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Raging bulls: The emergence of bovine politics

By Ankur Datta

About two years ago, economist Arun Shourie tagged the Narendra Modi-led government as ‘Congress plus a cow’. Since Shourie’s comment, many events have highlighted this uproar of bovine politics. One such event was the lynching of a Muslim man suspected of possessing beef in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh. In another instance, a man was killed by a group of vigilantes in Alwar, Rajasthan when they suspected him of stealing cows for slaughter. Recently, the Gujarat Assembly passed an amendment to the State Animal Preservation Bill making cow slaughter an offence subject to life imprisonment.

The beginning of ‘Bovine Politics’

Gau or the cow has become the centre of a seemingly new and violent form of politics. The impunity with which the murders in Dadri and Alwar took place and the ease with which legislative decisions were passed by Vijay Rupani (Chief Minister of Gujarat) are recent examples showcasing this trend. How can we make sense of the politics around the cow and more importantly, should we be surprised?

That the cow is an animal of reverence and moral value for a large number of Hindus is a well-known fact and has invited academic interest for long. Late anthropologist Marvin Harris had argued in the 1950s that the cow was an important animal providing milk and pulling heavy ploughs, thereby, vital to an agrarian economy. Being a useful resource and a tool, taboos emerged over time to protect economic interests. Cows gradually became moral objects and beings, until their economic function became inextricably tied to sacred values. In other words, the sacredness of cows had to be constructed over centuries. Interestingly, scholars like Harris and later historians like D.N. Jha point out that the earliest Vedas permitted bovine slaughter and beef consumption in sacrifice.

Political re-emergence of the cow

Critics of the current policy regime sometimes err by classifying ‘cow protection’ as a new phenomenon. As historian Sandria Frietag pointed out in her work — ‘Formation of Public Space in 19th century Northern India’, cow protection movements had emerged as a cause for political mobilisation. This was done to enable the formation of a Hindu public and politics that could contribute towards a nation exclusive of non-Hindus. What we are seeing now, perhaps, is the re-emergence of a dormant form of political mobilisation now moving from the fringes to centre stage. It is this pathological vitality of politics that lends it a new kind of force. This force can be evidently seen with the recent shutting down of meat shops and slaughter houses in UP by the newly-elected Yogi Adityanath government.

The cow has become both a symbol and point of action to form an ostensible Hindu collective. This demarcates them from non-Hindus such as Muslims and others who appear to want to ‘eat’ something sacred. Cows have also become a widely recognised symbol that can help mark friend from enemy, cutting across class and region. Whether it cuts across caste remains to be seen, considering that those attacked by cow protection vigilantes include Dalits.

What complicates the narrative further is the fact that many Indian states have had legislation against cow slaughter for several decades. In fact, Jammu and Kashmir banned cow slaughter in 1932 during the Dogra rule in the region, well before India gained independence. Hence, some forms of popular and state politics in India have historically been supportive of cow protection or at least in banning cow slaughter.

The politics of food and diet

It is also necessary to relate cow protection to the larger politics of food and diet in India. The things we eat as humans have been historically and universally critical to establishing communities. They demarcate one group of people from another and mediate relations between them. The items we are allowed or prohibited to consume make us the bearers of that particular culture. Even if a Hindu ate beef or a Muslim ate pork, food remains meaningful as it determines what we regard as a transgressive act. Thus, rules and customs on food and commensality influence the possibility of relations between different groups.

It will be then worth considering how cow protection and the eating of beef plays into a larger politics of food. In metropolitan India, it is common for tenants to encounter questions about their meat eating and cooking habits. Furthermore, the Gujarati Chief Minister Rupani had reportedly stated, changes in state legislation were part of a larger project of making Gujarat vegetarian in line with Gandhi’s principles of ahimsa. Appropriation and adoption of Gandhian principles in such ways delineate the legislature’s nationalistic agenda.  The extent to which this debate will matter is still unclear.

As a result, the politics concerning cow slaughter is being seen as another move to expand BJP’s presence as the ruling power in India. To argue that the current government should focus on the economy and keep away from something irrational like bovine politics is to miss the fact that cow protection is for the BJP a politically rational project aimed at framing and establishing an exclusive moral public that uses culturally recognisable and emotive symbols that mark one nation and exclude others. Additionally, it works to keep the nation ‘in check’ through fears of transgressing something as mundane as dietary rules. Although, it will be interesting to see what the immediate future holds as we chew on this cud.


Ankur Datta is an Assistant Professor at the South Asian University.

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