Everyone knows about the 2001 Parliament attack, where nine Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed militants stormed New Delhi’s British-built Sansad Bhawan only to be challenged and killed by the Delhi Police as well as Parliament Security Services personnel.
What is less known is that this was actually the second attempted attack on the Indian Parliament. In 1966, while Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, a mob – led by a troupe of naked Naga sadhus – attempted to storm Sansad Bhawan, demanding that the Union government impose a national ban on cow slaughter. In the ensuing bedlam, the protestors killed one policeman, while police firing left seven gau rakshaks dead.
Indira Gandhi, then a political greenhorn, didn’t flinch either, refusing to ban cow slaughter – a position that even Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government has stuck to even after more than two years in office.
Cows have been a fact of Indian politics for some time now. Mohandas Gandhi made cow protection a key part of his politics. In his book, Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote that he would approach his “Mohammedan brother and urge him for the sake of the country to join me in protecting her [the cow]”. In 1927, he would ask Dalits to give up “serious defects” such as eating beef since “cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism”.
While Gandhi would refuse to ask for legislation banning cow slaughter, typically asking instead to change hearts and minds, his introduction of cow protection as a political tool set an unfortunate precedent. After Independence, in the Constituent Assembly, many Congressmen would call for a fundamental right on cow protection and it was only some skilful manoeuvring by BR Ambedkar which ensured that cow protection only remained a (non-justiciable) Directive Principle.
Nevertheless, the cow was an emotive issue for many caste Hindus and the politics around it only grew. After Independence, when a group of cow protection activists met Jawaharlal Nehru, exasperated, the first prime minister asked them, “Why do you people run a campaign that I eat beef?”. In 1962, in Madhya Pradesh, the Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the current-day Bharatiya Janata Party, circulated pamphlets with drawings of Nehru slaughtering a cow with a sword. So effective was this that the Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Kailash Nath Katju lost his seat to a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member Laxmi Narayan Pandey, who fought on a Jan Sangh ticket, in the 1962 Assembly elections.
In 1966, a committee for cow protection, the Sarvadaliya Goraksha Mahaabhiyan Samiti, called for a mass satyagraha on November 7. The committee was headed by Prabhu Dutt Brahmachari, a freedom fighter who had joined politics as a follower of Gandhi and had then become a religious guru with an ashram near Allahabad. In the 1951 General Elections, he contested against Nehru Dutt, with support from the RSS, with cow protection and opposition to the Hindu Code bills as his platform.
Supported by the Jan Sangh officially as well as some Congressmen in their personal capacity, the November 7 satyagraha managed to attract a massive crowd – some estimates go up to 700,000.
Collecting outside the houses of Parliament, the sadhus, armed with spears and trishuls, then tried unsuccessfully to storm the complex as the Delhi police stood their ground.
Later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would fire her Home Minister Gulzari Lal Nanda for allowing the sadhus to enter the Parliament complex. Doubts had been raised about Nanda’s role in the affair given his earlier views in support of banning cow slaughter.
The Congress, though, would pay electorally for this. The Jan Sangh used the 1966 Parliament attack in its election message, criticising the Congress for not only prevaricating on a national cow slaughter law but also for opening fire on gau rakshaks. The Jan Sangh increased it seats by two and a half times in the 1967 Lok Sabha election, shooting up from 14 to 35.
And while no Central law on cow slaughter was sought to be imposed, the Congress, wary of the religious passions this could incite, went on to enact gau raksha or cow protection laws in various states. Later, the Jan Sangh’s successor the Bharatiya Janata Party would make these laws even more stringent.
In Madhya Pradesh, a law passed by the BJP government is so draconian, that accused under it are to be presumed guilty till they can prove themselves innocent – overturning one of the fundamental principles of criminal law. And finally, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, soon-to-be prime minister Narendra Modi would himself campaign on a platform of cow protection, accusing the Congress of furthering a “pink revolution” – a secret programme to slaughter India’s bovines for profit.