Of the symbols the Hindu right uses to further its aspirations of a Hindu Rashtra, the most recognisable and volatile today is that of the cow. The cow in the devout Hindu imagination is everything but a sovereign animal: a mother, a goddess, a nourisher, generous with her milk, blessed with the strength of maternal endurance and selfless service for her “human” progeny. The Hindu right sacralises the cow and inscribes on her body the idea of a “Mother India” whose patriotic and religious duty is to participate in the making of the Hindu state.

That may mean placing India to become the leading milk producer in the world, or, ironically, given the BJP’s cow protectionism policies – the largest beef exporter as well. The government’s support of gaushalas or cow shelters further leaves the impression that in India, unlike anywhere else, the cow enjoys certain privileges and is more protected than not just other animals but also humans from marginalised communities. To suggest otherwise, that the cow is as much a victim of Hindu nationalism and is instrumentalised to serve fraught human contestations on sectarian, casteist, and fascist lines in India, is to be viewed with varying degrees of suspicion, indifference and dismissal.

The anthro-patriarchal cycle of dairy exploitation

A criticism of the participation of Hindus, including Brahmins and Jains, in the sexual, gendered and violent exploitation of the cow, however, is long overdue. This blindness towards the lived experience of the cow within the project of Hindu nationalism is the subject of Yamini Narayanan’s new book, Mother Cow, Mother India, a skilful blend of meticulous research, narrative, and storytelling that argues that the cow, despite its prominent place in political discourse, has rarely been viewed as a sovereign entity with its own agency and politics. Unlike previous scholarship that primarily focused on the human aspects of cow politics, Narayanan’s focus is on the cow. She contends that even as scholars such as DN Jha and Kancha Ilaiah critique the oppressive structures of the Hindutva right, they inadvertently participate in a form of discrimination based on species membership.

Mother Cow, Mother India proceeds on the basis that the full realisation of “an anti-casteist and anti-fascist politics in India, must then also compose an anti-anthropocentric anti-Hindutva resistance”. To do so, in Narayanan’s analysis, it is milk, not beef that is the focus. The rationale behind this lies in debunking the narrative that it is only cow slaughter that is responsible for violence against the cow. For Narayanan, the hyperpoliticisation of beef invisibilises the inherent violence towards the cow within the dairy industry. As she points out:

“In absolving milk consumers, including Hindus and Jains who commodify milk as sacred, of contributing to cow slaughter, the fetishisation of beef as uniquely responsible for cow killing is a politically strategic way of framing Muslims and Dalits as the only killers of cows in the world’s largest dairy nation…More starkly in India than elsewhere, the milk-and-beef economy operates as a conjoined continuum: there is no beef economy without a milk economy.”  

Mother Cow, Mother India traverses 12 states, taking its reader along the complete process of dairy production. From interviews with dairy farm workers, slaughterhouse butchers, cow vigilantes, animal activists, and state officials, underlined by the radical act of continuously paying witness to the bovines that constitute the dairy industry, Narayanan paints a picture of the complex interrelationships within the dairy-beef continuum that is made up of the legal spaces of the dairy industry and the informal grey or illegal spaces of the slaughter end of the spectrum.

In her observations of dairy farms, Narayanan emphasises that the dairy industry’s very foundation lies in the disruption of the mother-infant bond between the bovine mother and its calf. The mass production of dairy requires the repeated forced impregnations of cows and bulls and the separation of the calf from the mother at birth to divert the milk supply for human consumption. In a reversal of human female infanticide, male calves meet tragic fates where they are either starved to death or slaughtered for the veal and calfskin market. Female calves continue to be impregnated and milked until their last breath thus, never escaping the vicious anthro-patriarchal cycle of dairy exploitation. Moreover, maternal care for bovine mothers is almost absent in most farms, which leads to a high maternal bovine mortality rate, and post-pregnancy complications due to a lack of aftercare as well.

The ‘purity’ of cow veneration

Narayanan’s research reveals a stark contrast to the claims of the cow protectionist movement that paints an image of the cow as having a sheltered space within these gaushalas. It deliberately masks the reality that gaushalas are not just unable to take in the number of cows that the dairy industry discards as “unprofitable”, but they double as dairy farms themselves, continuing as sites of objectification and exploitation of the cow. As the book demonstrates, dairying is not an innocuous activity, where the cow is “happy” to go through multiple cycles of forced reproduction. It requires the use of a lot of force, exploitative reproductive methods, and a total desensitisation to the violence inflicted on the bovine mother-infant calf bond that is essential to maintaining the cycle of dairy production.

In a particularly illuminating chapter, “Breeding Bovine Caste”, Narayanan suggests the maintenance of a multispecies caste system, wherein animals are systematically associated with specific castes – a parallel that echoes the larger social structure. The native cow aligns with the Brahmin, the horse with the Kshatriya, while the pig and buffalo are relegated to the Dalit, mirroring the caste-based denigration of marginalised communities. This intricate interplay reinforces the “subhuman” label assigned to both animals and marginalised groups, perpetuating a cycle of dehumanisation. This casteist hierarchy is used within gaushalas to turn away non-native cows such as Holstein-Friesian, Brown Swiss and Jersey, breeds that are introduced to the dairy industry for ostensibly “scientific” crossbreeding initiatives. Within the logic of “purity” that governs gaushalas, only the native cow ascends the status of “animal”. The rest are simply “not of the right caste”.

What makes Narayanan’s scholarship unique is that it goes beyond unveiling the tangled web of cow politics; it also holds profound implications for anti-caste and anti-fascist politics. By challenging entrenched Brahminical practices of animal exploitation, the book provides an alternative language to interrogate and counter the “purity” associated with cow veneration. It grapples with the interrelatedness between the status of the cow, and the status of the Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim in today’s India, who have all been weaponised, dehumanised, and animalised to various degrees to further a communal narrative.

Dairy workers most of whom belong to the lowest of the Dalit and Adivasi castes, often work in terrible conditions, picking up animal faeces and cleaning their urine, running continuous health, and safety hazards. In the dairy industry, the poor, landless and “low” caste Hindus remain enmeshed in this precarious informal economy while upper-caste Hindu owners reap the profits. On the other end, slaughterhouse workers, in an environment of cow vigilantism, face the multiple vulnerabilities that come from the racialised, casteised and illegal nature of their work. Cow protectionism politics conveniently ignores the fact that as Narayanan writes, “It is impossible to sustain dairying, an industry which requires continuously impregnating and breeding an ever larger number of animals, without slaughtering the “useless” males and “spent” females.” To put it simply, there is no slaughter industry without the violence of the dairy industry to begin with.

Narayanan tackles the often misconstrued link between animal rights and support for Hindu nationalism – a convenient misunderstanding that keeps specieist political hierarchies in place. What it reveals however is more crucial – a need to forge alliances between the animal protection and anti-caste, anti-fascist movements. These alliances should aim to confront not just Hindu nationalism but also the underlying casteist, racist and class structures of animal agriculture. Narayanan’s work is an urgent intervention that stresses the importance of dismantling human domination and exploitation of farmed animals as a fundamental pillar of progressive multispecies democratic politics. She concludes with a contemplation on the potential for a post-dairy society – one that is anchored in vegan agricultural practices that not only sustain livelihoods but also ensure food security for all without the devastating environmental implications that make up the sustenance of current agricultural production.

Mother Cow, Mother India is a clarion call to rethink the politics of cow protectionism, urging its readers to recognise animals as integral political subjects. Narayanan’s groundbreaking research and her reframing of the discourse create an opportunity for genuine anti-caste animal politics – a politics that transcends species boundaries and paves the way for a more just and inclusive society. By deconstructing the sacralisation of the cow and exposing the violence embedded within, Narayanan’s work forces us to confront our complicity in perpetuating systems of oppression and offers a transformative roadmap for a more equal future.

Mother Cow, Mother India: A Multispecies Politics of Dairy in India, Yamini Narayanan, Navayana.