The recent electoral victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party have brought in a spurt of violence in the name of gau-raksha or cow protection in various parts of northern India. Mob violence as well as state crackdown targeted at predominantly Muslim meat and cattle traders, accusing them of cow slaughter, seems to have become routine, going by media reports. Violent vigilante bands calling themselves gau-rakshaks seem to have unleashed a reign of terror, unmindful of the law of the land. Who are these gau-rakshaks and what is their relationship, if any, to cattle rearing and protection?

Cattle protection is not a new phenomenon in India. Semi-arid cattle rearing landscapes of western and southern India are littered with stone memorials – variously called devlis, paliyas or viragals – dedicated to cattle protectors, some of them dating back to more than a thousand years. Narratives around these so-called “hero stones” suggest that the these men fought to death while protecting cattle against thieves and marauders.

These hero stones were erected for people who died while defending cattle theft or siege of cattle by neighbouring villages. Courtesy: Karnataka Itihasa Academy.

However, there is something fundamentally different between these men and the modern gau-rakshak. The difference lies in the location of the medieval self-sacrificing cattle protector in the world of cattle rearers and of the new gau-rakshak who zealously espouses cow protection as a Hindu ideal.

Cattle as wealth

The ethic of cattle protection in the world of medieval cattle rearers was closely related to the fact that cattle defined wealth in the dry, arid regions. In western India, cattle, and not merely cows, were referred to as dhan, vitt, maal, all indicating wealth. Community names like Dhangar and Maldhari emerge from references to cattle as wealth. The existence of a number of cattle fairs and markets spread all over western India attest to the idea of a vibrant economy based on cattle trade. Cattle traders, particularly Banjaras, routinely bought cattle from villages on their way to cattle markets or fairs, while also supplying cattle to villagers.

Krishna and Balarama Taking the Cattle to Graze Folio from a Bhagavata Purana Manuscript 1520-40. Museum Rietberg, Zurich

These landscapes were also sites of conflicts and violence over cattle that was viewed as war booty. Early medieval narratives of state formation refer to cattle raids as war strategy among rival groups. In archival records from 17th and 18th century Rajasthan, references can be found of village communities herding away each other’s cattle and conflicts being brought up for recovery and arbitration. British administrators in Rajputana and Punjab refer to networks of cattle lifters and traders, called rassagirs who engaged young men to steal cattle for ransom. One of the gravest accusations against the nomadic cattle traders Banjaras in the 19th century ethnographic accounts was that of cattle lifting, for which they were notified as a criminal tribe.

To counter the lifters emerged those who extended protection to cattle and their herders. Village heroes who died either protecting or acquiring cattle were venerated and began to be worshipped by people. While such deities can be found in each village and hamlet, in north-western India, Pabuji, Tejaji, Gogapir and Ramadev are examples of those who have acquired wide following. These are particularly venerated by Hindu and Muslim groups engaged in cattle herding, animal husbandry and ones that deal with cattle by-products like wool and leather, most of which are listed as scheduled or other backward castes.

The history of cattle protection can thus be seen through the two interwoven narratives, one of cattle as wealth in arid agro-pastoral landscapes, and the other of deities venerated for their association with cattle by cattle-rearing communities.

The Rajput connection

It is interesting to note that most of the folk deities venerated for extending their protection to cattle-herding communities are either believed to be Rajputs – like Pabuji or Gogapir – or appear to be operating in the ambit of heroic traditions associated with Rajputs, like the Jat deity Tejaji. However, medieval cattle protection narratives that centre around cattle raids by Rajputs indicate that Rajputs themselves were involved in cattle rearing and trading. One of these is that of the 14th century Rathor Rajput Pabuji who died while rescuing cattle of a Charani from a fellow Khichi Rajput.

As Rajputs emerged as royal aristocratic lineages around the 15th century, they increasingly portrayed themselves as protectors of cattle rearers rather than as herders, or traders. Protection of cows, as also that of forts and women, particularly against Muslims, became a defining feature of a martial Rajput identity as it emerged in medieval north India. In this process, the narratives that emerged around cattle protection also shifted ground from conflicts between rival herding groups to conflicts with Muslims. In newer narratives it was Muslims who abducted cattle, ostensibly for slaughter, leading to cattle raids and feuds being read in communalised contexts. The practice of violent cow protection, along with insistence on vegetarianism, as we see today, draws upon a rather narrow reading of the medieval Rajput-Muslim conflicts and creates a binary of the “Hindu” herder against the “Muslim” butcher.

The modern militant gau-rakshak views himself as an inheritor of the martial tradition where the cow, as well as women and nation, become sacred objects to be protected. The new gau-rakshak, however unlike his Rajput “ancestor”, is often not a cattle rearer or herder, as has been observed in several instances of violent attacks on cattle traders.

Cattle as deity

The making of the cow into a sacred object removes it from its material context, where cattle was seen as wealth, to be aspired for and acquired through raid or trade. In this context, cattle protectors and lifters operated within cycles of exchange, where acts of theft and protection acquired meaning. In these cycles of exchange, traders, skinners, tanners and even butchers were important stakeholders playing vital roles in the survival of agro-pastoral economies. Existence of dairy, meat, wool and leather industry in agro-pastoral zones attest to the interdependence of these groups on each other.

The modern gau-rakshak is neither a herder, nor a trader, skinner, tanner or butcher. He is not a stakeholder in the agro-pastoral economy of cattle rearing. The modern idea of gau-raksha, based as it is on the sacredness of the cow, turns it from wealth into deity. It separates cattle trading, skinning, tanning and butchering from cattle rearing, operating under assumption that these activities are not parts of cattle rearing cycles.

The new gau-rakshak does not realise that the sustainability of cattle rearing depends on cattle retaining mobility and exchangeability, and not on its becoming a sacred liability, which the herders are likely to let loose if they cannot sell their cattle. No number of gau-shalas and pinjrapoles will be sufficient to accommodate the number of cattle that cattle herders will have to let loose because they cannot afford to keep them. Unless the practice of gau-raksha is separated from its ahistorical association with the sacred, and cattle rearing is viewed as an economic activity, the modern gau-rakshak will prove to be the death knell of cattle rearing communities in agro-pastoral zones.

Tanuja Kothiyal teaches history at Ambedkar University Delhi and is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert, CUP, 2016