Vigilante violence, crackdowns on slaughterhouses, and an insistence on vegetarianism have often been the markers of cow protection in India. Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Minister for Commerce, even told the Opposition MPs that cow protection was “very much the spirit behind our freedom movement.”
The history of cow protection, though, goes even further back than the freedom struggle, to the 1800s under Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati, as a strategy to distance Muslims from Hindus.
As the video above shows, the language of nationalism and cow protection flourished over the years, with the idea of revering the mother being woven into the narratives.
The demand for a ban on cow slaughter became a strong rhetoric under the Swadeshi movement and the larger framework of the freedom struggle with Mahatma Gandhi’s support. To strike a balance with Muslims, who consumed beef, he backed the Khilafat movement against the British while indicting cow vigilantism by stating that “those who, claiming to be Hindus, thus resort to violence are enemies of the cow and of Hinduism”.
Although the roots of cow protection were grounded in religious sentiments, a prohibition on cow slaughter was introduced in the Directive Principle of State Policy of the Constitution under the aegis of animal husbandry.
As for the use of violence, the aggressive tone of “gau raksha” had almost escalated into a “mutiny” in 1957 – but failed. The first attack on the Indian Parliament came from a mob of cow vigilantes in 1966, where one policeman died and seven protestors were fired on by the police.
But the violence that has been taking place over the past two years has been strongly communal in nature. Self-styled cow vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to execute the Directive Principle contained in Article 48 of the Constitution, which says the state shall prohibit the slaughter cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle – often leading to attacks on Muslims and Dalits in 2017.