Vol – L No. 14, April 04, 2015 | Anand Teltumbde

The Holy Cow

Anand Teltumbde

The ban on cattle slaughter threatens the livelihoods and ways of life of vast numbers of people—mostly belonging to the so-called lower castes—engaged in the production, distribution and consumption of beef.

Anand Teltumbde ([email protected]) is a writer and activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

To a long list of measures such as the attacks on churches, fraudulent conversions in the ghar wapsi campaign, exhortations to Hindu women to produce at least four children in order to “protect” Hinduism, and continuing assaults and humiliation of Muslims, the development-focused Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has added the “holy cow” from its Hindutvavadi repertoire. On 3 March, the Maharashtra government got the presidential assent to its draconian bill prescribing harsh punishments not only for killing the cow and its progeny but also for just possessing their meat in any form. As a matter of fact, Maharashtra has always had prohibitions and restrictions on certain types of bovine meats.

The Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976 provided for a total ban on the slaughter of cows, including the male or female calf of a cow. In 1995, the BJP–Shiv Sena government had passed an amendment to this act including bulls and bullocks and buffalo calves, both male and female, in the ban list and sent it for the presidential assent. However, neither the subsequent central governments, including the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the centre nor the Congress-led governments in the state over the next 15 years pursued it. Now that the BJP has captured power both in the state and the centre, the bill had a cakewalk, despite its controversial and harsh provisions, and set in motion competition among BJP-ruled states, Haryana having already proposed making punishment for cow slaughter equal to that for killing a human being.

Apart from violation of fundamental democratic rights of people to eat what they want, such acts, it is scarcely realised, can invite a veritable economic disaster. The country where, of the 26 million children born each year, approximately 1.83 million die before their fifth birthday, where two Dalits are murdered every day, where thousands of farmers commit suicide every year, where on an average 130 people are killed yearly in communal violence, and millions suffer the intrinsic violence embedded in the state’s anti-people policies, how come the cow assumes such a desperate priority? When did the poor cow become a holy cow? While it is true that much of the ills we suffer stem from our much eulogised Constitution, but is this ban really constitutional? Is the stereotype of Hindu majority really valid when the fact remains that Hindus are nothing but a bunch of castes, which makes India a country of minorities.

Myth of the Holy Cow

Whether Hindus ate beef or not was answered conclusively by Babasaheb Ambedkar in his Riddles in Hinduism. In the Rig Veda, a cow that was yielding milk was not fit for being killed (Aghnya). The cow symbolised wealth in ancient agricultural communities like Indo–Aryans, and hence was venerated and treated as sacred. However, this utility or veneration did not prevent the Aryan from killing the cow for purposes of food. Rather, the cow was killed because it was sacred. Ambedkar cites Pandurang Vaman Kane who wrote Dharma Shastra Vichar in Marathi: “It was not that the cow was not sacred in Vedic times, it was because of her sacredness that it is ordained in the  Vajasaneyi Samhita that beef should be eaten.” Apastamba Dharma Sutra(15, 14, 29) also says: “The cow and the bull are sacred and therefore should be eaten.” That the Aryans of the Rig Veda did kill cows with a sword or axe for purposes of food and ate beef are abundantly clear from several richas of the Rig Veda itself. The ancient etiquette for hospitality towards important guests also involved serving beef. The killing of cow for the guest had grown to such an extent that the guest came to be called “Go-ghna,” the killer of the cow. That the Hindus in the past did kill cows and did eat beef is proved abundantly by the description of the Yajnas given in the Buddhist Sutras which relate to periods much later than the Vedas and the Brahmanas. 

Another prominent scholar, D D Kosambi wrote in his Ancient India (1965), why “a modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism, whereas Vedic Brahmins had fattened upon a steady diet of sacrificed beef.” Even Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in his  Religion and Society, admitted that in ancient times, meat was consumed by the Brahmins too and only under the influence of Buddhism, Jainism and Vaishnavism did the practice become discredited. Indeed, many other historians and scholars have testified that Hindus, particularly Brahmins customarily ate beef. It is only in the struggle against Buddhism for supremacy, as Ambedkar claims, that Brahmins strategically assimilated certain tenets of Buddhism by becoming zealous vegetarians and worshippers of the cow. Recently, Dwijendra Narayan Jha, a professor of history at the University of Delhi, has written a full-length book titled The Myth of the Holy Cow throwing light on the beef-eating habits of ancient Hindus, Buddhists and even early Jains. Needless to say, he has to move under police protection from threatening Hindu zealots.

Obnoxious Despotism

It is a myth, which is uncritically accepted, that Hindus are a majority and therefore their writ should prevail. Hindus are basically numerous castes strung in a hierarchy in contention for superiority. The ritual differences among the dwija band since colonial times remain, but to this horde the entire bandwagon of the class of Shudra communities was hitched in the post-independence period, rendering the caste system into a quasi class division between the Dalits and non-Dalits. Needless to say, there are several differences among the myriad layers with regard to food habits. The vegetarianism of Indians is a myth propagated by the hypocritical, hegemonic upper-caste Hindus who do not exceed 15% of the population. Generally, Dalits, Adivasis and the lower echelons of the Shudra band, notwithstanding their sanskritisation, eat meat and do not have qualms about eating beef. Rather, beef being relatively low-priced, they rely on it more for animal protein. If we conservatively assume that half of the Shudra castes fall in this class, then 45% of Hindus would eat beef, if available. Add to this, if we were to add the Muslims (13.4% of the Indian population) and Christians (2.3% of the population), then 60.7% of Indians become beef eaters. As a matter of fact, a significant part of the modern youth belonging to even the so-called dwija castes do eat beef. It is not for nothing that India, despite all the restrictions, ranks seventh in the world in beef eating.

Ignoring the will of this vast majority, 24 states/union territories have strict laws banning the killing of cattle, which makes it difficult for households and restaurants to source, store or serve beef legally. In 2012, in protest against the ban on beef, Dalit students of the Osmania University, Hyderabad, asserted their culinary rights in public and made a political statement of the dietary habits of Dalits and Muslims by cooking and eating beef biryani on campus. I was to preside over the function but could not. It was expectedly attacked by the Hindutvavadi goons.

Economic Idiocy

The veneration of the cow comes from its utility in the ancient and medieval agricultural economies and did not have much to do with religion. Even Muslim rulers like Babar, Hyder Ali, Akbar, Jahangir, and Ahmad Shah had banned or restricted cow slaughter. The sentiment was exploited for political mobilisation of Hindus in the upper caste-led freedom movement. Gandhi, who said, “I worship it [cow] and I shall defend its worship against the whole world,” played a big role. Today, in the era of neo-liberal capitalism with its social Darwinist competition, the feudal sentiment of veneration or sacredness has been overtaken by considerations of efficiency and productivity. The cattle economy involves sophisticated science, technology and management methods of which slaughtering after the productive period is an integral part.

With 57% of world’s buffaloes and 16% of the world’s cattle, India ranks first in terms of the world’s buffalo and cattle population. Although the country is also the world’s largest milk producer, with a total output of 132.4 million tonnes of milk in 2012–13, valued at over Rs 2,900 billion, higher than the combined value of other major agricultural crops like paddy, wheat and sugar cane, the average milk yield per dairy cow per year of the Indian cow is just 1,284 kg as against 6,212 kg in the European Union and 9,117 kg in the United States. Livestock production is the most important agricultural activity in the country, contributing about 24.8% to agricultural gross domestic product. Dairy farming dominates livestock production, providing 18 million people, mostly belonging to low-caste landless/marginal farmers, with direct employment and a way out of poverty. Perhaps therefore it stands singularly neglected by the government’s elitist policymakers.

While the West has perfected modern scientific techniques in animal husbandry, India still follows ancient techniques of cattle rearing. The most efficient way of intensive dairying is to keep cows indoors in hygienic conditions, impregnating them artificially, and milking them only for the most productive first two lactations. Milk yield and quality drops thereafter and dairy cows are generally replaced after four to five years. In India, however, dairy cows are inefficiently milked over six to eight lactations and more, almost for their entire life. It is not that farmers do not know this to be uneconomical but they do not have the option to dispose of their unproductive cattle. The upper-caste Hindutvavadi brigade feigns love for the cow but the brunt of the imposition is borne by the poor low-caste cattle farmers, who want to sell their unproductive cows for slaughtering as the surreptitious business amply shows.

Slaughtering of cows is not necessarily cruelty; keeping them alive in painful neglect is. The so-called Pink Revolution has brought India on par with Brazil as the world’s top exporter of bovine meat. With its huge bovine population, India has a natural advantage in this market. The ban on cattle slaughter not only squanders this advantage but threatens the livelihoods and ways of life of vast numbers of people, mostly belonging to the so-called lower castes, engaged in the production, distribution and consumption of beef.