“Congratulations Maharashtra: It is now safer to be cow than a woman, Dalit or Muslim in the state”, a Tweet by anonymous but popular commentator @RushieExplains went viral on social media when the President of India, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, signed into law a twenty-year old legislation banning the slaughter of cows, bulls bullocks in that state, making it the 23rd state to criminalize the production or eating of beef and beef products, in fact the possession of the meat, a serious offence inciting a five year prison term. The irony was because the current punishments under Indian law 2 years for drunken driving, the sort indulged in by film stars and billionaires, 2 years for manslaughter, three years for theft, 5 years for cow slaughter, 7 years for conversions by priests, specially if involving Tribals and Dalits to Christianity. Indian law has no punishment for marital rape.
The cow as the holy animal of Hindus has always been a disputed belief. Prof D N Jha in his book ‘The Myth of the Holy Cow’ explains this misrepresentation of cow’s holiness. Rigveda has references of cow being one of the most commonly consumed food item among the Brahmins. The practice of cow slaughter was an integral part of the Aryan cult. Jha writes cow and bull meat was one of the favourite delicacies of the Hindu deity Indra. Swami Vivekananda, whose name is now a chant in the corridors of power said: ‘You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it.’ [Vivekananda speaking at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California, USA (2 February 1900) on the theme of ‘Buddhist India’, cited in Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1997), p. 536]. Further research sponsored by the Ramakrishna Mission established that “Vedic Aryans, including the Brahmanas, ate fish, meat and even beef. A distinguished guest was honoured with beef served at a meal. Although the Vedic Aryans ate beef, milch cows were not killed. [C. Kunhan Raja, ‘Vedic Culture’, cited in the series, Suniti Kumar Chatterji and others (eds.), The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol 1 (Calcutta: The Ramakrishna Mission, 1993), p. 217].
Not many Indians, even if they are non-vegetarians, can really afford meat of any kind in the manner that it is consumed in the rest of the world where the flesh of animals, birds or fish is the main staple, and starch, grain or potato, and vegetables the accompaniment. In South Asia, the starch is the staple, and the protein whether flesh or from pulses, the condiment to make it palatable or moist. This has to do with the purchasing capacity of the people, rather than any dietary preferences. And unlike the West where prime cuts of quality beef can be really expensive, the meat of the buffalo, the old and exhausted cow and bulls and bullocks of no further use to the farmer or tradesman are butchered, is about the cheapest protein consumed by religions and ethnic minorities and the Dalits. But even then, the consumption figures are low.
The decision to curtail or ban the meat of the cow, then, is a matter not so much of faith, or economics, as of practical politics, even though the governments claim that bovines enrich the soil and the environment by helping farmers on synthetic fertilizers. The argument is easily countered by critics who point out that marginal farmers can hardly afford to take care of cattle no longer useful as milch or draught animals who then are turned out to die miserably of starvation.
The Congress was the first to poeticize the cow, so to say, and Mahatma Gandhi and his peers in the early 20th century used it to full measure. It would be remembered that the electoral symbol of the cow for years was a pair of bullocks under yoke, succeeded later by a cow and calf. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has hijacked the iconography and the political symbolism. The general elections, and the elections to the state assemblies, some of which the BJP won, culminated in the humiliating drubbing in the Delhi polls. The one cheerful strain through the last year has been the fact that the core vote share of the BJP has remained at just over 30 percent, or a third of the voting public. It is this core that the BJP has to preserve as it cobbles coalitions and economic arguments to win in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. It desperately needs to win big in these two mammoth states which send a good number of members to the Rajya Sabha where the BJP government is in a minority and has been defeated on the Vote of Thanks to the Address of the President. With UP and Bihar in its fold, it can in the next two years get a majority in the two houses of Parliament and be able to enact ay law it wants to. The emotional appeal of the cow will be very useful, even if the misogynist statements of some RSS luminaries put off a section of the people now supporting the party.