“The Prohibition for slaughter of cow (sic) and its progeny, which would include bull, bullocks etc, should be included in Fundamental Rights or as a Constitutional Mandate anywhere else, as an Article of Constitution. It should not be kept only in the Directive Principles or/Fundamental duties as neither of these are enforceable by the courts. The amendment of the Constitution should also be made for empowering the Parliament to make a Central Law for the prohibition of slaughter of cow and its progeny and further for prohibition of their transport from one State to another. The Parliament should then make a Central law, applicable to all States, prohibiting slaughter of cow and its progeny. Violation of the Law should be made a non-bailable and congnizable offence.”

This demand to amend the Constitution to ban cow slaughter, prohibit transport of cows across states and to make it applicable to all states and ensure it is a non-bailable offence was not made by fundamentalist Hindu groups but by a government commission, the findings of which were quoted by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in 2005. The judgement, otherwise notable for declaring cow dung more valuable than the “Kohinoor diamond”, offers some clues to the emergence of terrorism in the name of the holy cow.

Make no mistake, the killing of Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old Muslim dairy farmer in Alwar, Rajasthan, earlier this week, is now part of a pattern that appears to fit this description of terrorism (cobbled together from various explanations): The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, designed to induce terror and psychic fear for political or religious purposes.


Gautankwad: Terror in the name of cow

Someone on social media, that simultaneous repository of truth and lies, called this emerging strain of terrorism Gautankwad: Terrorism in the name of the the holy cow, derived from aatankwad, the Hindi word for terrorism. Gautankwad is more dangerous than the conventional variety of terrorism because it is either condoned or supported by the state. This support may not be material, yet, but it is systemic and systematic, and it is subverting the institutions meant to act against such terrorism.

When Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched to death in Dadri in 2015, after rumours and allegations were spread that he had eaten beef or when Majloom Ansari and Imtiaz Khan were hung from a tree in 2016 in Jharkhand for ferrying cattle, the state said these were “isolated incidents”, a term beloved of Indians to either justify what should never be justified or simply to ignore inconvenient facts (it is the same term used by Delhi to describe the racism and violence against Africans). As this timeline indicates, Gautankwad is no longer about “isolated incidents”. Official justifications grow not just about the deification of the cow but the violent Hindutva culture coalescing around the unfortunate animal (otherwise left to eat garbage, plastic and live and die on India’s streets and cow shelters – in Kanpur, 152 cows died in five months).

The Rajasthan home minister said there were faults on “both sides”, as his police proceeded with cases against the murdered farmer and his brutalised sons by these non-state actors. His chief minister condoled a terrorist attack in Stockholm, but cannot bring herself to say anything about the man lynched to death by Gautanwadi terrorists in her state.

India’s minister for minority affairs, a Muslim, denied the Alwar attack even happened.


India’s minister for urban affairs, a meat-eating man from a state where almost everyone eats meat, said he avoids food banned by the constitution – implying beef – but of course the country’s founding document has no such bans (not yet at least).

Normalising the cult of the cow

In the USA, they talk and struggle against what they call “normalisation”, the process of accepting hate and falsehoods to push populist and majoritarian agendas. But the American normalisation faces great resistance from society, media and institutions. In India, normalisation is proceeding with much greater speed and vastly less resistance.

The police routinely file cases against victims of Gautankwad instead of the criminals – or terrorists – who perpetrate the atrocities. This week in Maharashtra, members of the Bajrang Dal accompanied the police in beef-locating raids on illegal slaughterhouses. Gau rakshak dals, or cow protection forces, spread across the cow-belt states of the vast Hindi-speaking north India form the core of Gautankwad. They train with weapons for judgement day (essentially, a time when they will get a free hand to attack Muslims) and ally with the local police when they can.

Vast swathes of society, including national institutions, have already been normalised and official resources are poured into augmenting the cult of the cow.

The Cow Protection Police Task Force in Haryana is headed by an officer of the Indian Police Service. Last year, that officer, Bharti Arora said the “smuggling of cattle or cows is a crime of the highest order”. In Rajasthan, before the lynching of Pehlu Khan, the police proceeded against a hotel that was attacked by Gautankwadis, who alleged it served beef. No such evidence was found, but the police filed cases anyway and municipal officials shut it down. In the latest case, Alwar’s dead dairy farmer is being investigated for transporting cattle without a permit from the district collector. That such alleged violations are somehow even offered as justification for murder indicates the advent of anarchy. That such details become a topic of national discussion and dissection indicates how the normalisation of hate has progressed.

So, no one in government had a problem with the union minister for – well, culture – Mahesh Sharma showing up to pay tribute to the man accused of killing Akhlaq, the alleged murderer’s body kept in a tricolour-draped coffin. A man accused of murder was thus normalised into a Hindu martyr, supposedly reflecting Hindu sentiment.

Volunteers of the Gau Raksha Dal (cow protection squad) prepare to inspect trucks on a highway in Taranagar, Rajasthan. Image: Hindustan Times

It is Hindu sentiment that now provides the overarching justification for every violation of the law by those who profess to love the cow. Gautankwad is that sentiment’s sword arm. The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 was clearly a criminal act, the result of a breakdown in law and order. Today, even the Chief Justice of India implies the building of a Ram temple at the spot is a matter of faith and calls for a “negotiated settlement”. How do you negotiate criminality? And how do you negotiate when one party to the settlement runs the state and brandishes its non-state sword arm?

If India sets down this path – indeed, it has made long forays in that direction – the normalisation of India’s non-state actors will not be difficult. It will be alright to beat, lynch and kill first, justify later – without logic or rationale, as in the way of all terrorism – knowing that India’s political and judicial institutions and media will back you up, although the Alwar killing has come as a jolt even to many who, in theory at least, support the primacy of the cow.

And, so, those who murder can get away, but those even suspected, however wrongly, of “trafficking”, harming or eating a cow – particularly if they have Muslim names – can be locked up, in the case of Gujarat now, for life. Normalisation does not happen by chance. Organised or organic, there is a design. The Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Chhattisgarh said he will hang anyone who harms a cow. The BJP chief minister of Gujarat was more grandiloquent. “Protection of cows,” he declared, “is the single-most important principle towards saving the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation.”

None of these declarations are isolated incidents. They are the result of a gradual escalation and hardening of Hindutva, Hindu majoritarian rhetoric, and the growing freedom allowed by the state to the non-state actors of Gautankwad. To be sure, the demand to ban cow-slaughter dates back to before independence, and most BJP-ruled states were gifted their cow-slaughter laws by Congress governments. But many of these laws were loosely enforced, partly because it suited the Congress’ style of convenient secularism and partly because of a recognition that such laws were bad in practice.

A secular state cannot simply cave in to majoritarian demands. History and the modern fate of nations that are succumbing to such instincts – look at Pakistan, Turkey, Israel, Iran, parts of Europe and many Arab countries that were once secular – indicates a loss of not just founding ideals but a subversion of institutions and a loss of the rule of law.

In double-quick time, it becomes normal to hate, kill or terrorise in the name of God. On the other side of normalisation lies anarchy, and that is what India is on the verge of normalising.

Samar Halarnkar is editor, IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.