On Tuesday, a 55-year old Muslim man died after being beaten by a cow protection gang in Rajasthan. This brings to the total death toll of people killed by gau rakshaks in the past two years to six. At least a part of this breakdown in law and order owes itself to the attitude of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has passed draconian laws against bovine slaughter in various states and appeared to, at various times, publicly condoned the assaults and murders done in the name of the cow.

As part of this politics, on Wednesday, the BJP defended gau rakshaks in Parliaments by bringing up what is a holy cow for the Indian republic: the freedom struggle. Here’s what Union minister for Commerce, Nirmala Sitharaman said:

I would like all of them [Opposition], particularly the members of the Indian National Congress, to recognise that cow protection was part of our freedom movement. There is nothing new in it.

Good old days?

At first glance, the statement might seem silly and indeed it did lead to some expressions of outrage from the left. However, this was maybe an example of the Golden Age fallacy, where people assumed that historical figures and politics was perfect even as the present is mired in degradation.

Cow protection didn’t become India’s top political issue in 2017 overnight. There is a strong history and background to it that allows the BJP to garner such widespread public support while championing the bovine cause. In effect, Sitharaman is right. Cow protection was a significant part of the freedom movement, championed by a person no less than Mohandas Gandhi himself. That said, given Gandhi’s own ideas of non-violence and ahimsa, there also does exist a gulf between gau raksha in, say, 1920 and the draconian laws and lynchings that constitute cow protection in the India of 2017.

Holy cow

The belief that the cow is holy has a long history in many strains of subcontinental belief. As India entered the modern age, the cow therefore intruded into current politics. Right in 1857, Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had to outlaw cow slaughter in the city of Delhi to prevent Hindus and Muslims from fighting each other – rather than the British sieging the city.

The first organised cow protection movement was started by Dayanand Saraswati and his organisation, the Arya Samaj, in the late 1800s. Cow protection societies mushroomed under the aegis of the Arya Samaj across modern-day Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Given the tempers around the cow, the first large-scale Hindu-Muslim riot also featured the cow and took place in 1893 in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh.

In Punjab, the home of the Arya Samaj, on the ground, a large number of Arya Samajis were also members of the Congress and Congressmen were involved in cow protection groups. In Maharashtra, Bal Gangadhar Tilak himself patronised cow protection as a political issue.

This was repeated across north India, where the popularity of cow protection meant that Congressmen often supported the cause of the gau rakshak. “The Congress at the local level was sometimes indistinguishable form the movement for the protection of cattle,” writes historian CA Bayley commenting on the north India of the late 1800s. This meant that in 1891 in Nagpur, the Gaurakshina Sabha (Cow Protection Assembly) held its meeting right after the Congress session and in the same pavilion with a large number of Congress delegates attending. The most popular gau rakshak in north India at the time, a gent named Sriman Swami even attended the Congress session in 1893.

Enter, Gandhi

However, till then, Anglicised elites, who probably did not personally identify with cow protection, dominated the Congress. Moreover, the party had a limited existence in rural India, where cow protection feelings were the highest. Cow politics, therefore, would really occupy centre stage only with the rise of Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi’s personal Vaishnava creed meant that he was fastidious about vegetarianism. Moreover, his use of religious imagery was crucial to building a mass base for the Congress in rural India. Both reasons, personal and public, probably contributed to Gandhi’s lifelong use of the imagery of the cow in his politics.

In 1920, months after the launch of the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi spoke at a goshala, a cow shelter he had founded in Bihar, laying out just how important he thought the cow to be.

Cow-protection is the outward form of Hinduism. I refuse to call anyone a Hindu if he is not willing to lay down his life in this cause. It is dearer to me than my very life.

While cow protection was never an official aim of the Non-Cooperation movement, Gandhi often used the rhetoric of the cow to convince his Hindu support base to in turn support the Muslim cause of the Khilafat. Writing in his magazine Young India, in May 1921, Gandhi would argue, “The Hindus’ participation in the Khilafat is the greatest and the best movement for cow-protection. I have therefore called Khilafat our Kamadhuk [a magic wish-fulfilling cow from mythology]”.

Cow slaughter=man slaughter

In 1924, Gandhi, presided over the Cow Protection Conference in Belgaum and said that “Swaraj would be devoid of all meaning so long as we have not found a way out of saving the cow”. In the same speech, he would also go on to compare cow slaughter and man slaughter calling them “two sides of the same coin” – a statement that acquires a rather ominous meaning when read in 2017. To people who said that cow slaughter was mentioned in the Vedas, Gandhi argued that the “interpretation put upon it could not be correct”.

Gandhi would also connect the eating of beef to that of caste. “Every Harijan [Dalit] knows that one of the essential conditions of being a good Hindu is to abstain from taking beef or carrion,” wrote Gandhi in a letter.

 “Therefore my formula is that those Harijans who are in the habit of taking beef or carrion should be induced to give it up, irrespective of whether the temples are opened to them or not, purely on the ground that beef and carrion-eating is prohibited in Hinduism”.

The major difference here with forms of cow protection politics today is that Gandhi never called for cow-slaughter legislation and, at multiple times, criticised gau rakshaks for targeting Muslims. In keeping with his philosophy, Gandhi hoped to convince Muslims to give up eating beef voluntarily rather than use force and violence. However, his emphasis on the cow for his politics and the heavy religious and moral idiom that he would use when talking of cow protection naturally created fertile ground for further cow politics. And, of course, the politicians who would follow Gandhi would not share his belief in non-violence.

Congress’s role post 1947

The significant role of cow protection during the freedom struggle meant that almost immediately after independence, the Congress started to clamour for legislation against cow slaughter. A prohibition on cow slaughter entered the Indian Constitution as a non-enforceable Directive Principle and within a decade of transfer of power, three Congress states had enacted laws banning the killing of the cow.

Cow and calf, the election symbol for the Congress under Indira Gandhi.

Cow politics continued to gain strength and in 1966, gau rakshaks stormed Parliament leading to the police shooting down seven attackers. Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda, an enthusiastic supporter of a cow slaughter ban, was fired for the incident. And right till his death in 1982, Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s most well-known disciple, would keep going on short fasts-unto-death in order to demand a national ban on cow slaughter.

In effect, the long history of cow protection in Indian politics illustrates the conundrum of trying to marry secularism and democracy. Secularism might look great on paper as a way to organise the state. However, the almost instantaneous connect the religious idiom gives to a mass politician has meant the long life of Hindu symbols such as the cow in Indian politics and its adoption by figures as diverse as Mohandas Gandhi and current Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Adityanath.