Cow slaughter ban: The Far Right's obsession is a 20-year-old template of political leverage
We tend to have short memories. A year is too long, and twenty is ancient history. As it happens, what is now more than a year-long lunacy to project the cow as both unquestionably sacred and a cure for all ills and harassing, threatening, arresting and sometimes, killing offenders of the cow in the name of religious sanctity with a transparent intent of electoral gain, is a twenty-year-old ploy brought back larger-than-life.
We tend to have short memories. A year is too long, and twenty is ancient history.
As it happens, what is now more than a year-long lunacy to project the cow as both unquestionably sacred and a cure for all ills, and harassing, threatening, arresting and sometimes, killing offenders of the cow in the name of religious sanctity with a transparent intent of electoral gain, is a twenty-year-old ploy brought back larger-than-life.
It’s hardly a surprise that cow-related rhetoric across the Sangh Parivar began to gather momentum in mid-2016, several months ahead of crucial Assembly elections. And it will likely continue in one way or another, alongside the drum beat for a new Ram Temple in Ayodhya, into the silly season for the general elections to several state Assemblies, and to the next Lok Sabha in 2019—or earlier.
Cow-catching, as it were, is a tried and tested template brought to life to aid the Bharatiya Janata Party’s at-any-cost approach for political domination.
In late 1995 in Nagpur, the leadership of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) demanded a ban on cow slaughter across India, to be adopted by the central and state governments. Its general secretary Ashok Singhal railed about a ban “at any cost” and how it would be a “fight to the finish”.
Its Parivar colleagues of the Bajrang Dal were tasked with drumming up agitation. The Dal had reportedly prepared a list of slaughter houses all over India, and planned to deploy numerous gau-rakshak raths—basically ‘jeeps’ (generic utility vehicles of the day) rechristened as cow protection chariots—to hunt down errant abattoirs.
Already, some sadhus had been heard screaming at VHP rallies that they would “cut the heads off those who shed a drop of a cow’s blood."
By January 1996, the pitch had begun to peak keeping in mind general elections to the 11th Lok Sabha over April and May.
The cow-mantra ignored, then as now, economic realities of cattle redundancy in several parts of India with improved farming techniques involving greater use of tractors and such; and the economics of the cattle trade that ranges from meat exports to a supply chain—sometimes an illegal supply chain—that routed cattle from the plains of northern India to West Bengal, for export to the Middle East—and plain smuggling across to Bangladesh.
Then as now, gau-raksha was pure political leverage with an unhealthy overdose of screaming and dangerous sensationalism.
Lunatic statements being uttered now were being uttered then. An excellent article in India Today by my colleagues at the time, Amrit Dhillon and NK Singh, summed up VHP’s claims. Among them:
• The trembling and wailing of cows being slaughtered lead to earthquakes.
• Cow urine can cure cancer, impotence, sexually transmitted diseases, liver problems, tuberculosis, polio and obesity.
• Eating red meat causes blindness, skin diseases and heart attacks.
• It also results in divorce because eating red meat causes precocious sensuality in children, which later leads to impotence and, ultimately, divorce.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s leadership, then as now, did little beyond mouthing platitudes to reign in its growing ultra-right fringe. The face of BJP in those elections was the ‘moderate’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The BJP emerged as the single largest party ahead of the incumbent Congress, though with allies it came in a close second to the United Front coalition led by Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party and Telugu Desam Party.
At any rate, it enabled Vajpayee to become prime minister for a period of thirteen days before he resigned when faced with the sure-fire prospect of losing a vote of confidence in Parliament. But the BJP and its cohorts had most certainly arrived. They would in a few short years win Lok Sabha elections twice over, and run India until mid-2004.
The BJP is today stronger than it has ever been, but that is never enough in politics. Its leadership has mouthed platitudes over the abominations of gau-rakshaks, but that has hardly stemmed a massive upsurge in this important collateral activity of command and control and electoral strategy that aids the platforms of development and Ayodhya.
And so the cow remains pure and sacred as snow, but only the Indian cow, not the impure Jersey and Holstein injections. Cattle transporters will be chased down, beaten, and sometimes, killed: Muslim and Dalit alike. Many will be beaten and, some will die, on the suspicion of eating beef. There will be scant justice for the victims. Threats to behead those who spill the blood of cows will continue.
Beyond the universally accepted medical risks of eating red meat, fantastic ills from beef and cures from the cow will continue to be trumpeted: Such as the climate change-friendly claim earlier this year by the education minister of the BJP-led government in Rajasthan that cows (evidently, Indian cows) are the only animals to exhale oxygen.
To reflect the digital age there is now the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader of its “cow-service” wing who proudly flaunts his cellphone with a daub of cow dung on the casing to counter harmful radiation. There is now reportedly a proposal to assign unique identification numbers for cows, leading to ‘Udder Card’ memes saturating the internet since this April.
There is now the blatant lie by India’s attorney general during a major human rights review by United Nations last week, that minorities in India are fully protected. And there is the lamentable toning down of matters by India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which made a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the same review in the weakest possible manner.
In its recommendation on “Freedom of Religion” NHRC would only say this: “Freedom of religion to everyone is guaranteed by the Constitution of India. However, there is need for the federal and state governments to be more vigilant in view of some of the recent happenings in a few states.”
It went on to add in conclusion: “The sporadic instances of violence concerning eating of beef have been reported in different parts of the country. The fringe of the right wing Hindutva Brigade is alleged to be behind these incidents which are few and far between. Though disquieting, it is too early to assess as to be a threat to secular and pluralistic structure of Indian society.”
It’s a done deal, then.
They don’t give a damn if self-declared protectors of cows are above the law, their pet lawyers are foxes, and the law is made an ass.
Sudeep Chakravarti is an award-winning author of several books, a columnist, and consultant to think-tanks and media. This column will take in a wide arc from democracy to development in India and South Asia.
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