It was while at Buxar that I saw for the first time the hypocrisy of Hindus on the issue of cow protection.

With these words begins Cow Protection and My Changing Perception of Religion, a sub-chapter in Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s memoir My Life Struggle. He was a fascinating personality. A wandering sanyasi, he took to reforming the Bhumihars, claiming for the community a status on a par with the Brahmins.

A meeting with MK Gandhi in Patna drew Sahajanand into the Non-Cooperation Movement and political activism. However, within a decade or so, he grew alienated from Gandhi, not least because of the latter’s propensity to give a religious tone to politics.

He then blazed a trail as a peasant leader, spearheading a movement against oppressive zamindars in Bihar and earning fame across the country. He is arguably the father of the farmers’ movements in India.

Sahajanand became “convinced” of Hindu hypocrisy on the cow issue in 1921. He was then in Buxar, Bihar, preparing people to participate in Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. By also articulating the angst of Muslims over the dissolution of the Khilafat, the movement had triggered hope of Hindu-Muslim unity and greater social harmony. As a harbinger of this, the Muslim League passed a resolution in 1919 asking Muslims not to sacrifice cows on the festival of Bakr Eid.

To ensure the newly fostered communal harmony did not unravel, Sahajanand decided to intervene in the annual cattle fair in Buxar. He reminisces in his memoir:

In this situation, I felt, unwisely perhaps, that in this time of Hindu-Muslim harmony the slaughtering of cows associated with these cattle fairs posed a potential danger to such harmony. 

The memoir was written in 1940, so it was only in hindsight that he concluded he had been unwise to intervene in the cattle fair of 1921.

The fair took its name after the venue, Brahmpur. The Brahmpur mela, typically, would start on the occasion of Maha Shivratri in February-March and last a month. At the mela were sold cows, oxen, horses and water buffaloes. People bought the animals they needed – for milk, for working the fields and transportation.

To the fair also came “professional” butchers. Buying cattle outside the market for slaughter was a risky proposition for them. Sahajanand explains why:

They would necessarily have to buy secretly and under false names in order to avoid detection and this would all be done at a very considerable financial cost. It is also the case that if their identity were disclosed, these people might well be robbed and criminally assaulted. 

So, in 1921, Sahajanand adopted a three-pronged strategy to ensure cattle were not sold for slaughter at the Brahmpur mela.

First, he and his volunteers spread the word in and around Shahabad district, of which Buxar was then a part, that people should not bring cows and oxen to the fair. Second, they picketed all approach roads to the fairgrounds to “prevent cattle from being brought there for disposal”. As for the third element of the strategy, Sahajanand writes:

We have volunteers moving about to assure that no cows or oxen, which might have reached the fair despite our efforts, were sold to butchers. We identified as many butchers as possible and had our volunteers follow them wherever they went, quietly informing the cattle sellers that they were butchers.

Former Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav pays tribute to Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. Photo credit: IANS

Unexpected resistance

His plan nearly went awry because eight distinct interest groups wanted the fair to be a resounding success. Since each group stood to gain financially, they banded together to oppose Sahajanand and his volunteers.

There were the Rajput zamindars on whose grounds the fair was held. For every animal brought to the mela, they imposed a fixed levy, and fewer cows and oxen meant a loss of revenue. At the fairgrounds was a temple of Brahmeshwar Baba, to whom visitors made offerings, which would increase substantially during the mela. Sahajanand observes acerbically:

It thus follows that the priests, who are effectively contractors of religion and who are called Brahmans, as well as Kshatriya zamindars, described as defenders of the faith in the sacred texts of the Hindus, both desire that the mela should be a grand success.    

The third interest group comprised those contracted to ply boats from the ghats. Since cattle were brought from across the Ganges by boat, a flop fair militated against the interests of these contractors.

The fourth group was of cattle merchants and agents engaged in sale and purchase. The fifth comprised those who treated the Brahmpur mela as a wholesale market – they purchased cattle here to sell at higher prices in distant districts.

For the government – the sixth interest group – the fair was a source for supplying meat to British troops. The seventh group comprised butchers, who were in the crosshairs, so to speak, of Sahajanand and his volunteers.

When Sahajanand’s volunteers began to picket the approach roads, the Rajputs, Brahmins, ghat contractors and agents complained that the cow protectionists were burning holes in their pockets. If they did not oppose Sahajanand outright, it was perhaps because they did not wish to be seen as encouraging cow slaughterers.

But they did their best to nix Sahajanand’s campaign, which did indeed curtail the activity of butchers. They were persuaded to leave Brahmpur, and Sahajanand and his volunteers accompanied them to the railway station. There, an unseemly sight awaited Sahajanand. He describes it thus:

It was at the station that we found Brahmans and other Hindu agents of the butchers active on their behalf, and this with ritual sandal marks prominently displayed on their foreheads and large sacred beads around their necks.

They were “extremely encouraging” of butchers to defy the cow protectionists, Sahajanand recalls.

I was afraid that if the police now gave the butchers active support in making their purchases, a riot might well ensue and everything would be lost.

From Sahajanand’s account, it is clear only he and his volunteers and the butchers were apprehensive of violence breaking out. Given the backing of powerful local interests, the butchers could as well have defied Sahajanand, but they did not. They agreed to depart from Brahmpur once their travel expenses were defrayed. A sum of Rs 200 was quickly collected from people at the fair and the butchers left. “Only then could we breathe more easily,” Sahajanand writes.

The Buxar experience made him view religion in “clearer perspective” as it was a “rude shock” to his “religious orthodoxy” and had “almost driven” him to “distraction.”

For a long time thereafter, he thought the Hindus were pursuing cow protection out of their “ignorance and hypocrisy”. But after two decades of reflection, he concluded:

Since then, I have come to believe that it is in fact Hindus who are 100 per cent responsible for cow slaughter. And this is true even today [1940, that is].

This assertion in his memoir is preceded by a deft analysis. He states that it is not that “God and religion” are not a matter of concern to the people. But this is “only in so far as they [God and religion] did not come in the way of their pursuit of money and riches”. He calls his failure to recognise this fact a “great blunder”, which was originally the title of this sub-chapter.

‘A great blunder’

It was a blunder because he thought in Buxar, as elsewhere, “mere Gods and mere religion were in mortal combat with the great god mammon, and lost. In this confrontation between spiritualism and materialism, spiritualism suffered a great defeat.”

Might not Swami Sahajanand’s experience have a lesson for us in 2017? In 1921 as today, a variety of interests, including Hindu farmers, traders, beef exporters, dairy owners, butchers, owners of leather factories and suchlike, would want cattle fairs and markets to operate without hindrance. Opposed to them are cow vigilantes and protectionists, who too operated in 1921.

Only today, in contrast to 1921, the central government has framed cattle sale rules in an attempt to script a victory for “spiritualism” over “materialism”, albeit through a show of the state’s might and tacit encouraging of cow vigilantes and their violence. Not for them such methods as persuasion and non-violent picketing. Not for them a thought for those who are dependent on cattle to make a living.

Not for them also the sage words of Sahajanand, who ends his account of his experience in Buxar thus:

Religion is not a public thing…Religion is an individual, personal experience, meaningful only in individual terms. In this sense it is not a general, public phenomenon, but rather highly personal.

Who is to tell this to gau rakshaks drunk on power and baying for blood?

This account is based on Culture, Vernacular Politics, And The Peasants: India, 1889-1950, an edited translation of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati’s Mera Jivan Sangharsh (My Life Struggle) by Walter Hauser with Kailash Chandra Jha.

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.