Posted on 1-November-2015
India at present is in the midst of one of its periodical anti-cow slaughter frenzies. There have been many episodes of this malady in the past: notably in the last decade of the 19th century in eastern Uttar Pradesh, in the second decade of the twentieth century in Shahabad district of Bihar and a large demonstration including a threatened assault on Parliament House in Delhi in 1966. Different Hindu groups, notably under the leadership of the Hindu Mahasabha and its ilk since the foundation of the Mahasabha have from time to time demanded a country wide ban on cow slaughter, which became shriller after independence from colonial rule. After 1947, different state governments--now the majority--have banned or restricted the slaughter of cows, calves, oxen or bulls; but the demand for a country wide ban to be enacted by the federal government has so far not been met. With the election of a BJP government at the centre, with one of their own, Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister, the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates and the Hindu Mahasabha have been emboldened to push for various ante diluvian causes dear to them and a country wide ban on cow slaughter is one of them. For some sections of this group it is not enough to ban cow slaughter but they must prevent everyone in the country from consuming beef. Not long ago, the BJP government of Maharashtra, not content with banning slaughter of cattle, made it illegal to consume, store or sell beef in any form. Not long thereafter, a Muslim villager in a place barely forty kilometres east of Delhi was lynched, his son grievously injured and his house ransacked because of reports that he had stored beef in his house. A Government of India minister who is also the BJP MP for the area brushed the incident off as an accident due to a misunderstanding. Then the BJP chief minister of Haryana said in a speech that Muslims must give up eating beef if they wished to stay in India. Around the same time a young Muslim labourer was killed in Udhampur in the Jammu part--which has now become the power base of the BJP in the state of Jammu and Kashmir--of Jammu and Kashmir was killed by people who said that he was involved in the transport of slaughtered cattle. And much more recently Delhi Police raided Kerala House--official guest house maintained by the Government of Kerala-- in Delhi after receiving a complaint that buffalo meat was served to those who stayed there if they wanted it, notwithstanding the fact that there is no prohibition in the state of Kerala either of beef or of cow slaughter. It is impossible not to see a pattern in all this and treat the after the fact protestations of some BJP ministers of Government of India--not the prime minister whose silence is beginning to look like approval--with a great deal of scepticism.
Whenever the issue of cow slaughter and agitation over beef eating comes to the fore in India, some people come up with references to the eating habits of Vedic Aryans, and quote chapter and verse to say that those people ate beef and in fact slaughtered a calf in honour of an important guest. This argument is irrelevant for two reasons: first, that it is possible to cite other references in ancient Vedic and later Sanskrit literature saying that cattle was valued property and it was wrong to kill it--according to some texts cow slaughter is one of the worst sins-- and two, irrespective of what the ancient texts say, at some stage--when exactly is not of consequence--beef eating became a food taboo for upper caste Hindus and remains so today. For many the idea of cow slaughter is offensive. Considering the cow a sacred animal is not a speciality of the RSS or the Hindu Mahasabha. For Mohandas Gandhi also the cow was holy and there were occasions when on the issue of cow slaughter he was ambivalent. All movements for banning cow slaughter have had the quiet support--sometimes overt support too--of large sections of the Indian National Congress. B.K. Nehru recounts a story about his grand uncle, Motilal Nehru, who was neither an orthodox Hindu nor a Hindu Mahasabha sympathiser. It seems a group of traditionalist Kashmiri Pandits, disturbed over reports of his incorrect ways confronted him in a meeting and asked him if he ate beef. He preferred to skirt the question by asking them a counter question: Have you eaten crap? This reality about modern upper caste Hindu society is a given that makes it possible for men of the Hindu right to mobilise the inchoate masses against those sections of Indian society for whom beef is not a taboo: Muslims, Christians, dalits and many tribal groups. For upper caste Hindu followers of the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha Muslims and dalits are favourite targets of verbal and physical violence. More often than not there is no dividing line between agitations for a ban on cow slaughter and consumption of beef and whipping up anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiments--the former tends to be more vicious than the latter.
To counter such attitudes a frame of reference different from the past of Hindu society is necessary. First of all it is necessary to emphasise at all times that human life, any human life, is more precious than animal life, any animal life, holy or otherwise. This should be obvious to the most ardent defender of animal rights or to the most ardent defender of Hinduism and to the most zealous protector of cattle, if he has a heart that beats. Secondly it must repeatedly and clearly be said that a citizen's right of choice--in dress, food, belief and worship--is more precious than the beliefs and prejudices of groups that have the capacity to coerce others to follow in their footsteps. In the same spirit it would do no small amount of good to repeal that section of the Indian Penal Code which makes it a criminal offence to offend any group's religious sensitivities. This section of the law makes it difficult if not impossible to critically examine any set of religious beliefs and practices, no matter how offensive to basic human values and no matter how archaic or absurd. Such critical examination is a necessary prerequisite for the establishment of a truly modern secular society. There are other facts about other societies which had their own food taboos that Hindus will do well to ponder over. Two come specially to mind. Until about the middle of the last century Roman Catholics by and large abstained from meat during lent; very few of them do that now. The Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible has a long list of food taboos. Jews, except for a small number among the ultra orthodox, have forgotten about most of those taboos and moved on and in any case do not go about coercing people into observing them, not even in the state of Israel--the Jewish example should have a resonance for the RSS/BJP which have particular fondness for the state of Israel. But all this, like the two recent exhortations of the President of India on the need to practice tolerance, amounts to a voice of reason and ultimately futile because there can be no arguing against unreason. The reality is that at this writing, there is in India no effective political opposition to the RSS/BJP/Hindu Mahasabha.
Yet there is hope that the current bout of Hindu madness about the cow will soon subside. One source of hope lies in a set of economic factors. In large parts of rural India, the tractor has replaced ox drawn plough and the bullock cart, making the male calf of cattle and oxen redundant and a financial burden for the peasant/farmer. Slaughterhouses in India or in Bangladesh for example are tempting places to send the surplus cattle to. Cattle that cannot find their way to a trader or a slaughterhouse will continue to roam in the streets of Indian cities, emaciated and often crippled, surviving on pickings from garbage heaps with no Hindu heart bleeding for them. Earlier this year I met a Government of India official, a true devotee of the RSS/BJP who had retired recently. He told me he had opened a goshala--a cattle asylum, sort of-- in Mewat. He went on to say that Mewat was a major centre for cattle trade and then added for good measure that a male calf which fetches barely Rs. 20000 in India can bring in five to ten times as much if smuggled into Bangladesh. It seems Hindus merrily participate in this lucrative trade with or without Muslim partners. Likewise the recent ban on storage and sale of beef in Maharashtra will in all likelihood be subverted by traders, Hindu and Muslim. This will not be difficult in a country in which a cavalier attitude towards the law is endemic and law enforcement weak. No ideology of any kind is immune to the workings of human nature of which greed is an integral part. In all likelihood trade and slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef will continue while today's defenders of the sacred animal will look the other way. On the other hand no economic factor will dampen the anti-religious minority, anti-scientific and anti-modern rage of the mobs aroused by the RSS and its affiliates.
Another source of hope lies outside India. Practiclally all Indian leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru downwards have cherished approbation in the West, in the USA and the UK in particular, and craved acceptance by the West. Narendra Modi is no exception. In his own eyes he had arrived when Barak Obama decided to lionise him when he visited Washington DC last year. He was doubly blessed when Obama visited India to witness the Republic Day parade this year--so much so that Modi went out of his way to show to his Indian audiences that he was on close, friendly and familiar terms with the President of the United States of America. Western leaders, the Americans and the British more than others, know this trait of Indian leaders. The converse is equally true: Indian leaders tend to be very touchy about criticism by Western governments, Western media or other Western agencies. Obama delivered a lecture on the importance of religious tolerance to an audience in Delhi on 27th January, the day after the Republic Day parade. Probably the lecture was really meant for one man, Narendra Modi. If, when the anti-religious minority fever becomes life threatening, more and more Western leaders start calling for religious tolerance, the Narendra Modi government and its mentors may change their ways. There already are some murmurs in the Western media. And two days ago, Moody's, better known for its oracular pronouncements on the creditworthiness of countries and of business entities issued a statement emphasising the importance of religious tolerance in India for creating a climate conducive for the proper functioning of the economy. Will the Modi government heed? The hope is that it will but there is no telling how a group of irrational people whose only interest is in the accumulation of power in their hands will behave.
There is a third source of hope which is that sooner or later Narendra Modi's hollowness and his incapacity to provide governance to a complex society will catch up with him and the Indian voter, having seen through him, will throw him out. The voter who made Atal Bihari Vajpayee Prime Minister twice within a space of six years refused to be taken in by the hollow shining India campaign in 2004 and sent Vajpayee home. The same voter was even more ruthless with the Sonia Gandhi government so much so that the Indian National Congress is still licking its wounds, one and a half years after its electoral defeat. For such a denouement India will have to wait for another three and a half years.
In the mean time while India's liberals wait for the RSS/BJP inspired aberrations to go away through the operation of one or all of the above three mechanisms, the present ruling group will gladly let true Hindu patriots go and rescue as many cattle as possible from the butcher's knife, axe a few Muslims on the way and, while they are at it, tyrannise whichever wretched dog of a dalit they come across. Since my origins give me a free entry ticket to the RSS--a very distant relative of mine was for many years head of the of the RSS in Bihar--I should be singing paeans of Narendra Modi and his cohorts. By being critical of them, I have become a traitor to my kin, jati and country and a candidate for deportation to Pakistan.