Is the cow still holy?

Rohit Dhankar

“The 50-year-old father of an Indian Air Force personnel was beaten to death by a mob on the outskirts of Delhi on Monday night, allegedly over rumours that he had eaten beef.
Mohammad Ikhlaq and his 22-year-old son were dragged from their house by around 100 villagers in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and beaten with bricks. Ikhlaq’s son is critical.” From NDTV site, 30th September 2015.

Reading the news item makes it is clear that the killers knew the victims; they lived in the same area (is it a village?). One finds it difficult to believe that people known to each other will kill on such grounds. The announcement from the temple regarding a calf being killed indicates a plan. Who knows deep down the incident there might be some old animosity or grudge. Temple and holy cow may have been used as a pretence to attack the family. And that (if it happened to be so, I am only guessing in order to understand the bizarre incident) is much more dangerous and heinous than if the killers actually believed in ‘protection of holy cow’ and actually believed that the family has killed a calf. Pretended religious sentiments are more dangerous that actual. These inhuman schemes of the rogue elements may get concretises with the help of unjustified laws like beef ban. I am not discounting the larger communal politics here, rather am hinting that the larger divisive politics plays through personal animosity or old grudges among people known to each other.

The issue of cow protection is not new. Arya Samaj in the guidance of Dayanand Saraswati started a movement in 1882, and established cow protection societies all over India. This movement led to serious riotes in 1893. In independent India there was an anti-cow-slaughter movement in which the parliament was gheraoed by a mob of thousands in the leadership of Hindu organisations and Shankaracharya Niranjandev Tirth.

One of the problem in this issue is also the article 48 of the constitution, which is a directive principle; it states: “Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry.—The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” It seems to me inclusion of the words “cows and calves” serves no purpose here as the article is about agriculture and animal husbandry. Organising animal husbandry on “scientific lines” may require protection of some animals for environmental and economic reasons; but it may also require slaughtering some animals for the same reasons. Specifically mentioning “cow and calves” here gives a religious tinge to this secular constitution. In my view it should be amended and these words should be deleted. But, all said and done, we should remember that it is only a directive principle, and by definition should “not be enforceable by any court”.

The present proponents of the beef ban, however, are no respecter of the constitution. The debate and thin justification mainly hinges on two kinds of arguments: one, that Hindus have always respected cows and never ate them; and two, that killing and eating cow by others hurts Hindu sentiments.

The first claim has two parts: ancient Hindus (Aryans?) respected cows and never ate them. Respected in terms of ‘valued’ might be true, as they considered them their wealth, and cows and oxen played an important role in their agriculture. The second part is certainly not true; as one finds references to eating beef as well as to declaring it a sin. Which is not at all surprising; Hinduism always had several views on almost all issues. There might have been people who happily ate beef, and there might have been another set who declared them sinners. Actually, who will declare a non-existing practice as a sin? And why? Declaring a practice as abominable or a sin also proves its existence, at the least till the time of declaration.

However, the debate regarding whether the Aryans and ancient Hindus ate beef or not is totally irrelevant in the present case. We have to remember that we are not living in ancient India. Even if the ancient Hindus did not eat beef it does not mean we should not or cannot eat it today. It does not mean at all that non-Hindus cannot eat it. Only about 200 years back Hindus motivated and sometimes forcibly burnt women on the funeral piers of their husbands in the name of sati; it was not considered a crime. Today it is a crime. Ancient Hindus did not allow shudras and women to study vedas; and if shudras were found studying vedas they were punished. Today, anyone including shidras can happily study vedas if they want. In the epic of Ramayana it is mentioned that Shambuka was killed by the so-called maryadapurushottam Rama simply because he was indulging in tapasya to gain power and he was a shudra. No maryadapurushottam can do that today. By the way, even Ramayana in this tale of oppression recognises that change is inevitable. It says that in Satayuga only Brahmans could do tapasya, in Treta Brahmans and Kshariyas were allowed, in Dwaper, when story of Ramayana is supposed to be situated, Brahmana, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas could do tapasya, but Shudras could not. It also mentioned that Shudras will be allowed in Kaliyuga, our own yuga.

We are living in a diverse and democratic country, and in kaliyuga, we have a constitution which gives us freedom to regulate our own personal lives. Eating what we like and not eating what we don’t like is our personal matter. So what ancient Indians (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas, Charvakas, etc.) did or did not eat does not matter and constitutes no argument today. Please also remember that Charvakas were as good Indians as Hindus, perhaps better, and I am sure, though have no proof, they had no problems with eating beef.

That brings us to the second argument in the current debate: that if others eat beef it hurts Hindu sentiments. This argument has several problems.

First, beef eating by others may hurt sentiments of some Hindus; but they are in a minority. Because there are plenty of Hindus who actually eat beef. And there is a greater number of those who themselves may not eat beef but nothing happens to their sentiments if others do. This brigade whose sentiments are hurt (if they are actually hurt, that is) is a small minority. They do not represent Hindus.

Second, the ‘hurt sentiment’ is a bad argument in a democracy. Jain sentiments may get hurt if you eat any animal flesh, Muslim sentiments may get hurt if you eat something as dirty as pork anywhere in their vicinity. Rajput sentiments were hurt due to Jodha-Akbar TV serial, Jat sentiments are hurt if their girls marry in their own gotra or a Dalit. In each case the rights of Indian citizens are trampled underfoot, and the state which should provide guarantee of liberty to act as per the constitutional rights fails. The ‘hurt sentiment’ argument is the biggest danger to our secularism, to openness in society and to freedom of expression.

This flawed argument has played havoc with the freedom of expression in India, even if we ignore rest of the world. The Indian society and liberal intellectuals have been either very tolerant or selective in criticism to this spacious argument. Let us realise that the ban on cow slaughter and ban on Satanic Verses, in spite of seeming different on the surface, basically use the same argument of hurt feelings/sentiments. In both cases one group wants to impose one’s own way of life on the rest of the people: one on what you can eat, other on what you can read.

This argument is basically a gift of our own distortion of secularism which we call sarvadharma-samabhava. The beauty of sarvadharma-samabhava is that if you accept an unreasonable argument of one religious community, you have to accept an equally unreasonable argument from another community. Thus a competition in being more and more unreasonable and to grab public space starts between the communities. Since the state want to be polite to religion it cannot stop the slide on the slippery slope. This is the defect in Indian secularism.

Professor Irfan Habib rightly said in an interview that “[i]t is absurd to say that if we treat all religions equally, then religion can play a part in the state”.  Professor Thapar, another famous historian and public intellectual, also said in a lecture that Indian definition of secularism is “limited and incomplete”. It seems to me that both, like many others, recognise the problem and its gravity. But they seem to see the damage it can cause only partially. They both claim, in somewhat differing terms, that this definition privileges the majority religion. This conclusion, in spite of the correct recognition of the problem, is only partially true. Neither one can build a theoretical argument to support it fully, nor is it corroborated by empirical facts.

The acceptance of religion based decisions in the public affairs and in the state policy basically opens the way for influencing the state and public decisions in favour of religions. It results in attempts to impose religious ideas and ways of living on unwilling non-believers. All religions in a democracy tainted with sarvadharma-samabhava can use that opportunity, and they actually do.

If one looks at the list of banned books and other public acts allowed or banned in the name of religion the list shows that Hindus and Muslims both have been using it quite frequently. The only solution, therefore, is that no legitimacy should be provided in the name of religion. If someone’s sentiments are hurt due to other citizens’ legitimate acts within the constitutional boundary it is their own problem. If A eats beef and B’s sentiments are hurt because of it, there is something wrong with B, not with A. May be B does not understand democracy and individual freedoms. Or maybe he wants to impose his ideas on others. Or maybe he simply does not know why, but feels terribly disturbed to the point of wanting to kill. Or he may not feel anything, just sees an opportunity to further his selfish ends and simply pretends. In all these cases it is the problem of education or general thinking in the society. It needs to be rectified, not appeased. It seem to me that most cases of hurt sentiments on religious matters are actually mob pretentions.

If we want to save secularism any law that legitimises imposition of ways of life of one group on unwilling others should be resisted. Beef ban is a dangerous step for democracy. Unlike banned books, it provides occasions to rogue elements in general public for settling scores and spreading violence. In the last decade or so there have been several incidents (remember five Dalits killed in Haryana, in 2002?)  in the name of cow; so much so that now it might start looking like ‘unholy’ rather than ‘holy’. [Please don’t read it as blaming cow. Cow is neither holy nor unholy, it is simply cow. The ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ characterises the thinking of people in this controversy.]


7 Responses to Is the cow still holy?

  1. Ramnik Mohan says:

    In Paragraph 4 of your article, with reference to Arya Samaj and Dayanand Saraswati, the year-dates need to be looked at 🙂


  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, corrected.


  3. Salma . says:

    Superbly hard hitting…maza aa gaya but was also pained by the incidents quoted…such a waste of life…


  4. Anonymous says:

    Humanity Must Prevail
    Mohammad Akhlaq is no more alive
    I never met him, don’t know him
    But why my heart bleeds on his demise
    Akhlaq may have died but leaves behind question to ponder
    I was beaten to death for having food of my choice
    And still we claim of being secular/democratic etc..
    Look within the citizen of this great country and ask ourselves
    Are we religious, are we even human anymore
    It’s not my death, its death of every powerless citizen
    Who believes in law, equality and brotherhood?
    Its death of everyone who call himself secular
    Its death of civility, tolerance & democracy
    Its death of the very idea of Indianness
    Its death of humanity at large
    The great land of Vasudeva kutumbakam
    Demands justice
    I demand justice
    The entire humanity
    Demand Justice
    Humanity must prevail


  5. ananya pathak says:

    Dhankar ji, you raise poignant questions about the nature of Indian Secularism through this lucid article. The inherent paradoxes in the current interpretation of religious tolerance (secularism in our context) can be seen most clearly in the brutal murder of the two men in the recent beef-eating incident. Sir, as part of school curricula children are taught lessons that deal with democracy, freedom and India’s decision to become a secular rather than a religious state post independence despite the painful trajectory of the partition based on communal tensions. As an educationist yourself, what according to you are the problems of the pedagogy/ teaching-learning rituals that lead to the cultivation of religious intolerance and more specifically a half-baked understanding of issues that are deep and require reflection?


  6. nitu bahal says:

    Thank you for yet another wonderfully presented piece. You mentioned in your article that this was the problem of Education and the general thinking, which I believe is the root cause. Unfortunately, I have been deeply saddened to see how religion and religious practices operate in public as well as private schools of our country. The NCF 2005, in its most secular nature is being implemented by humans who have not been able to come out of their deeply ingrained religious dispositions. Sir, I do not intend to sound like a pessimist but I am afraid to even think if this ‘root’ can be watered with these given practical nuances, in its best form. Thank you.


  7. J. Saahir says:

    Well written piece Rohitji,

    Wouldn’t it look more better, had you mentioned the famous work of Dwijendra Narayan Jha (a Brahmin historian)— ” Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Tradition.”
    You readers would have been benefitted more had you also mentioned D. D. Kosambi’s work– “The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India”.

    Thank you.


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