Ghoulish game

The morality of protecting the Indian cow

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 12.10.15

It's possible for a normal, unbigoted person to flinch at the thought of cow slaughter. Those of us who have pets would struggle, if pressed, about the morality of raising, knowing, loving and then killing an animal. Livestock and poultry farming help us get over these qualms because of the scale of their operations and the anonymity of the slaughter, but the moral objection to raising sentient creatures and then killing them for food or shoe leather remains intact.

This objection is rooted in a vegetarian's view of the world. Many more Hindus are socialized into vegetarianism than Muslims are, so the demographic ground for a disagreement on this issue is, so to speak, ready made. I know several Hindus entirely free of communal animus who are appalled by the fact that the male head of a Muslim household will raise a goat, feed it and then slaughter it with his own hands for the Eid sacrifice. This is a combination of the vegetarian's abomination of animal killing and squeamishness. Squeamishness, because everyone who eats meat is complicit in its slaughter and there is no moral reason for a vegetarian to be especially appalled when a man kills the animal that he is going to eat.

Sometimes, this sort of vegetarian sensibility is joined at the hip with hostility towards Muslims. Think of Brigitte Bardot, who managed to combine her ardour for animal rights with five convictions for inciting hatred against French Muslims. But there is no reason why an objection to halal abattoirs must necessarily be twinned with anti-Muslim bigotry. It can simply be, and occasionally is, an objection to the prolongation of an animal's suffering.

A vegetarian's objection to cow slaughter as one instance of a more general opposition to killing animals is a reasonable and defensible position. This doesn't, of course, mean that the vegetarian's arguments should be enshrined in law because there are many good arguments for being carnivorous. It is merely to say that an opposition to cow slaughter framed within the ethical imperatives of vegetarianism is a consistent and arguable position. Outside of a consistent application of vegetarian principle there is no coherent moral reason to oppose cow slaughter. Indians who condone the killing of chickens, goats or fish and yet strenuously oppose cow slaughter do so for two broad reasons.

One is a specifically Hindu sentimentality about Indian cows. For Hindus, the desi cow is a beautiful thing. Its large eyes, its calm, its matte skin tinted in a muted palette that runs from off-white to grey through beige and brown, its painterly silhouette with its signature hump, make it the most evolved of animals. Men robed in saffron lead caparisoned cows from house to house in Delhi asking for alms. It's worth remembering that Indira Gandhi's faction of the Congress had, for many years, a cow suckling her calf as its election symbol.

This sentimental affection isn't easily transferred to other, foreign cows. The first time I saw an English cow I couldn't believe my eyes. It was on a train journey from London and when, looking out of the window I saw these square, hairy, humpless creatures that looked like a child's drawing of a quadruped, grazing, I didn't immediately register that they were cows. It is the Bos taurus indicus that Indians are sentimental and chivalrous about; your average gau rakshak would be indifferent to the fate of black-and-white Holsteins or humpless Jerseys who look nothing like his conception of gau mata. In cow protection pamphlets, the cow is pictured in its female form or as a bullock, the gelded male. The bull or sandh doesn't often figure, being altogether too potent and formidable to be sentimentalized.

The other 'reason' offered for cow protection breaks with reason completely. It isn't a reason; just a belligerent assertion. It goes like this: I am a Hindu, the cow is my mother, and I won't have her killed. What's being invoked here isn't morality or sentimentality or chivalry or economics: this is an assertion of fictive kinship that effectively argues that all cows are Hindu women. This claim, for the person who makes it, overrides all earthly forms of contract or ownership. Once this nuclear argument has been made, I can't, as a butcher or the manager of a meat processing plant, argue that I own the cow and it's mine to do with as I please because the gau rakshak will simply say that your cow is my mother.

This assertion is a line in the sand. It is a political assertion. It has none of the moral resonance that principled vegetarianism would bring to it. You don't find many political Hindus opposing the killing of buffaloes on the grounds that the buffalo is their mother. The meat coyly called tenderloin in Delhi's fancier restaurants is buffalo and you can have it rare, medium or well done without sanghis objecting. Sangeet Som - self-styled hardline-Hindu who visited Dadri to stir the pot after the lynching - was a director of one of India's largest meat processing and exporting firms, which deals mainly in buffalo meat. Som and the Sangh's rabble invoke gau mata not because they are concerned about the fate of desi cows, but because the cow has become a badge of Hindu identity and a stick with which to beat Muslims.

Tarun Vijay, RSS ideologue and BJP MP, in the course of a disingenuous op-ed, bemoaned the neglect of cows by Hindus. He spoke of the terrible state of gaushalas and the need to improve them. The truth, as Vijay well knows, is that tens of millions of cows in India live starveling lives because Hindus will neither kill them nor own them. This is not going to change. A community that exiles its widows to miserable marginal lives in exploitative ashrams is unlikely to fund the emancipation of homeless cows.

Cow-protection in modern India has become a species of lethal lapel-pin politics. Violence in the cause of cow-protection is the official blood sport of the Hindu Right, which manipulates the morality of vegetarianism, our affection for animals and the representation of the cow in Hindu tradition to strike communal attitudes. In this ghoulish game the death of Mohammed Akhlaque in Dadri counts as a point scored: no civilized Indian should abet the monsters who play it.