While in Pakistan a mere suspicion of blasphemy invites vigilante violence, in India the vigilante lynching is reserved for those suspected of possessing beef. It must be the only country where some 45 people have lost their lives in 80 incidents of lynching over the past seven years – all in the name of protecting the cow and its progeny.
A few years ago, when an old lady walking along the roadside in an Indian city was killed in an accident, the driver had said that he had to divert the moving vehicle towards the roadside to save a cow. He said that for this accident in which human life was lost, he would get at most three years of imprisonment, and it is a bailable offence – but for killing a cow, he could have been lynched on the spot.
While vigilante groups claiming to be protecting cattle by using violent means may have protected the cows, it has created a severe problem across farmland across North India. According to official estimates, some 1.2 million abandoned cows and bulls are roaming free in the villages in Uttar Pradesh (UP) province alone, destroying the crops of poor farmers.
Besides Muslims, the Dalits, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy and are mostly cattle traders, have been the easiest target of these vigilantes. So much so that many have now given up this profession, as it involves high risk.
Sensing that the BJP government could be cornered over this cattle issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing an election rally last week had announced that the government will find a solution to the problem after 10 March
For the BJP and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the cow remains holier and more precious than human life. As a consequence, these bovines, after completing their productive age, are forsaken and thrown out by villagers to fend for themselves.
As the seven-phase elections to choose a provincial assembly in UP are coming to an end, the stray cattle destroying crops became a major issue for political parties. The BJP government under the Hindu priest turned Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had ordered shutting down all slaughterhouses in the state. Since villagers used to sell the cattle after the animal crossed its productive age, to earn some money, they are now abandoning them in nearby forests. Left to fend for themselves, the abandoned cattle invade farms, thus disturbing the local economy.
The economy of the state of Uttar Pradesh is largely dependent on agriculture. As agriculture started becoming less profitable, farmers to make extra money started rearing livestock. These bovines provide not only milk and cow dung, but are also used in ploughing the field and pulling the carts. The states of UP and Bihar did not enjoy the benefit of the Green Revolution like the farmers of Punjab, because of repeated crop failures and poor harvests.
Hypocritical communal practices around slaughter of cattle
Journalist Subhash Shahi recalls an interesting story of cattle trade in his village in Bihar, where the landed gentry had started rearing cattle to generate additional income.
“But what happened to the cows that grew old? Or the male calves? Considering tractors had already invaded, and oxen were getting out of fashion, these cattle were sent to the slaughterhouse,” he writes in his blog.
A few years ago, when an old lady walking along the roadside in an Indian city was killed in an accident, the driver had said that he had to divert the moving vehicle towards the roadside to save a cow
He further writes that instead of selling these animals to the local Muslims who were engaged in this trade, the upper caste Hindus sold these animals to the Hindu Khatiks (a community engaged in slaughter trade) and not to the Muslims – even if it meant selling at a cheaper rate.
In 1882, Dayanand Saraswati, a staunch Hindu nationalist from Gujarat, had started the first cow protection committee in undivided Punjab – a province which had a considerable population of Muslims and Sikhs.
“Dayanand Saraswati opposed both Islam and teachings of first Sikh Guru Nanak. So, he related the cow to the Hindu religion and it became a symbol of Hindu unity. As a result, Punjab witnessed a series of cow-provoked communal riots in the decade that followed after 1880,” late historian DN Jha had told this reporter a few years ago.
The cow, since then, has become a tool for unifying the Hindus and targeting the Muslims. India continues to remain the largest trader of beef, although slaughtering of cows has been declared illegal in 18 states, most of which are ruled by the BJP.
In 2019, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had separated animal husbandry from the Ministry of Agriculture and had set up a separate Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries.
Despite a ban on slaughtering animals, UP has witnessed a decline in the number of domesticated cattle. According to the 2019 livestock census, the number of cattle in the state has declined by 2.75 per cent, while the number of stray cattle has increased by 117 percent from 2012 to 2019.
All of this, when the state government has set up cow protection centres and cow shelters. From 2017 and 2020, the state government has spent around Rs 7.64 billion on cow sheds and temporary shelters. Most of these shelters are working beyond their capacity, and as a result, cattle have been dying in these shelters because of starvation.
“The Yogi government has no idea about taking care of cattle and no planning about handling the cattle left abandoned. He is trying to save the cows, at what cost?” asks Arvind Kumar Kushwaha, who hails from Gorakhpur district and has lost about 20 percent of his produce to stray cattle.
Kushwaha adds that while big farms can afford to put a barbed fence around their fields, the small farmers cannot.
The opposition parties including the Congress and Samajwadi Party (SP) tried to use the stray cattle issue to beat the BJP. Sensing that the BJP government could be cornered over this cattle issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing an election rally last week had announced that the government will find a solution to the problem after 10 March, when the results will be declared.
This was not the first time when Modi brought in the Gau Mata or the holy cow to help his party get to power. And in times like this, it is worth reading historian D. K Jha’s work The Myth of the Holy Cow, where he offers ample evidence and references to dismiss the argument that beef consumption arrived in India with Islam. He has proven with authentic historic records that Hindus and those living in India before the advent of Islam had a long history and culture of eating beef.