Recently, a video showing a Pakistan-based group slaughtering a cow over the Indian national flag, to protest against the Hindu-majority nation, went viral on social media.
Cows have been at the centre of focus in Indian politics for a long time. Deliberate or not, the discussion on cow-politics often excludes the history of cow slaughter in the subcontinent, and therefore, misses out the historical context in which these debate should be framed.
Hindu Hatred: Weaponisation Of Cow Slaughter
For early Islamic invaders, cow slaughter became a weapon of denigration and subjugation of Hindus. Al-Biruni notes the conduct of Muhammad bin Qasim during his conquest of Multan. "Qasim first asserts the superiority of Islam over the polytheists by committing a taboo (killing a cow) and publicly soiling the idol (giving the cow meat as an offering)."
Ahmed Shah Durrani, in his fourth invasion of India, sacked Delhi and plundered Agra, Mathura, and Vrindavana. On his way back to Afghanistan, he attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar and filled its sacred pool with the blood of slaughtered cows.
Firoz Shah Tughlaq got bags full of cow’s flesh tied round the necks of Brahmans and had them paraded through his army camp at Kangra. The killing of cows and desecration of temples as a means of sending a political message of power of the Islamic ruler continued during the Mughal rule.
Jehangir’s memoirs mention that the corpse of Guru Arjan Dev was wrapped in cow-skin to cause special offence to the Sikhs.
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb desecrated the Chintamani Parshvanath Jain temple near Sarashpur, Gujarat by killing a cow inside the Jain temple and converted the temple into a mosque, calling it the "Might of Islam".
During the Christian inquisition of Goa, the natives forced to convert to Christianity were made to eat beef as a confirmation that they had given up their Hindu dharma.
The "Holi Riot" of 1714 in Gujarat, 1909 Calcutta riots, the 1912 Faizabad riots, and the 1911 Muzaffarpur riots all involved cow-slaughter by Muslims as an instrument for humiliating Hindus.
In fact, historical episodes of violence against Hindus, from the conquest by Muslim rulers in medieval times to the Partition violence, have rarely been unaccompanied by slaughtering of cows, in front of Hindus or at Hindu sacred places, as an assertion of power.
During the British Raj, the sentiment of cow protection and prohibition on beef eating became symbolic of the ‘primitive and irrational’ Hindu customs. Some Hindus, in the 1830s, consumed beef to show how they "derided irrational Hindu customs".
Apart from these historical accounts, perhaps the greatest proof of the use of cow-slaughter as a weapon of Hindu persecution is the continuation of these practices in today’s times with the same motive.
Several victims of ‘Love Jihad’ have said in their complaints that they were forced to eat beef after conversion to Islam.
In January this year, a Hindu employee in Saudi Arabia alleged that he was being forced to eat beef by his employers and requested Indian authorities to rescue him.
In 2014, a Hindu girl killed herself after being forced by the principal of her boarding school in Darjeeling, Terrence Wharton, to eat beef.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan saw an increase in cow slaughter popularised by Muslims coming from the Hindi heartland and Islamic organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami, as cow-slaughter remains popular among them, and the context for this was Hindu-Muslim enmity.
In Malaysia, to protest the proposal of building a temple in their neighbourhood, a group of Muslims chopped off a cow’s head and paraded with it in a procession from their mosque to the state headquarters amid chants of Allahu Akbar. They dumped the severed head, spat on it and stomped it before leaving.
Post Article 370 abrogation, several people posted graphic pictures and videos of cows being slaughtered, especially on Bakr-Id, with a clear intent to offend Hindus; the underlying message being ‘Look what we are doing to your mother’, along with the tag of “cow-piss drinkers.”
On a more subtle level, the colonial narrative of the ‘primitive and irrational’ custom of cow protection by the idolatrous Hindus remains a popular subject of comedy in Western culture.
“I made chicken. I hope it's not one of the animals that you people think is magic,” asks the devout Christian Mary Cooper in TV series Big Bang Theory, as she serves dinner to Raj, the Indian nerd who is effeminate, and is physically disabled when it comes to speaking to, or even in front of women.
Movement For Cow Protection
Though some Mughal rulers like Akbar recognised the value of cow protection to accommodate the majority Hindu sentiment, it was with the Sikhs that cow protection started as a political response to the persecution of Indic people.
Oogardanti Baani of Guru Gobind Singh, as included in the Dasam Granth, says:
“Give me this command that I may grab Turks and destroy them. The great evil of cow-killing may I stop in this world. The throne of the Mughals may I destroy.”
“Fulfil this desire of mine. May suffering of cows stop. May the victory of the true Guru resound throughout the world.”
Cow slaughter was banned, and often punished by death in the Khalsa Raj of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is especially significant, as the Sikh ruler had banned the death penalty otherwise. Death sentence was not awarded even when there was an attempt on the life of the king himself.
It is no surprise that it was in Punjab that the first Gaurakshini Sabha (cow protection society) was formed in 1882.
In the 1870s, the Namdhari Sikhs were the first to start a cow protection revolution, the Kuka Revolution, in which they revolted against the Britishers in support of protection of the cow, in the process sacrificing their own lives.
Marathas, similarly, while respecting the diverse faiths including the Christian missionaries in Goa, enforced a ban on the cow slaughter.
The cow, which had become intertwined in politics much before the advent of the Europeans in the subcontinent, found itself posing a serious challenge to the British Raj.
In 1893, Viceroy Lansdowne wrote:
“While she [Queen of England] quite agrees in the necessity of perfect fairness, she thinks the Muhammadans do require more protection than Hindus, and they are decidedly by far the more loyal. Though the Muhammadan's cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact, directed against us, who kill far more cows for our army, &c., than the Muhammadans."
In his book, “The Development of the Indian National Congress: 1892-1909”, Dr P C Ghosh has quoted the then Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne saying that the cow protection movement had transformed the Indian National Congress from “a foolish debating society into a real political power, backed by the most dangerous elements in native society.”
Just as cow slaughter was used as a symbol to denigrate Hindus, cow protection became a symbol of Hindu self-respect. The movement spread quickly all over North India, the region that had seen the worst of the Hindu persecution.
Between 1880 and 1893, hundreds of gaushalas (cow shelters/homes) were opened and public meetings and awareness campaigns were carried out.
Cow Protection And Freedom Struggle
Cow protection remained a major plank of the Indian National Movement. Groups like the Arya Samaj worked for cow protection and played a significant role in spreading nationalistic consciousness among the masses.
Many prominent leaders of the independence movement, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malviya, Rajendra Prasad and Purushottam Das Tandon, were strong advocates of cow protection.
Several Muslim leaders who were a part of Indian national movement also respected the sentiment of cow protection, being conscious of its history in the subcontinent.
In a Khilafat Conference in Delhi attended by Mahatma Gandhi and other tall leaders, Maulana Abdul Bari said, “No matter whether the Hindus help us or not, the Musalmans ought, as the countrymen of the Hindus, out of regard for the latter's susceptibilities, to give up cow slaughter.”
This was despite Gandhi’s warning that the two issues of Khilafat and cow protection should not be mixed.
Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a Congress leader during the freedom movement, among the founders of the Communist party and a member of the Constituent Assembly, never ate beef in deference to the Hindu sentiments.
After his annual Haj, the Maulana always visited Mathura and Barsana for a “darshan” of Krishna, the ‘original cow herd’.
On an opposite stance, Maulana Maududi had contended that “if today cow killing is halted for the sake of sparing Hindu sensibilities, tomorrow there will be demands that the Muslim call to prayer no longer be given.”
To which the Sufi saint, Khwaja Hasan Nizami had responded that despite the loss of Muslim power in India, Hindus have not attempted to stop any Muslim practices other than cow killing.
For the advocates of a separate Muslim land of Pakistan, drawing on the past glory and prowess of the Muslim invaders, cow slaughter carried a symbolic significance. In fact, freedom to perform cow slaughter was one of the demands of Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his correspondence with Jawaharlal Nehru.
In Time magazine’s April 1946 Issue, Jinnah was on the cover and the caption read, ‘His Muslim tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow.’
In light of the centre-stage that the cow has occupied in Indian politics, it is surprising that activists/thinkers are willing to go back to the Vedic era to justify beef-eating and cow slaughter but are blatantly ignoring the long history and continuing use of cow slaughter as a weapon to denigrate Hindus.
Whether ancient Hindus did or didn’t consume beef remains irrelevant as far as the fact of historical Hindu denigration through cow slaughter is concerned.
Even if proven, beef-consumption in Vedic era cannot justify the latter, just as prevalence of slavery among Blacks in Africa since ancient times cannot be used to justify slavery in the United States.
Just as the question of usage of racial slurs cannot be discussed without an awareness and understanding of the history of racism, the question of cow slaughter cannot be discussed in isolation of the history of its usage as an instrument of denigration.
The link has been recognised by even the leading mainstream Muslim bodies in India, who demand a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter.
Talking about the Constituent Assembly discussions, Nazima Perveen, a research fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) says, “The Muslim leadership was in favour of making cow protection a fundamental right of the Hindus. However, the issue of cow protection was put under the Directive Principles of the State Policy.”
While it is true that the government has to do a strict cost-benefit analysis before adopting any law or policy, and that a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter will have socio-economic repercussions that need to be discussed in detail, it is also true that the discussion on cow protection cannot happen in the absence of a proper historical context.
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