The recent mobilisations around the cow in India have little to do with religion and everything to do with politics. The expanded ban on beef in Maharashtra, the vigilante violence in Punjab against those transporting cows, and the shameful lynching of a man suspected of possessing beef in Dadri, are chillingly resonant of the cow protection movement of the late nineteenth century. What we are seeing is not new: but what is of note is the political cache it now commands.

Political opportunism

In the 1880s, north and west India saw a mushrooming of Arya Sabhas and Arya Utkarsh Sabhas. As the names suggest, these were upper caste bodies whose agenda was to protect the status symbols of caste Hinduism: the cow and Sanskrit. Propagating an ancient, original and, therefore, imagined Hinduism, that was unsullied by external influences, these Hindu revivalist organisations targeted Muslim butchers, consumers of beef, lower caste leather workers, pastoralists and others involved in the transport of cattle.

At the time of Independence, some of these organisations acquired formal political identities. One such party, the Ram Rajya Parishad, had minor presence in Rajasthan, in what is now Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. It contested elections on planks such as the revival of Vedic sacrifices, prohibiting lower castes from entering temples, and banning cow slaughter and alcohol.

While the early Hindu revivalists were considered as allies by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadres, their tactics and amateurish organisation were viewed with contempt. This, however, did not stop the RSS from adopting those very tactics when needed. In 1950-'51, after the lifting of the ban for the organisation’s role in the assassination of MK Gandhi, RSS cadres participated in anti-cow slaughter protests. This helped it regain some lost ground, especially when the government of Saurashtra reinforced its prohibition of cow slaughter.

The position of the state

The cow as a symbol, in fact, appears at many key moments of Indian politics. The state’s engagement with it has, however, differed.

During Gujarat’s anti-reservation and communal violence of 1985, Shambhu Maharaj of the Ram Rajya Parishad alerted the Ahmedabad police about the decapitated head of a cow in a crowded marketplace. The local people were highly agitated, he said. On reaching the scene, the police did find the cow head, but they also realised that it had not been noticed by passers-by. They concluded that reports of a furious people were meant to stoke tensions. The head was immediately removed and potential communal violence averted (reported in the Dave Commission of Inquiry, 1990).

While the Gujarat of the 1980s was no paragon of secularism, it still offers a contrast to the responses of government and political functionaries in the aftermath of the Dadri lynching. Union minister Mahesh Sharma has termed it an “accident”, and local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have insisted on testing the meat in possession of the victim’s family – which the administration duly conducted. Meanwhile, leaders of the Samajwadi Party and BJP are debating who does and does not support cow slaughter. The stage is being prepared for the 2017 election to the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly, and the cow has once again been pulled into service.

Hypocrisy of it all

Even as many people lose their livelihoods (and some their lives) over it, the cow is hardly in clover. In the 20 years since 1980-’81, India has lost 1.69 million hectares of grazing land, mainly to non-agricultural activities such as housing, infrastructure development and manufacturing. Meanwhile, land classified as “uncultivable” and “waste” has declined by 6.99 million hectares. This might seem like a good thing, but such land is more often than not a source of animal fodder.

The steady decline in grazing area is being consciously engineered by the very governments that claim to champion the holy cow. Gujarat, for instance, has allowed all its public “wasteland” to be privatised from 2005. This has allowed private companies in many parts of the state to appropriate all manner of public land, including pasture. To placate affected populations, these companies occasionally provide fodder through their Corporate Social Responsibility budgets. However, this is very much clientelistic and erratic, not a right that the real protectors of India’s bovine population, the farmers and others, have traditionally enjoyed.