A cow walking in Delhi, by John Hill (Own work). Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

A recent order by the High Court in the north-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh brought the spotlight back on India’s sacred animal — the cow. While rejecting the bail application of a man charged with an offense under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, a judge at the Allahabad High Court observed that the cow is “part and parcel” of India’s culture and should be declared the national animal.

​ In his order, the judge called upon Parliament to declare “cow protection as a fundamental right of Hindus”. Further, the judge passed-off a rather erroneous claim saying that “scientists believe that the cow is the only animal that both inhales oxygen and exhales oxygen.”

Although unauthenticated claims about the cow — its milk, dung and urine — have proliferated in the past, experts say that it is probably the first time they have been reflected in a court order. The judge’s observation has therefore set-off a debate as to whether the scientific community must counter such fallacies. One scientist said that “in the absence of vocal opposition from scientists, non-experts, whether celebrities or legal minds, might begin to mistakenly assume scientists agree with the claims.”

Faith and reverence

Reverence for the cow is a central theme in the Hindu way of life and its milk features in religious rituals. Cows are venerated as an embodiment of Kamadhenu, fulfiller of all wishes. The ancient scriptures, symbols and imagery speak of the value of a cow. Not surprisingly, cow slaughter is banned in most parts of India under national or state laws and the consumption of their meat is also largely prohibited.

The prevailing counter-narrative argues that cattle — even cow — meat was not sacred during the Vedic period when Hinduism’s oldest sacred texts were composed. In his controversial book, The Myth of The Holy Cow, Dwijendra Narayan Jha points out that the cow got its revered status around 500 AD, with the growth of an agrarian economy, when Hindus began to reject animal killing and shift towards vegetarianism. Cattle began to be seen as a sign of wealth and were considered sacred. Regardless of the sanctification, in several parts of the country eating beef is part of the local dietary tradition, even among Hindus.

Cow protection debate

Debate about cow protection and the ban on cow slaughter is not new in India. Given that India was ruled under Islamic and Christian value-systems for several centuries, Hindu sentiments have often been provoked by cow-slaughter and beef consumption. In deference to their Hindu subjects, it is claimed that several Mughal rulers imposed a ban on cow slaughter. The cow also became a symbol of the freedom movement against British rule, and rejection of modernizing western values.

One momentous example of this push-back is the rebellion by Indian soldiers of the British East India Company in 1857 — referred to as the First War of Independence in India — against their British superiors for introducing pork and beef-greased cartridges for Pattern 1853 Enfield, powder-and-ball muzzle-loader rifles. The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before use, enraging Muslims, who don’t eat pork, and Hindus, who consider the cow holy.

Secularism vs. religiosity

At the onset of independence from British Rule, the demand for cow protection and a ban on cow-slaughter in India was fractured by the secularism vs. religiosity debate. Ardent secularists like Mahatma Gandhi, while respecting the tradition, considered it was an act of violence to forcibly prohibit the consumption of beef.

U.S. historian Nico Slate in his book Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet quotes him as saying, “It is violence, not non-violence to prevent someone from eating the food he likes to eat … Also, it is not religion but want of it, to kill a Muslim brother in order to save a cow.” The Mahatma believed in the need for reason, and “caring for cows” to “inspire a broader compassion for the entire sub-human world,” writes Slate.

Speaking about an “emotional wave” in the country demanding prohibition of cow-slaughter, Gandhi wrote in August 1947 that many Hindus believed in the “superstition” that India belongs only to Hindus. Therefore, they thought they should “enforce their beliefs by law” even among non-Hindus. “Let us at the outset realise that cow worship in the religious sense is largely confined to Gujarat, Marwar, the United Provinces and Bihar. It is obviously wrong legally to enforce one’s religious practice on those who do not share that religion…” he pointed out.

Debate and dichotomy

Despite several Muslim leaders having historically supported the demand for a ban on cow-slaughter, debates in the Constituent Assembly centered on the secular identity that India wanted to build as against the Islamic identity of Pakistan. Avoiding excessive reference to Hindu religious symbolism, leaders who supported the demand for cow protection and ban on cow-slaughter themed their arguments along economic, cultural and social lines.

However, deeply secular leaders like India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, insisted on letting individual states of the Indian union decide provisions for cow protection. These deliberations paved the way for the creation of Article 48 of the Indian Constitution as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy — governing principles not enforceable by any court — calling for the modern and scientific development of agriculture and animal husbandry and “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

Several members of the Constituent Assembly, particularly those belonging to the minority communities, pointed to the inherent dichotomy in these debates and ambiguity in the provisions related to the banning of cow-slaughter. A Muslim member, Zahir-ul-Hasan Lari pointed to the vague phraseology — “modern and scientific agriculture” and “banning slaughter of cattle” — which “do not fit in with each other.” Rather than be left vague in the Directive Principles, he argued, that “if the House is of the opinion that slaughter of cows should be prohibited, let it be prohibited in clear, definite and unambiguous words.”

Another member, Frank Anthony, representing the Anglo-Indian community, resented the “insidious way” in which provision for banning cow-slaughter was brought in as a Directive Principle, rather than making it a fundamental law. “Why bring in this provision in an indirect way? If it offends your religious susceptibilities, just as much as I expect you to respect my religious susceptibilities, I am prepared to respect yours,” he said.

Hindutva and cow protection

Currently, cow protection is part of the Hindu nationalist agenda. In its report titled, “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities,” Human Rights Watch describes how communal rhetoric by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has spurred violent vigilante attacks against minority groups, including Muslim, Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”), Christian and Adivasi (indigenous) communities engaged in cattle trade, alleging cow slaughter and beef consumption.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) over 50 fatalities were reported from 2016 until the end of 2020 as a result of lynching or mob violence following suspected cow slaughter or trade, with a sharp rise in 2018. Paradoxically, India is one of the top beef exporting nations in the world. According to data published by the government, beef exports (said to be buffalo meat) are valued at $3.17 billion in 2020-21.

Cow science: promoting fallacies

Interestingly, the Allahabad judge is not the only one to have erred on the subject of cows. Several leaders of the BJP and Hindu right have also made dubious claims.

Earlier this year, over 500,000 applicants signed up for a national “Cow Science” exam, which was to be conducted by the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (National Cow Commission), a government body established in February 2019 for the conservation, protection, and development of cows. According to the commission chairman, “The cow is full of science that needs to be explored.” However, the exam was postponed following widespread criticism from scientists and educational institutions. Critics called it a means of mass indoctrination.

Reference materials for the exam made a number of unscientific claims, including that the dung of indigenous cows protected against radioactivity, and that their milk has traces of gold, and that cow slaughter causes earthquakes. Rather obtusely, the exam was backed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) — a statutory body responsible for higher education — which publicised the examination, causing widespread outrage.

A rare provision contained in India’s Constitution under Article 51A concerns Fundamental Duties, which encourage a collective endeavor for building national identity and character. Contained in these provisions is a call to duty for every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” Rather tragically for India, science and logic have become a handmaid of cultural nationalism, to be manipulated and misused to suit the narrow objectives of misplaced right-wing agenda.

Sunny Peter is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. He writes on international affairs, diplomacy, terrorism, ethnicity, social integration, religion and culture. His articles have...