Fifty years ago, an anti-cow slaughter mob nearly stormed Parliament House. Those who launched that attack constitute the core of the ruling establishment today

We are great at celebrating silver jubilees, golden jubilees and diamond jubilees. One such occasion has just passed unnoticed. November 7 marked the 50th anniversary of the very first assault on Parliament. On this day, in 1966, thousands of sadhus of different varieties and denominations and many others gathered near Parliament demanding an immediate end to cow slaughter all over the country. Incited by the rabble-rousing Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) MP, Swami Rameshwaranand, who represented Karnal in undivided Punjab, the huge crowd marched towards the Parliament House complex with a clear intent to storm it. Finding the gates closed, the agitationists launched a free-for-all attack on government buildings on Parliament Street. The Congress president, K. Kamaraj, who was in his house nearby, had a narrow escape. After about an hour of mayhem not seen in Delhi since 1947, the police responded and brought about some semblance of order. Official numbers put the death toll at seven or eight but the loss to commercial property was substantial.

Dealing with crisis

The Prime Minister was just less than 10 months in office and she was unsure of her political position both within her own party and in the country. In fact, on that very day, a no-confidence motion against her was being debated and voted upon in the Lok Sabha. It was the fourth crisis to confront Indira Gandhi in her very first year of office after the monsoon failure, the controversial devaluation, and the contentious reorganisation of Punjab. On each of these three occasions, she had shown courage, something her critics are loath to admit. This time also was no different.

Indira Gandhi sacked her Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda the very next day. As patron of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj, he was widely seen to be sympathetic to the protesters, if not actually a co-conspirator in the agitation in the precincts of Parliament. Ironically, the Congress bosses thought that he and Indira Gandhi were in the same “left-of-centre” camp when it came to economic policy although what she did in June 1966 was quintessential “right of centre” — devaluation, liberalisation of imports, delicensing, and opening up to foreign investment.

After the February 1967 elections in which the Jan Sangh more than doubled its tally, Indira Gandhi knew that she had to do something on the issue. She confabulated with her colleagues, and on June 29, 1967, the formation of a high-level committee under the chairmanship of A.K. Sarkar, who had just retired as the Chief Justice of India, was announced. The committee was given a wide-ranging mandate that included examining the feasibility of a national law to ban cow slaughter by amending the Constitution. The composition of this government committee was unusual. Perhaps it has been without parallel in recent Indian political history. It had M.S. Golwalkar, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, R.P. Mookerji, a retired judge and elder brother of the founder of the BJS, and the Shankaracharya of Puri as prominent members. Two Chief Ministers — Charan Singh of Uttar Pradesh and D.P. Mishra of Madhya Pradesh — were included as were some other anti-cow slaughter activists. Three non-politicians were also made part of the committee — V. Kurien of the National Dairy Development Board, Ashok Mitra, economist and then chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission, and H.A.B. Parpia, Director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute.

The committee was given six months to submit its report. It began actively, had numerous meetings and met a large cross-section of society. But it never actually submitted a report. Questions would keep getting asked in Parliament and the answers would be of the usual “the matter is under examination” type. Finally, after 12 years of its existence, Morarji Desai wound up the committee in 1979 when he was Prime Minister.

Both Kurien and Dr. Mitra have left delightful accounts of the committee in their memoirs. Kurien, for instance, has written in his I Too Had a Dream that Golwalkar admitted to him in so many words that the RSS had launched the November 1966 campaign to embarrass the government and with definite political objectives in mind. Dr. Mitra too, in his A Prattler’s Tale, makes critical observations of the obscurantism of some of his fellow members on the committee and recounts with great glee what happened in Anand during a tour by the committee. Coming to know that the Shankaracharya of Puri was very fond of cottage cheese, Kurien sent boxes of paneer to everyone. Golwalkar was delighted, but there was great consternation in the Shankaracharya’s camp when the Amul man casually remarked the next day that cheese prepared at Amul used rennet from the fifth or seventh intestine of young calves.

Ecological consequences

The cow protection issue was to galvanise the conservation community as well. People like ornithologist Salim Ali and conservationist Zafar Futehally had been worried about the impact of cattle grazing on sanctuaries like the famous Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary at Bharatpur. Futehally was to write in a leading newspaper in November 1967 that the Sarkar committee should examine the ecological consequences of having a large and uncontrolled cattle population. He persuaded Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution to support a study to be conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society on this very subject. An overenthusiastic Ripley wrote to Indira Gandhi directly on October 3, 1967 expressing his views on the issue of cattle and conservation. She did not reply, but U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles reprimanded him on November 7, 1967, saying, “At my request, my deputy Mr. Greene found an opportunity the other day to sound Mrs. Gandhi’s right-hand man, P.N. Haksar about your letter. Haksar readily confirmed that it had been received… and as much said that he thought it better to leave the complexities of the cow problem to the Government of India”.

Fifty years later, those who launched that attack on Parliament constitute the core of the ruling establishment. Such are the vicissitudes of democracy. It was a watershed and continues to reverberate.

Jairam Ramesh is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP.