereas Kurien argued for the necessity of culls, Golwalkar was vehemently opposed to it. Golwalkar intriguingly reveals his rationale to Kurien during these meetings, and believes in all sincerity that the ‘cow has potential to unify India’: “So I tell you what, Kurien, you agree with me to ban cow slaughter on this committee, and I promise you, five years from that date, I will have united the country. What I am trying to tell you is that I’m not a fool. I’m not a fanatic. I’m just cold-blooded about his. I was to use the cow to bring out our Indianness”. Kurien, of course, did not agree. Recently too, Doctor has pointed out that the current Madhya Pradesh amendment “is as bad as it gets for meat eaters, religious minorities or defenders of civil liberties”.
There is a complex history to the anti-cow slaughter movement, its implications on Hindu-Muslim relations, and its legal sanction as adjudicated by the courts. Gene Thursby, in Hindu-Muslim Relations In British India: A Study Of Controversy, Conflict And Communal Movements In Northern India (1923 – 1928), writes of regulatory issues in the United Provinces dating back to 1892. Agitations began that year in the town of Bareilly, Thursby writes, when “a Hindu city inspector persuaded a European magistrate to prohibit sacrifice of cattle by Muslims in private homes although the practice had been customary for many years during which there had been no objection to it by Hindus”. This prohibition was upheld the next year on review by another magistrate on the grounds that “Muslims had failed to prove that they had prescriptive right to sacrifice cattle in their homes”. This challenge, the abridgement of an economic and religious right, was to become a central focus to litigation on the issue, in particular to the crucial ruling by the Supreme Court in Mohd. Hanif Quareshi and ors vs State of Bihar, which, while upholding a state’s right to prohibit cow slaughter of all ages, attempted a compromise of sorts by not extending it to bovine beyond useful years. Thursby also writes that in the early 1890’s Viceroy Lansdowne, in a reply to the Secretary of State, Government of India, stated that the two main causes of conflict between the two communities were ‘cow slaughter and the coincidence of religious festivals’. He also pointed to further aggravation due to inflammatory speeches by individuals and organisations alike, and the dissemination of propaganda material. He writes further that while the conflict receded for 15 years, it came up again due to a 1908 Allahabad High Court ruling, which, Thursby explains, “supported a Muslim claim of a right to perform religious sacrifices in private, provided the law was not thereby abridged in other respects” (Shahbaz Khan vs. Umrao Puri and ors). It was in 1919 that the Government of India decided that a general policy of maintaining ‘status quo’ was the best option and it was Lord Meston, former Lt Governor of the United Provinces who outlined it: “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 is likely to provoke a breach of peace; and we held that where cow slaughter has been customary, annoyance would not be reasonable”.
Cow protection has constitutional sanction in India; it is found in Article 48 under the Directive Principles of State Policy. The emphasis appears to be on the scientific promotion of animal husbandry and organized agriculture, but is conjoined with ‘preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle’. Shraddha Chigateri argues (read here) that this is a counter-positing, a ‘double move’ where ‘Hindu sentiments’ are deftly accommodated: “It is this constitutional elision that simultaneously reiterates the Hindu basis of cow slaughter that has predicated the Supreme Court engagement with the issue”. The law in many ways, she argues, has allowed for a ‘free reign…to reiterate the Hindu sentiment’. While pointing out that the petitioners in Mohd Hanif Quareshi and ors vs State of Bihar argued that their right to practice any profession and freedom of religion had been infringed, she asserts that the courts have consistently upheld the Hindu reverence of the cow and the repugnance at its killing against the Muslim practice of ritualistic slaughter, although, invoking Upendra Baxi in relation to the former, there is ‘formidable diversity of spiritual and doctrinal opinions on this matter’. She cites Baxi again here:
It is, indeed, an open question as to what extent [Article 48] really represents cultural or social or religious values of India of past or present. At best, sociological or theological research in both these areas may yield formidable support to protagonists of both view- points, though our feeling is that it may even conclusively establish that it is erroneous to think of cow-preservation or probation as ‘values’ in any context (Baxi 1967: 347).
In 2006, the Dalit Students Union of Hyderabad Central University staged a protest, objecting to the improper representation of cultural diversity during the college festival Sukoon. They argued for an inclusion of a beef stall, stating that the absence of beef and pork, was not only an exclusionary act against Dalits and other minorities, but also served to further the hegemony of the upper classes. Sambaiah Gundimeda examines this incident in great detail in Democratisation Of The Public Sphere: The Beef Stall Case In Hyderbad’s Sukoon Festival (South Asia Research, 2009), and writes that the administration rejected their demand on the grounds that ‘consumption of beef…(in the campus) creates caste and communal tension’. The union, then under the leadership of the Marxist Student Federation of India and upon the advice of their president, went ahead and put up a stall. The university administration ‘came to its senses’ Gundimeda writes, “taking cognisance of the prevailing local and national laws on beef consumption, it officially issued a letter of permission”.
Scholar and activist Kancha Iliah has in the past offered that “love towards animals and eating their meat for survival is not a contradiction but a dialectical process”, suggesting a ‘matrix’ of complex social, historical, and political processes linked to beef eating and cow slaughter. Chigateri also invokes this quote in discussing how beef eating has always been a marker of ‘pollution’ and ‘low status’ (read here). She interestingly outlines a hierarchy of food consumption in Hindu India, which privileges vegetarianism over meat eating (no beef) to beef eating. Linked critically to the ‘superiority of the ethic of non-violence’ this food hierarchy is challenged by “the critiques that a Dalit politics of food has to offer, which subverts and disrupts the associations between beef eating and the violence of ‘untouchability’ – indeed, subverts the principles upon which the hierarchy is set up”. Arguing further that the framing of beef consumption in India has produced “illegality and illegitimacy” she points to how Ambedkar has argued that beef eating was the ‘principle cause of the rise of untouchability’. Critically, she adds here that given current right-wing politics “the violence of the food hierarchy for those who do not conform is very real”.
Interestingly and importantly, beef is the most consumed meat in India. It is also the most produced meat and is also widely exported (see here). It is the cheapest meat and is widely consumed by marginal sections of society, as well as many others. Chigateri points out that it is the cow-slaughter prohibition laws, increasingly draconian in nature, that have over the years pushed a large section of this meat industry into the ‘grey’ area, and much of the meat production ‘has gone underground’. It is unsurprising therefore, that predatory practices are widespread and those at the bottom of the food chain, excuse the pun, face constant harassment and a threat to livelihood. Broadly as well, the potential loss of economic activity in cattle rearing and transportation, meat, dairy and leather production, and bovine by-products, is hardly insignificant, but the Hindu right stridently asserts the sacredness and the inviolability of the cow.
In Gastropolitics of Hindu South Asia (American Ethnologist, 1981) Arjun Appadurai argues that food is ‘a powerful semiotic device’ and that “food transactions serve to regulate rank, reify roles, and signify privileges”. In an ethnographic study of food practices of Tamil Brahmins in Madras, he writes of the humiliation suffered by non-Brahmin receivers of consecrated food at a temple when served separately, whereby the prasadam, or consecrated food, transformed into ‘garbage or polluted leftovers’ through the exercise of class hierarchy. Complex social messages are encoded in food transactions and even the ‘simplest of human cuisines’, as suggested by Levi-Strauss, he points out, ‘encode subtle cosmological propositions’:
With the elaboration of cuisine and its socio economic context, the capacity of food to bear complex social messages is increased. As many anthropologists have shown, food in its varied guises, contexts, and functions, can signal rank and rivalry, solidarity and community, identity or exclusion, and intimacy or distance.
Here in Bombay, beef can be found on the menu of middle-class homes, working class eating joints, and high-end restaurants alike (see here). It is eaten and relished by many. Amongst the many people I know who eat beef, some even vote for the BJP. To criminalize beef production and consumption is not just an infringement of fundamental rights, it is yet another way to perpetrate the dangerous myth of a ‘Hindu’ nation.