India has been touted as a land of “unity in diversity” for decades. I have my doubts about the “unity” part, but I have none regarding the latter. It’s intensely diverse, and its population profile complicated. Of course, the idea of India didn’t quite exist before the British colonized it, and it could be argued that India is simply a relic of British imperialism. Nevertheless, it exists as it is, and the “diversity” part is mainly because the British sought to bring the huge South Asian landmass together under their standard. They followed the policy of divide-and-rule, fractionating the natives on the basis of their creed, in addition to the fractures that had already existed. As it turns out, since independence/partition, India has shown obvious signs of a union that has been strenuously cobbled together. Anyway, that’s another story.
But there is a story to tell. The story of the cow. In India, Hindus have long held the cow sacred. They worship the animal and hold it to be as holy as a mother; the proposition of the “holiness” of the mother, somewhat in contrast to the general patriarchal premise, by the by, is seemingly an essential feature of every religion. “The Mother is Holy, but only if she is a faithful servant of God (monotheism), who is male, or goddesses who are basically sidekicks or servants of a higher ranked male god. In any case, the highest ranked is inevitably male (polytheism).” Ancient Indian societies used to be built around the cow, with agriculture being heavily dependent on bovine animals. A policy of protection of the cow was central to the popularity of many rulers, especially Muslim ones, who were deemed tolerant and wise. After independence, it was apparently noted that protection of the cow was necessary to sustain the predominantly agrarian economy of India. At the same time, animal husbandry was also encouraged, as a result of which there is an abundance of milch cattle in India today. But the cow continues to enjoy exclusive constitutional protection. I’m not an animal slaughter enthusiast, but I also don’t see the reason why people should not have the freedom to choose what they eat. From my personal point of view, it disgusts me to think of any animal being slaughtered, and if I would have my meat some other way (never mind the commercial implications there) if I could. But I do need my meat because of its nutritional value, and because it’s delicious. It’s true that eating meat involves killing of animals, but then if you had to suspend your natural survival instincts in order to exercise your compassion (i.e not take any life in the process of nutrition), you might as well practise inedia, -which by the way, is pseudoscience, and has actually led to deaths in different parts of the world- or adapt to a diet of stones and sunlight. Properly planned, high tech animal husbandry methods can certainly help replace cattle that have been felled for the purpose of human consumption, and subsidization of good breeds for farmers can help sustain the economy. That’s really the best human beings can do while not sabotaging their own interests. All it needs is a willingness to implement such measures and an open mind. It is true, however, that there are genuine concerns regarding possible health consequences of eating meat, especially red meat and processed meat. There are also environmental concerns that are associated with beef production, which is a significant producer of greenhouse gases. Further, studies have shown that the great volume of antibiotics that are used to cure livestock leads to greater antibiotic resistance development. These facts are meant to be discussed and debated in the public sphere, so that people can make informed choices, not to be co-opted by religious fascists, if at all they have knowledge of these facts.
People who actually don’t eat meat out of principle and ethical concerns, are not likely to go around militating against those who choose differently, because that would defeat the point of their own freedom of expression. Ruling dispensations in India have often betrayed a tenderness for the cow. As I pointed out before, tenderness for animals (not just cows) is an emotion I share myself, and I would much rather not have them killed if I could. But -to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens- tenderness for the cow becomes an overtly political matter when it is preached to gain political leverage in a Hindu majoritarian atmosphere. This is more so when Hindu fringe elements take to militancy in order to protect the cow, and the ruling party gives them free rein to do so.
Did you know that California is powered by cow dung? Or that “foreign experts” predict “volcanoes, earthquakes and drought” as eschatological punishment for killing of holy cows? That cow urine is a panacea? No? Well, according to a certain Indian lawmaker, these are true facts. It’s so stupid, it would be ludicrous if it were not so grotesquely false. When you consider the fact that this is the kind of misinformation that is used to mislead and radicalize illiterate, uneducated and deeply religious rural folk, and that actual lawmakers are patrons of such vigilantist projects, it begins to look almost diabolical. Actually, I take that back. It’s convenient to knock the “illiterate” and “uneducated”, but the “army of cow protectors” has in its ranks lawyers, doctors and students as well, people who would be considered educated. That even they buy such nonsense and take up such potentially life – threatening tasks under its spell is bewildering and consternating enough, and at least in my view, no less dark and surprising than the rapid radicalization of Muslims -cutting across all layers of the socioeconomic hierarchy- by jihadist ideologies all over the world. So in a way, the Holy Cow is to Hinduism what Muhammad is to Islam. They shall not be profaned. Of course, there is the critical difference that -reasonable doubts about the existence of any such individual as Muhammad notwithstanding- one is long dead while the other is real. Despite the difference in levels of obscurantism, they are neck and neck in terms of stupidity.
There has been no dearth of political patronage for the cow in India. It has always been about appeasing the Hindu majority. In fact, political leaders can make utterly cretinous, tongue-in-cheek comments like the aforementioned lawmaker, and be seen as forwarding the interests of their constituencies. In a polity where caste and creed are the heart and soul of political allegiance, narrow – mindedness and idiocy can fairly be expected to go hand in hand. But this is by no means a new phenomenon. That noted sage, the Noble Soul, the indisputable “Father of the Nation”, “Mahatma” Gandhi was probably the greatest Indian political figure who espoused the cause of the Holy Cow. He says, “The central fact of Hinduism….. is cow-protection. Cow-protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem on pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dub-creation of God. The ancient seer, whoever he was, began with the cow. The appeal of the lower order of creation is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow.” It’s another thing that mothers in India continue to be seen as “poems of pity” and “holy” as I mentioned earlier, rather than mortals equal to any other human being, but this preachment is so obviously of a religious nature, you couldn’t tell whether or not this came from a religious authority, if you didn’t know who its author was. It was the same man who taught his starry – eyed followers that earthquakes had a supernatural cause. For a man who tirelessly preached ahimsa , and used its tenets to promote the idea that non-violence would ultimately give India freedom (which, unfortunately, some people in India believe to be true), the suggestion that he accepted the divinity of a God who was violently exacting and retributive seems a bit out of place. But that just accentuates the hypocrisy underneath, and gives clear evidence that he was conflating religion with hardcore politics. His ploy was ingeniously opportunistic for the state of affairs in his time, and showed his political shrewdness in using religion and the idea of the passive aggression of “ahimsa” to gain political mileage and leadership. The continuation of the same in today’s time is a tired excuse for an anachronistic, unimaginative demagogue with an ulterior motive to earn votes through populism. They only have the “Father of the Nation” to look up to, who in turn, is apotheosized and co-opted by all kinds of political figures in India.
As an example of how dangerous the cow delusion can get, recently a Muslim man from a village in northern India was lynched simply under the suspicion that he had beef in his refrigerator. And you thought lashing bloggers as a punishment for speaking out against religious totalitarianism and in favour of freedom of expression was appalling and medieval. By the way, a charge-sheet is yet to be made in the above case, more than a month after the incident took place, and the government cannot be trusted to help provide justice to the man -assuming ‘justice’ means anything to someone who is dead- and his family who survived him because of its right-wing leanings. Preventing killing of animals is one thing, killing humans merely on suspicion of killing a particular animal is quite another. And the whole thing takes on an entirely different colour when there is a possible complicity of the ruling “democratic” oligarchy involved. It is a form of rationalized zealotry by fringe elements who thrive in a near-fascist state. In another recent case, the mere mention of “beef” on the menu led to right – wing vigilantes attacking a restaurant. What’s more, the police raided the place in order to investigate the matter, rather than bringing the irate zealots under control first. And it wasn’t even cow’s meat. It was buffalo meat, which is legal in the concerned jurisdiction. So the police are complicit in this kind of fanaticism as well. I don’t know if I personally have much faith in such a democracy, or an excuse thereof. As long as a piece of legislation continues to be abused by fanatics and corrupt politicians, there can be no true liberty, and hence no practical implementation of the theory of democracy. I have respect for all life, but I cannot let cows and fanatical idiots govern me, if I do want to be governed at all.
For perspective, consider how the generic female individual is treated in India. She is a burden on the family, meant to be married off as early as possible. With families that are very poor and ignorant, this is understandable, but this attitude is near – pervasive. The girl’s “safety” is a primary concern for her parents, and apparently marrying her off will emancipate them. There is a very good and real reason to be concerned about the safety of the female individual in India, but such attitudes only reinforce the idea of vulnerability of women. Besides, in most cases, the perpetrators of violence on girls and women are known to the victims. Marrying them off is not likely to offer them much protection either -in case things go wrong- as marital rape is not recognized as a crime in India, again because religious beliefs and long – cherished “cultural values” come in the way. There are many apologists for status quo (some of whom are self – proclaimed “humanists”) who don’t see how married women could deny their husbands their inalienable right to have sexual intercourse with them. After all, marriage is a “licence for sex”. Never mind the possibility that the woman might actually have been married off to this guy against her will in the first place, assuming that she is old enough to be called a “woman”. Even so, “culture” demands that “good” women should literally kowtow to their husbands, perform pointless religious rituals, such as in praying for long lives of their husbands and brothers (without that symbolic love -however manufactured– being reciprocated in any symbolic way) and “keep them happy”, read “carry out their orders”. Personal experiences may vary largely, but this is, in general, what it is like. Women and girls who dare to express themselves and to live as free individuals rather than perennial dependents, run the risk of being violently abused. So, in such an atmosphere of patriarchy and utter gender insensitivity, where basic human rights and basic legal protection are a luxury, and anyone raising their voice against atrocities are deemed feminist conspirators by some, and “bad” women by some others, the obsequious adoration that people shower on goddesses is a phenomenon that beggars belief. Every year, believers spend millions on celebrating the slaying of mythical demons by goddesses and their marriages (no surprise). Foreigners, innocent of the importance of images to idolaters, are being made to apologize or else… for daring to use such images as tattoos on their bodies. Such vigilantes are increasing in number and strength, unabashedly. Cows and goddesses, then, have their protectors. Only the issue of cows is a clear case of politicization, and goddesses don’t need any protectors because they don’t exist. The truly serious issue of equality of women is only used for generating sound bites during hustings and pre – election campaigns, and for appealing to emotion through commercial films. Indeed, there are stricter laws in India in this regard than before, but laws have hardly ever changed attitudes, it has rather been the other way round.
The truth is that conservative forces feel threatened by enlightenment and in turn threaten those who actively oppose the status quo. Hypocrisy comes alive in the actual plight of cows in India, especially when their utility has run out and are banished by their loving owners. They are left to explore the earth and spend their retirement eating garbage, and if they are lucky enough, die after mistakenly having consumed plastic bags. Consider how parts of an ancient Ayurvedic text suggest that beef has medicinal value, while in other parts it advises that the cow be worshipped. Of course, neither idea has much practical or scientific currency, if any. But the contradiction itself suggests how confused the whole idea of piety and religious doctrine coexisting with the idea of well – being of human beings was, even in ancient India. Also, consider how convenient this whole cow business is. In Hindu mythology, Ganesha, a god with an elephant’s head, mounts a mouse (Apart from being lazy -which almost all Hindu gods apparently are, needing animals to transport themselves despite possessing supernatural powers- he is also obnoxiously pot – bellied). Traditional Hindu rituals involve worshipping the animal mounts and companions along with the deities. The cow, for example, accompanies Krishna. In a similar way, snakes, tigers and elephants are also worshipped and feared. People have no problem setting traps, using poisoned bait or keeping cats as pets to kill mice, though. Firstly, because it’s much easier to get rid of them because they appear less threatening. Also, they are practically of no immediate use to the average human. You cannot milk them, cannot use them for agriculture, cannot keep them in zoos for entertainment or use them to survey forests. However, that is apparently changing in some parts of India, of course aided by astrology and religion. Interesting. Secondly, they are a real nuisance and they are well documented to have wreaked life – threatening diseases. By Hindu logic, however, they should be worshipped as well, and not killed. Hypocrisy also comes alive when people are almost self-mortifying in supplication towards female deities, but treat their human counterparts as little better than slaves. Remember how India is all about “unity in diversity”?
Welcome to India, where cattle and goddesses are held in higher esteem than the human female.