Cow and Gandhi

Irfan Engineer

Upper caste Hindus and Hindu Nationalist Organisations have had ambiguous attitude toward cow as an animal and as a symbol of Hindu Rashtra oscillating between reverence and irreverence. It is only lately that Hindu Nationalists have settled for projecting cow as a sacred symbol—not because cow is considered as sacred in wonderfully diverse and plural religio-philosophical texts of Sanatan Dharma but because it is a good tool to mobilise Hindus around and to project Muslims as binary opposite—process of "othering" them. For Muslims are not only not forbidden to eat cow, a section of them are also involved in the slaughtering industry and cattle trade. Muslim rulers and religious leaders too had ambiguous attitude towards the animal—at times forbidding slaughtering of cow in spirit of living together with Hindus and at times asserting their cultural rights and signify their separateness.

A state that protects cow more than it does human beings from marginalised communities; a state for which, security of cow and criminals is more important than that of human beings from marginalised and vulnerable sections of society, including women, is a state to worry about. A cultural state, as indeed a theocratic state is an anti-democratic state spending massive resources on defence, policing and security of a tiny minority rather than on food security and livelihoods of the needy. Cultural state invests heavily on snooping into bedrooms, kitchens, dresses that women prefer to wear, publishing houses, entertainment industry, media, etc, rather than prioritising equitable development and provisioning of health care and education to all citizens. A cultural state leads to denial of liberties to its citizens, widens inequalities and therefore increases instability.

Cow protection was an important mission for Gandhiji and a part of his non-violence. He was against violence on all animals. "The cow is a poem of pity", Gandhiji wrote, "One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God... The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless." (YI, 6.10.1921, p. 36) "...The cow is the purest type of sub-human life. She pleads before us on behalf of the whole of the sub-human species for justice to it at the hands of man, the first among all that lives. She seems to speak to us through her eyes: 'you are not appointed over us to kill us and eat our flesh or otherwise ill-treat us, but to be our friend and guardian'." (YI, 26-6-1924, p. 214)

However, he was against killing of human beings in order to protect cows. He wrote, (YI, 18-5-1921, p. 156) "I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious." Gandhiji wanted to persuade every slayer of animal and consumer of animal meat to give up and live non-violent life. Cow was not an instrument to promote hatred against anyone, even the butcher. It was an act of compassion towards other lives and practice of non-violence. Gandhiji could secure cow protection much more effectively by appealing to Hindus to support Muslim demand of restoration of Khilafat during the non-cooperation agitation, which even a mighty arm of a state with all draconian powers would not be able to. He wrote in Harijan (15-9-1946, p. 310) "Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it." In his speech in Champaran, reported in YI 29-1-1925, Gandhiji said, '"Unfortunately today we seem to believe that the problem of cow-protection consists merely in preventing non-Hindus, especially Mussalmans from beef-eating and cow-killing. That seems to me to be absurd. Let no one, however, conclude from this that I am indifferent when a non-Hindu kills a cow or that I can bear the practice of cow-killing... But what am I to do? Am I to fulfil my dharma myself or am I to get it fulfilled by proxy? ... But supposing even that I myself do not kill the cow, is it any part of my duty to make the Mussalman, against his will, to do likewise? Mussalmans claim that Islam permits them to kill the cow. To make a Mussalman, therefore, to abstain from cow-killing under compulsion would amount in my opinion to converting him to Hinduism by force. Even in India under swaraj, in my opinion, it would be for a Hindu majority unwise and improper to coerce by legislation a Mussalman minority into submission to statutory prohibition of cow-slaughter... My religion teaches me that I should by my personal conduct instill into the minds of those who might hold different views, the conviction that cow-killing is a sin and that therefore it ought to be abandoned. My ambition is no less than to see the principle of cow-protection established throughout the world. But that requires that I should set my own house thoroughly in order first."

Vol. 47, No. 52, July 5 - 11, 2015