Narendra Modi's statement on gau rakshaks: By invoking Mahatma Gandhi, PM has raised the bar for all
Narendra Modi's statement on gau rakshaks has led to the creative resurgence of an otherwise marginalised conversation around Gandhi.
When Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan came to stay with Mahatma Gandhi at Sevagram Ashram, Gandhi directed his team to ensure that Khan is served meat with each of his meals. It did not matter that vegetarianism was one of the most firmly held beliefs of the Ashram community. A guest had to be served food to which he or she was accustomed to.
Khan, often called the 'Frontier Gandhi', refused this extraordinary hospitality. He insisted on eating what the community of the ashram ate.
This anecdote highlights just how and why by invoking Gandhi in condemning cow vigilantism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the bar for all – those who claim to protect the cow and those who defend people's freedom to choose what to eat.
Though there is an urgent need for Modi to emphasise the rule of law, given the recent rise of cow vigilantism, by invoking Gandhi against cow vigilantes, he has inevitably supported a culture of non-violence that is deeply embedded in Hindu beliefs. It is a reminder that Gandhi’s deep commitment to cow protection was not based on any notion of the 'secular', which is dismissive of religious identity and spiritual beliefs.
On 1 January, 1925, Gandhi wrote about the cow in Young India saying, "I worship it (cow) and I shall defend its worship against the whole world."
Gandhi took this worship to the extent of refusing to drink the milk of cows as he believed it to be a form of violence against the calf – whom nature intended as the only true claimant of the cow's milk. But, over the last half century, the cow has gone from being a beloved member of the family to a milk-making machine – often pumped with antibiotics, kept perpetually pregnant and held in crowded uncomfortable conditions.
In an earlier Young India article, Gandhi had said: "The Hindu's religion consists in saving the cow, but it can never be his religion to save the cow by a resort to force towards a non-Hindu."
This understanding is not based only on a thinking that ahimsa means rejecting all forms of force and coercion. In fact, for Gandhi, the Hindu practice of cow protection was a way for human beings to locate themselves within all creations with greater humility. "Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God... The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless," Gandhi wrote in a 1921 Young India piece.
Thus, for Gandhi, cow protection was "one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution".
"It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realise his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible,"
"Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but their ability to protect the cow," Gandhi wrote.
But, in a 1921 piece in the same publication, he also said: "I would not kill a human being for protecting a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life... be it ever so precious." Because the essence of cow protection, for Gandhi, was "…protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world."
He also understood that cow slaughter could never be stopped by law. Writing in Harijan in 1946 Gandhi said: "Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her (cow) alone can put an end to it (cow slaughter)."
Even in August 1947, when Gandhi was being attacked daily with allegations of being 'anti-Hindu', he remained preoccupied with ways to ensure that cows were not ill-treated after they served their economic purpose. This can only happen, Gandhi wrote in Harijan on 31 August, 1947:
- By the Hindus performing their duty towards the cow and her progeny.
- By learning the science of cattle-breeding.
- By replacing the present cruel method of castration by the humane methods.
- By thorough reform of the pinjrapoles (institutions for aged cows) of India.
- By voluntary rejection of beef eating.
It cannot be over-emphasised that Gandhi’s preoccupation here was not with the cow as a contentious religious symbol.
His focus, clearly and sharply, was on "...ahimsa, otherwise known as universal compassion."
"If that supreme thing is realised, everything else becomes easy. Where there is ahimsa, there is infinite patience, inner calm, discrimination, self-sacrifice and true knowledge," Gandhi wrote in Harijan.
His philosophy, today, finds expression partly through the global rise of 'vegan' culture, which rejects not just meat eating but also all dairy products – deeming them to be a form of violence.
Along with the tragic loss of life and spread of terror, cow vigilantism has also caused something else. It has shouted down a much-needed conversation about how to combine ahimsa with respect for different approaches to the natural world, and thus diet.
Whether Modi's statement at Sabarmati Ashram deters cow vigilantism remains to be seen. But it has, at the very least, led to a creative resurgence of this otherwise marginalised conversation.
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