While India’s Hindu majority venerate the cow as the embodiment of ahimsa, or nonviolence, the animal is slowly coming to symbolize the nation’s discord.
Clashes over the cow’s national status are entrenching religious and caste divides while testing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve in pandering to identity politics. And now with key state assembly elections approaching next year, India’s “cow politics” are intensifying.
Earlier this month, police officers began inspecting streetside biryani dishes suspected of containing beef in Haryana’s Mewat district. Cow slaughtering is punishable by up to a decade’s imprisonment and a potentially hefty Rs 1 lakh ($1,500) fine in the northwestern state, while the sale of beef produce is also banned. A state Cow Service Commission, volunteers, and vets are all in place to uphold the state’s law, while samples of the mixed rice dish were also sent to a lab for testing. Meanwhile news surfaced that two Muslim women were raped in Mewat in early September, after their attackers had accused them of eating beef. (Notably the maximum sentence for a convicted rapist in Haryana is 3 years less than a cow slaughtering offense.)
The public crackdown on vendors and suspected beef consumers threatened to reignite latent religious rivalries in the Muslim majority district, and reflects the rise of exuberant Hindu nationalism in India under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the 2014 national election campaign, which saw the right-wing BJP storm to power, Modi, the former chief minister of Gujarat state, stirred fears of a “pink revolution,” which accused the Indian National Congress (INC), the nation’s other major political party, of supporting meat exports and cow slaughter. And with his party’s close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist volunteer organization, Modi mobilized strong support from India’s typically upper caste religious conservatives.
The campaign’s nationalist undertones, and Modi’s victory, seemingly empowered religious ideologues to reassert India’s “Hinduness.” Vigilante cow protection squads, or gau rakshaks, have risen, anti-beef laws in BJP strongholds have tightened, and some party members have been drumming up anti-Muslim rhetoric. And right-wing Hindu groups like the Vishva Hindu Parishad have been pushing Modi to develop a ministry specifically for cow protection—adding to the public resources redirected toward enforcing beef-eating bans and the Rs 5.8 billion ($87 million) already expended on cow shelters during his tenure.
The cow holds a sacrosanct place in Hindu scripture. As a source of milk, the creature symbolizes strength, abundance, and maternalism, while the popular Hindu deity Krishna is typically depicted tending to cows. In effect, the vast majority of Indian states have a range of regulations in place prohibiting the slaughter of cows and the sale and consumption of beef. But with the cow’s reverence deeply wired into the Indian psyche, attitudes toward the animal have become intertwined with nationalism and for some, it’s been held as a badge of Hindu identity. As result, cow-linked clashes with India’s non-Hindu and less religiously conservative minorities have been on the rise since Modi entered office.
Last September, in a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu mob descended on 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq’s home after a local temple had broadcast rumors that the Muslim family had killed a cow and consumed its meat. The crowd brutally murdered Akhlaq and severely injured his son. This incident was followed by a spate of fatal beatings of alleged beef eaters and traders by avowed vigilante groups, including a petrol bomb attack on a Kashmiri truck driver suspected of transporting cattle last October and the hanging of two Muslim cattle traders in Jharkhand in March this year.
Careful to avoid alienating the BJP’s strong nationalist support base, Modi stopped short of directly condemning the violence. After all, despite winning just over 50 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower parliamentary house, in districts identified as having a high concentration of Muslim voters in the 2014 elections, Muslims have not been a traditional constituency for the right-wing party, with the BJP winning just 8.5 percent of the Muslim vote two years ago.
Yet similar vigilante attacks on Dalits, considered the lowest Indian caste, finally elicited public condemnations from Modi last month. The group, formerly known as the “untouchables,” accounts for over 15 percent of the Indian population, with a high concentration in important states, and have formed a target demographic for Modi’s politicking. The BJP won almost a quarter of the Dalit vote in the national elections.
“I feel angry when people, in the name of cow protection, do business” said Modi in Hindi in his first-ever “town hall” style address to the nation in August. “I’ve seen many people who carry out anti-social activities all night, and during the day they wear the garb of ‘gau rakshaks.’” His comments came a month after video footage emerged in which four Dalit men were tied to a car and beaten in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The men were reportedly skinning a cow carcass for its hides—a task normally delegated to India’s lower castes given its association with spiritual impurity, and accepted providing the animal died of natural causes.
The incident sparked protests from Gujarat’s Dalits resulting in violent clashes with police, torched buses and blocked highways. It added to the sense of disaffection for India’s lower castes, who already face segregation, exclusion, and challenges over land, water, employment and housing rights—all legacies of “untouchability.” And in a nation in which localized pogroms, riots, and protests have a tendency to revive nationwide religious and caste-based animosities, with the added potential for the rapid diffusion of rumors, images, and hatred over social media, Modi’s speech was likely designed to contain Dalit anger.
The lower caste group will be a key electoral battleground as the prime minister seeks to make gains in next year’s state elections, in particular, to increase the ruling coalition’s minority representation in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament. Despite its dominance in the Lok Sabha, Modi will require a greater power base in the upper house in order to pass laws that must be accepted by each house. The prime minister is keen to make much needed amendments to labor laws to boost market flexibility, and to land rights legislation to hasten infrastructure projects. Both issues are crucial to accommodating India’s youths in the job market, with a projected 1 million joining the labor force each month.
This makes elections in key states such as Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and where Dalits comprise around 20 percent of the population, essential to Modi’s reform ambitions and plans for a second term, with national elections in 2019. But it means the prime minister will have to walk a tightrope between appeasing the nation’s lower castes, without alienating upper caste nationalists.
And so, Modi’s policy on cow protectionism will be in the spotlight. Several Hindu ideologues and nationalist group leaders were quick to condemn the prime minister’s statements against the gau rakshaks last month, with one VHP regional vice-president claiming: “[Modi] will have to pay for it in the next Lok Sabha polls.” Meanwhile, rival parties will be on hand to mobilize Dalit votes away from the BJP, particularly if attacks on the group continue.
The prime minister’s government has cut red tape, simplified the tax system and reduced barriers to foreign investment. But further progress for the world’s largest democracy will be stymied by its hardened religious, national, and caste identities.
And so, though the cow is also revered for its obedience, its poignant political symbolism will prove to be a stubborn roadblock on the nation’s journey forward.
Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University with a focus on statebuilding, ethnic politics and conflict. He tweets @tejparikh90.