It is axiomatic that the easiest, most non-violent way to put an end to cow slaughter is to persuade farmers, most of whom are Hindu, not to sell their cattle that have stopped giving milk. The cessation of supply will automatically deprive abattoirs and freelance butchers of bovines to slaughter.

Hindutva groups have been aware of this basic principle of the market for nearly 140 years now. This is why ever since Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati established the first cattle sanctuary in 1879 and the first Gaurakshini Sabha (cow protection society) at Agra in 1881 – according to Akshaya Mukul in his book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India – Hindutva groups have sought to abstract the cow into an idea.

Saraswati’s purpose of abstracting the cow was to popularise its holiness among the masses. This is not to say the cow was not revered earlier. As Peter van der Veer, in Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, notes, “Foreigners who travelled to India in the sixteenth century report the worship and protection of the cow. There is evidence of institutions to look after old and infirm cattle (gaoshalas) from the same period.”

Given this tradition, it does seem a tad bewildering why Saraswati thought it necessary to wage a battle for cows.

Was it that their slaughter showed a sharp spurt under the British? Was the sharp spurt because of the increasing integration of rural India into a national market that made it lucrative for farmers to sell their cattle no longer useful to them? Did a national market arise because of mass production – for instance, leather goods – that was in itself an outcome of the industrial revolution?

It is hard to tell because of the paucity of data on consumption patterns over centuries.

Nevertheless, the purpose behind the abstraction of the cow by Hindutva groups, beginning from Saraswati, was to tacitly discourage Hindu farmers from selling the animal. There was, obviously, the religious argument pertaining to the cow’s inherent holiness and its ritualistic importance.

But the primacy placed on rationality had Hindutva groups shy away from demanding a ban on cow slaughter as simply a matter of faith. Such an assertion would have seemed irrational, regarded anathema in the emerging culture of modernity.

A list of beneficial properties, therefore, had to be identified and injected into the abstraction of the cow to save it from the cleaver. This trend continues even today, regardless of some of these properties being based on pseudo-science.

Thus, cow’s milk is supposed to protect people from cancer, its urine is believed to have therapeutic values, including arresting the ageing process, its dung can help generate energy, and the animal is now claimed to even exhale oxygen. This is why a judge of the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana High Court wants cow slaughter to be made into a non-bailable offence.

All these attributes were ascribed to the cow that was once considered a symbol of wealth, of nurturing life, as it was the source of milk, butter, and ghee. The mixture of five cow products – milk, curd, butter, urine and dung – called panchgavya was, and still is, used to purify a polluted person. Mukul, in the Gita Press, says panchgavya was offered as a solution to women who “lost their modesty” during the Partition riots.

The abstraction of the cow turned it into a symbol of holiness that also passed the test of rationality. It was presumed that the notion of paap or sin would have a restraining influence on human beings. To top it all, the restraint was dressed as rational – and, therefore, not embarrassing in the emerging culture of modernity.

(Photo credit: Reuters).

Economics of cows

But the abstraction of the cow had to also contend with its economic reality.

The cow, like all animals, has to be fed, cared for, and treated for illnesses. It implies expenses. Treating the cow as holy is not quite akin to worshipping gods, which can be done for free.

As several stories have illustrated previously, farmers rear two or three cows to supplement their income from agriculture – they sell the milk left after the daily consumption needs of their families are met. But once the cow goes dry, farmers sell it, using the proceeds to finance the purchase of a milch substitute. Not to sell it would mean incurring expenditure on which farmers have no returns.

Aware of the implausibility of expecting all farmers to feed cows no longer yielding milk, even after it had been abstracted to reflect holiness and purity, Hindutva groups spawned a string of Gaurakshini Sabhas in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Their strategy was simple – if owners of cows could not be convinced to voluntarily stop the supply of their cows to abattoirs, only the forcible curbing of the demand for such animals could prevent cow slaughter. In other words, hit out at those whose profession it is to buy or slaughter cows, or who run factories using parts of the cow, or whose diet included beef.

From the late 19th century, India witnessed a series of riots over the issue of cow slaughter, including a horrific one in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. It served the political purpose of Hindutva groups.

As Mukul asserts in the Gita Press: “While the movement for cow protection had created a common enemy in the Muslims who practiced cow slaughter, the colonial government was not spared either for interfering with the Hindu belief system and the ritualistic universe.”

The colonial government, Christian to boot, departed in 1947, and the abstraction of the cow received a fresh impetus in the Constituent Assembly debates.

Wishing to have a ban imposed on cow slaughter, and yet shying away from merely invoking religious arguments, Hindutva groups justified their demand on the grounds that it was needed to improve breeds of cows and organise agriculture and animal husbandry on scientific lines.

Their arguments were torn apart by their opponents in the Constituent Assembly, who said that periodic culling of cattle was necessary to improve breeds. These opponents argued that it did not behoove the new modern nation-state, the very embodiment of scientific thinking, to impose a ban on the basis of pseudo-rational arguments.

But the articulation of Hindutva groups was incorporated in Article 48 of the Constitution, which directed the state to strive to prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. Four Congress-ruled states promulgated laws banning cow slaughter. However, the Supreme Court ruled in the 1950s that cattle above a certain age or not giving milk could be slaughtered.

One of the consequences of more and more states opting for an anti-cow slaughter law was that farmers switched from rearing cows to buffaloes – between 1951 and 2012, the cow and bull population grew 23% while the buffalo population grew by 150%, according to a recent India Today report.

The cow and bull population grew, even though at a relatively lower rate, because the Supreme Court verdict allowed the Hindu farmer to deftly negotiate or alternate between the abstraction of the cow as holy and the cow having economic utility.

So the farmer worshipped the cow, took care of it, and milked it. And then when it stopped giving milk, the farmer sold it without asking buyers whether they intended to take it to the slaughterhouse – or elsewhere.

In this manner, Hindu farmers kept their religiosity intact. As for the cow, it occupied a space in which it mooed both as an idea and as a reality.

A shadow fell over that space in 2006, when the Supreme Court upheld a Gujarat law imposing a complete ban on cow slaughter. And that shadow darkled as the cow vigilantes, after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, took to thumping, even lynching, anyone caught ferrying cattle.

Last July, cow vigilantes in Gujarat’s Una town stripped, tied and brutally assaulted four Dalit leather tanners found skinning a dead cow.

Hindutva and political Islam

Unlike farmers, gau rakshaks are engaged with the cow only in its abstraction. There is no compulsion for them to earn a living from it, obviously, other than extorting money from those trading or ferrying it.

When faith is not lived in its contradictions, when its abstractions become guiding principles and morph into rigid rules, then it invariably turns into a political pathology masquerading as militant religiosity.

This trait Hindutva shares with political Islam.

Innumerable scholars on Islamic militants – for instance, Gilles Kepel in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam – have argued that they have resorted to violence because they simply failed to convert a critical mass of Muslims to their idea of Islam. Through violence they seek to impose their idea of Islam on people.

Likewise, gau rakshaks have turned to brutal vigilantism because the abstraction of the cow over the last 140 years has palpably failed to dissuade Hindu farmers from selling it. Their violence is an indicator of their failure, their frustration.

Since Hindus could not be targeted for electoral reasons, as also for the reason for constructing Hindu nationalism, gau rakshaks turned their wrath against those responsible for fuelling the demand for cattle for slaughter. These are butchers, traders, exporters, leather manufacturers and consumers, a large number of them Muslim.

But even this strategy has failed to alter the behavior of Hindu farmers, prompting the Modi government to frame a slew of rules banning the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter in the open market. Nearly 80% of all animals for slaughter are purchased from the market.

These rules will make it cumbersome for farmers to sell animals. It will be incumbent upon them to inquire from buyers what their intention behind their purchase is, whether they intend to take it to the slaughterhouse. Should they transgress the rules, an increasingly Hindutva-adhering state will torment them.

The ‘Final Solution’

But why proscribe the sale of buffaloes in the animal market?

This is because it will make it hard for abattoirs and meat factories to maintain a steady supply of animals to remain in business. With abattoirs run aground, the paranoid Hindutva adherents will feel assured that cows are not being taken surreptitiously to slaughterhouses, apart from deriving a sadistic pleasure at having hit hard economically, to use Mukul’s term, the “common enemy” – the Muslims.

This can be called the “Final Solution” for imposing the cow as an abstraction on the nation. Through violence and state power, Hindutva wishes to root out both the demand for and supply of cows. If the process adversely affects the sale and purchase of buffaloes, dairy farming and industries, it counts as the nation’s sacrifice for promoting Hindutva.

It will undoubtedly threaten the livelihood of many, including Hindu farmers, as the recent farmers agitation in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh suggests. But it will also have the cow – the real one, not its abstraction – languish to a slow death, uncared for and abandoned in its old age. The cow will then begin to moo desperately to be liberated from its own abstraction.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.