The debate of growing intolerance in India has hit the roof with the Parliament debating over this issue. Several, intellectuals, literary figures and artists have raised their voice against the growing intolerance in the country and in protest some even have returned their awards.
At least four lives have been lost due the assertion of Hindutva forces for protecting the holiness of the cow, the animal many see as cheap source of protean and a part of their dietary habits.
The first case was the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq a 50 year old man at a village in Dadri UP, where an angry mob barged into his house and dragged him to the village street and stoned him to death. This happened after rumours that he had slaughtered a calf and eaten its meat during the Idd festival when Muslims sacrifice animals.
The second incident took place at Sarahan, some 37 km from Nahan, the headquarters of Sirmaur district in Himachal Pradesh where a 20 year old, Mohmmad Noman, a truck driver, was lynched by a mob suspecting him to be smuggling cattle.
In yet another incident, a truck driver Zahid Rasool from Kashmir valley was set ablaze by a mob after his vehicle carrying cattle was stopped in the Hindu-dominated Udhampur, in Jammu region.
In the fourth incident, at a remote village in Manipur state, a 55-year-old headmaster, Mohammad Hasmat Ali was beaten to death by a Hindu mob believing that he had stolen a calf.
These spectacles of human sacrifice are ritualistically going on for protecting the sacredness of an animal. The government of the day calls such incidents an aberration and refuses to accept that there any intolerance in the country.
There is a systematic campaign to market Hindutva ideology after the BJP government have gained power at the centre in 2014. In such campaign cow nationalism has acquired the central place. Those who oppose the assertive nature such cultural nationalism are being persecuted and branded as anti-national.
The Hindu nationalist argument around cow nationalism runs as follows; cow is a scared to the Hindus because it is considered auspicious symbol of luck and good fortune and hence an object of worship.
They argue that cow is not a simple animal but is a mother goddess. Cow’s milk is digestive and a substitute to the mother’s milk. Infants and growing child should be fed on cow milk as it sharpens their brains and raises their IQ level.
Even the cows dung is very useful and is used to paint the mud houses and cakes made out of it are used for making fire for cooking. So does the urine of the cow that has mendicant value. It’s applied on wounds for healing purposes and can even be drunk to cure certain ailments.
Such arguments have built a halo around the animal and cow is branded as a holy creature whose sacredness has to be protected any cost.
Any attempt to degrade the holiness of the animal is considered as hurting the religious sentiments of the Hindus and by this token an anti- national activity.
Linking Cow nationalism with the Hindu identity is an old wine that has changed many bottles. During the freedom struggle, the Hindu Mahasbha in the 1930’s and 40’s had drummed up this issue to placate the Hindu constituency. Their idea was to make India a Hindu nation.
When the secular and democratic vision of India prevailed over the Hindu nationalists, such forces were marginalized after independence of the country.
The idea however never died and fanged again since 1967 after the formation of Jansangh party. Subsequently the BJP, the successor of Jansangh, started beating the same drum. Now when this party is power at the centre, cow debate has once again opened up to attract Hindu votes.
Ancient Indian Historian DN Jha has contested the cow nationalism theory. He says Hindu political parties’ reference of ancient India to justify cow nationalism is historically incorrect. The historian argues that Brahmins use to eat beef in ancient India and cow was not a scared animal in ancient Indian Hindu tradition. The animal was freely sacrificed to evoke blessings of the gods and goddesses and the sacredness of the cow is an interpolation of later date.
The cow debate has opened a Pandora box after being liked with Hindu custom belief and practices. The myth of the holiness of the cow is contested by several groups within the caste Hindus. The entry of the Dalits in the cow debate has brought a new angle to this discourse. Dalit commentator Kanchan Ilaiah questions why cow is preferred and not the buffalo, even the later fulfils all the yardsticks set in favour of the Cow?
Kanchan Ilaiah says cow debate is racist in character because cows are white and buffalos are black. He calls cow nationalism as Brahmincal conspiracy that wants to perpetuate the exploitative nature of the Hindu caste system. He says since Hinduism is marketed by Brahmanis, cow is made a sacred animal and through such symbols Hindu domination is being perpetrated over the dalits and the minorities.
The cow debate has become a political issue in India. Some state governments have made laws against cow slaughter and selling of beef is a punishable offence. States like Maharashtra, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh besides others has banned cow slaughter and selling beef.
This ban is contested by the some caste Hindus in the court of law arguing that their dietary practices cannot be regulated by the governments.
The Muslims and Christians are the prime target of this cow nationalism and the intolerance is growing against them. In their world view, no animal can be held holy or sacred. Such attributes are reserved for human beings. They fail to understand the rationale of linking cow with particular religion and making it a bogey of Indian nationalism. Cow to them is just an animal that nutritional value and as such beef is meant to be consumed for cheap source of protean.
The cow debate, which has opened up in India, may not get settled soon, but whenever it does it will answer some fundamental questions.
First, whether the counters of Indian nationalism would remain the same or will it be, re defined as per the wishes of the Hindutva forces.
Whether the other world views who do not subscribe to the holiness of the cow could be accommodated or will it be gagged as is being done now forever.
Whether the myriad layers of Hindu identity will be split wide open with the entry of new forces in the cow debate, or will they be subsumed in the broader Hindutva identity.
Whether, the government will regulate the diet and nutrition of the people of the country or will the eating habits and dietary practices will be accommodated.
Whether religious minorities like Muslims and Christens and even Dalits will be targeted for degrading the sacredness of the animal or will the rule of law will prevail and the guilty will be punished.
The cow debate is a direct assault on the very idea of democracy and in such case whether, the gains of the freedom struggle will be protected or extra constitutional forces will be allowed to mock at the democratic values.
Since the cow debate is pitted against the rational and secular values it has generated a great deal of heat in the country. The positive side of this debate is that democracy is getting more broad based in the process of rationalising an irrational debate.
[Syed Ali Mujtaba is journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]