Unholy Cow: Hindu Nationalism’s History of Beef and Blood

Three years ago, on a warm night in a small city in northern India called Dadri, Mohammad Akhlaq and his family spent a typical evening together. They ate lamb for dinner, and then the men went to bed while the women cleared up. No one in the family realized that a rumor had been spreading through Dadri all day: that someone in town had killed a cow.

Cow slaughter is illegal in twenty-four of India’s twenty-nine states, including Uttar Pradesh, where Dadri is located. The cow is considered sacred in Hindu culture, and those in India who do eat beef tend to belong to communities of lower Hindu caste or of other religions entirely. Nearly two-thirds of Dadri’s residents are Hindu.

A neighbor accused Mohammad’s family of the crime, and by the evening, a mob had surrounded their home. Angry villagers carrying bricks and swords pushed in soon after dinner, demanding to see what the family had been eating that evening. The terrified women, in the midst of their housework, swore their meal had consisted of lamb, not beef.

But the mob did not believe them. They dragged the sleeping father and son outside and beat them in front of the house, in full view of a growing crowd. Some onlookers were enthusiastic, others horrified. A few even tried to intervene, but were unsuccessful. It took nearly an hour for police to arrive. By then, Mohammad, who was fifty-two, had died. His son survived, but sustained a serious brain injury and was permanently disfigured.

The Dadri lynching was one instance of a growing trend of cow-related violence in India. In 2016, two Muslim cattle traders in eastern India—one of whom was just fifteen years old—were beaten and hanged by the side of a road. Six months later and some eight-hundred miles further west, four men beat a Muslim couple to death in their own home and raped their nieces—fourteen and twenty years old—because they believed the family were “beef eaters.”

Perpetrators of such violence often call themselves cow “protectors.” They justify their actions by citing the sanctity of the cow in Hinduism: they insist that when people eat beef, they are violating Hindu rights. They claim legitimacy because the practice their movement descends from, and seeks to preserve—cow veneration—seems to be rooted in ancient scripture.

This notion of longstanding tradition leads many Hindus (not just vigilantes) to claim a kind of inherited virtue. They take deep pride in their dietary abstinence and treat those who do consume beef as inferior, dirty, even sinful. While cow vigilantes are extreme in their resort to cruelty and violence, many Hindus sympathize with their intentions.

But cow protection is not merely the unfortunate byproduct or distorted relic of an ancient belief system. It’s actually infused with, and deeply implicated in, systems of power and oppression that only arose in India within the last few centuries. It’s no coincidence that in the beef industry, laborers and consumers alike are predominantly Muslim or of lower caste. These groups have a long, bitter history of marginalization in India, and any movement that associates their practices with savagery, as the cow protection movement does, can only serve to reinforce their oppression.

I: Uses, Misuses, and Abuses of Scripture

Cow veneration stems from an ancient principle called ahimsa, which prescribes nonviolence towards all life forms. Accordingly, many Indians observe vegetarian diets; India has one of the lowest rates of per capita meat consumption in the world. Even among those who relax this restriction in favor of seafood and poultry, many still avoid eating beef.

Cows have long been placed above other kinds of livestock because of their unparalleled capacity to supply humans with useful materials. Their milk can be used to produce yogurt, butter, and ghee, a type of clarified butter that is a staple in Indian kitchens; their dung is an excellent fertilizer.

The fact that cow veneration seems to be guided by a kind of agricultural pragmatism leads many to believe that the practice must be thousands of years old, dating to the agrarian beginnings of Indian society. But the work of historian D. N. Jha exposes an inconsistency between content of early religious texts and their modern interpretation. In particular, he shows that Hindus held diverse perspectives about dietary ethics, challenging the claims of many cow protectors (and sympathizers) about the history of beef avoidance.

Many ancient Hindus ate plenty of meat, including beef. Sometimes, they even used cows in ritual sacrifices. In one text, a widely respected sage proclaims his deep appreciation for the meat’s tender flavor. Even though some texts encourage followers to avoid cow slaughter, few treat cows as “inviolate” or suggest that to slaughter a cow or to consume its meat would be to commit a grave sin. The cows that were given this status appear to have belonged to Brahmins—the highest caste, that then specialized in religious scholarship—and were often given in exchange for priestly or scholarly services. Many Hindus saw other cows as perfectly acceptable sources of food or tokens of sacrifice. It’s also important to recognize that while beef avoidance was seen by many ancient Hindus as a virtuous practice, few expected to hold the people around them to the same standard. The idea that the killing of cows anywhere, by anyone, was an implicit violation of Hindu “rights” simply did not exist.

Still, as time went on, the practice of cow veneration took root in Indian society, and from it emerged a complex hierarchy based on food. The special role that was afforded to Brahmin cows gradually came to be understood as deriving from the high status of the caste with which they were associated, instead of from the services for which they were given.

Cows also became identified with notions of feminine virtue and maternal devotion for their submissive, docile natures, and because of the way they selflessly nourished their human domesticators. These ideas have persisted; in much recent literature that advocates beef avoidance and cow protection, explicit references are made to “mother cow.”

If cows were so pure, so virtuous, so sacred, then the people who killed them and ate their meat seemed to demonstrate a deviation from a fundamental Hindu principle. Diet, then, became viewed as an expression of caste. If diet did not yet explicitly confer value, it certainly indicated the latter: those who ate beef were clearly low down in India’s caste hierarchy, those who avoided beef but continued to consume other kinds of animal flesh were somewhat higher; vegetarians, who more completely incorporated ahimsa into their daily lives, were higher still. The perceived purity of an individual’s diet supposedly reflected something deeper about their spiritual character, which in turn indicated a level of sophistication, of status, and, so, naturally, of power.

The peculiar belief tying diet to purity led to a stricter understanding of caste delineation. Because purity was achieved in part by diet, and otherwise transferred through filial relationships, it became taboo to marry or even eat with someone outside one’s caste. Centuries later, settlers of the British Raj would take offense to the Hindus who refused to “pollute” themselves by eating with them, white non-Hindus. The matter was further complicated with the arrival of Muslims in India, who eschewed pork but felt no qualms about eating beef. Modern cow protectors and their allies often claim that beef-eating came to India with the first Islamic conquest, that the savage practice was brought over by similarly savage, ruthless invaders. This is manifestly untrue—Jha’s analysis shows that there have always been beef-eaters in India—but arrival of Muslims did fundamentally alter the role of the cow in Indian politics and society.

India was ruled by Muslims from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, but the most powerful, notable Islamic dynasty was the Mughal Empire, which was more or less continuously in power for three-hundred years starting in the sixteenth century. The Mughals left indelible marks on Indian history, culture, and society. It was a Mughal emperor who, as a tribute to his favorite wife, commissioned the grand, delicately beautiful mausoleum that is now a world-famous icon of India: the Taj Mahal. The Mughal period also marked one of the first times in Indian history that the cow was explicitly used for political gain. Many emperors refused to eat beef or to serve it in their palaces; some went so far as to impose restrictions or total bans on cow slaughter—in an effort to accommodate the belief systems of Brahmins, who sat at the top of the caste system. These actions presented a new way of understanding the cow. No longer just as an object considered by many to be sacred, it was a tool whose religious value could be wielded to serve a political end.

Similar policies were adopted by Hindu rulers like Shivaji, a seventeenth-century warrior king who claimed that the slaughter of cows amounted to the “oppression” of Brahmins. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that these rulers were more sincere because they belonged to the religion whose beliefs they claimed to be defending. Their eagerness to gain the support of powerful members in their society may have been equally rooted in self-interest.

Yet the symbolism of a Muslim ruler personally and publicly engaging in beef avoidance cannot be overlooked. By the end of the Mughal empire, Muslims had been in power for centuries and many rulers had enacted other policies to emphasize the inferior status of non-Muslims in India. That some Muslim rulers still felt compelled to make such overtures to the Brahmin community—to single out a group distinct from its exploitable brethren and worthy of preferential treatment—is remarkable, and indicative of the emergence of a complex relationship between caste and religion.

II: Divide and Rule

Whatever developments occurred in the pre-colonial period, caste, as we understand it today, was fundamentally shaped by British colonial rule. In his 2001 book “Castes of Mind,” Nicholas Dirks, an American historian of colonial India, argues that colonial-era anthropologists and historians often distorted features of Indian cultural practice, producing a reductive, mythologized narrative that came to define, inform, and even replace systems that had existed for thousands of years in more nuanced forms.

In part, this was simply a consequence of the Western tendency to infantilize non-European societies. But the British also deliberately invoked caste (or, at least, what they thought they understood about caste) to justify their control over the subcontinent. A people marred by intractable social divisions like caste were a people in need of colonial rule—an excellent pretext for a deeply insidious undertaking.

Early colonial-era historians noted the four varnas, or categories of labor, that are often cited as the overarching framework of the caste system. At the top sat Brahmins, who were priests and scholars; then Kshatriyas, who were rulers and warriors; Vaishyas, who were farmers and merchants, followed; Shudras, who performed manual labor, were at the bottom. Individuals who fell outside these categories were external to the fabric of respectable society—these were the so-called “untouchables,” who were relegated to such lamentable tasks as disposing of dead cattle and removing human waste from sewers.

This conception of caste derives from an ancient text called the Manusmriti, which aimed to provide a set of rules of conduct in line with the social framework of varnas. Like all ancient texts, it was written in Sanskrit, which means it was almost certainly produced (and studied and taught) by Brahmins—as religious scholars, they were the only members of Indian society who studied the language. Therefore, the Manusmriti speaks less to Hindu practice than it does to Brahmin ideals of Hindu practice. Brahmins had the most to gain from this construction of caste (note that the varna model places them above all others, even kings). It was Brahmins, not Indians at large, who sought to enforce this particular scheme of social organization.

In pre-colonial India, caste was at once more complex and less significant than the British made it out to be. Indians were aligned along a variety of modes of social organization, like geography and local rulership, which sometimes took precedence over varna. Among non-Brahmins, the more relevant construct was jati, which that identified people by their occupation. Jatis (the word literally translates to “birth”) could be thought of as clans: people belonging to a particular jati shared cultural practices and surnames, and frequently married among themselves. Many refused to share food and drink with members of other jatis in the same way that they opposed intermarriage—this idea of dietary “pollution” kept many jatis socially isolated from one another.

Nevertheless, writes Dirks, British scholars treated the Manusmriti with “canonic importance,” in part because it was useful to construct a narrative of Indian society that essentialized the role of religion. Aided by local Brahmin guides, the British took varna to be the primary or exclusive social delineator in an Indian society that could now be thought of as a Hindu society—a civilization with an inherently religious structure and purpose. Then, the British could write themselves as dutiful agents of the White Man’s Burden, filling the political vacuum they claimed was inherent to India’s tribe-like social structure.

Dirks’ analysis fits with what we have seen of the history of the cow up to the Mughal period. The primary hierarchical distinction that motivated politics of cow purity was not the unwieldy stratification of varnas, which was present but not especially material in daily life, but rather the simple dichotomy between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Brahmins were, indeed, the main purveyors of the notion of caste—it was their holy cows that first motivated the infusion of food and power, and it was they whom later rulers sought to placate—but under colonial rule, caste took on a more central role in the lives of all Indians.

The British were quick to note that caste had the potential to “stand in the way of national mobilization,” as Dirks puts it, but this was more a consequence they happily welcomed than an active goal of their study of caste. Things changed in 1857, when a massive rebellion erupted among the native ranks of the colonial army. Simmering tensions broke when the rumor that a new supply of ammunition had been coated with either beef fat or pork fat spread through a group of native Indian soldiers in a company near Delhi. The sepoys, as they were called, began to protest this injustice—for if either version of the rumor were true, it would be deeply offensive to either Hindus or Muslims. News of the conflict they had initiated quickly spread. Soon, most of northern India was seized by full-on mutiny, agitated by a growing resentment among the native Indian population towards their colonial rulers. The Rebellion lasted eighteen months. In its wake, the colonizers strengthened their bureaucratic infrastructure, promoting the British Queen to Empress of India, creating a role of Viceroy who would serve as the Crown’s arm in India, and introducing an Indian Civil Service that they hoped would reinforce their control.

In this vein of conquest, the British also sought to reconfigure Indian society. In 1951, a military historian named Neil Stewart published a letter in the Marxist journal Science and Society in which he described how this goal was realized in the Army almost immediately after the Rebellion. Military leaders were concerned by solidarity that had emerged among regiments in which diverse groups of soldiers had been allowed to serve alongside each other. Differences in caste and religion “had been rubbed away by contact in the ranks,” providing a collective strength that precipitated and facilitated the Rebellion. As the colonial army could not function without manpower of native troops, sepoys could not be eliminated; so the soldiers had to undergo a kind of forced social restructuring instead, to quell any chance of future rebellion. Sepoys were separated by religious distinctions and sorted into regiments thereof, while British officers retained sole control over leadership and discipline. This transformed the army into a “weapon of repression” that continued to serve colonial ends until India gained independence from colonial rule almost a century later.

This strategy of “divide and rule” was soon wielded to great effect among civilian populations as well. One of the British government’s favored tactics appeared under a guise of an ethnographic imperative, an urge to classify and document caste with meticulous care. “To keep India” after the rebellion, writes Dirks, “the British felt the need to know India far better than they had.” This project was approached in a variety of ways, most crucially in the form of a census that was regularly performed through the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth.

The principal construct they sought to reframe and catalog was jati—a difficult task, given that the broader classification of varna did not always cohere with the individual occupational castes. While varna applied exclusively to Hindus, and was, at that, a primarily Brahmin construct, jatis more accurately reflected the nature of caste in daily life. Similar groupings existed among other major religions, too, indicating the enduring force of the caste hierarchy even after conversion.

Yet H. H. Risley, a British colonial civil servant who took on and expanded the census program in the late nineteenth century, placed great stock in the idea of varna. Whereas jati described a function in society, varna explicitly conferred a sense of worth; after the census became more regular, some caste groups went so far as to organize and petition to be recorded within a higher varna. Thus, the interpretation of caste manufactured by the colonial government was adopted by Indians themselves. It became imperative to secure and maintain a high status, and historians and sociologists have frequently observed that members of lower castes seeking to rise up often adopted practices that had been identified with higher-caste communities. In this vein of upward mobility, the fiercest advocates of the early cow protection movement (as we know it today) were often members of lower castes, looking for ways to showcase their superiority.

Hindus took on the British contortion of caste with great fervor, and contributed to an orientalist view of India by helping to do the work of conflating beef avoidance with high status as well as with Hinduism as a whole. As religious politics grew to define Indian society in the decades that preceded Independence, the cow—though it continued, in many ways, to fall along caste lines—also rose above caste and became a larger symbol of religious identity and division.

III: Cow Protection and the Independence Movement

The first cow protection societies were formed in the 1860s, just a few years after the pivotal 1857 Indian Rebellion. Given what we know about the dietary component of India’s social hierarchy and the deliberate enforcement of this hierarchy by the colonial government, it’s hard to believe this was mere coincidence. It seems unlikely, in fact, that cow protection could have grown from cow worship without the increased politicization of the cow (beginning with the Mughals) and the deliberate stratification of caste by the British.

At any rate, by the end of the nineteenth century, the movement had gained considerable momentum. Many Hindus expressed sympathy with its demand that the British government outlaw cow slaughter throughout the subcontinent. The movement became closely tied with—and was often directly led by—Hindu fundamentalists, who opposed colonial rule because they felt it did not sufficiently accommodate their beliefs and practices. They preached “Swaraj,” or self-rule, a term used specifically by a chief architect of cow protection in the nineteenth century and, later, by Mohandas Gandhi. One might even say that the forefathers of Hindu nationalism were at the forefront of the Independence movement.

Yet the increasing Hindu religiosity framing Independence troubled Muslim leaders; although they, too, craved autonomy from colonial rule, they feared that an independent India whose way had been paved by Hindus might not be especially welcoming or empowering to Muslim Indians. Intermittent but bitter outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims, sometimes sparked by disagreements over cow politics, stoked these fears. Solidarity that made the Indian Rebellion of 1857 possible had all but vanished. Muslims had good reason to be wary of how anti-colonial sentiment was being fueled by cow protection. The movement threatened the beef industry and its predominantly Muslim (and lower-caste) laborers—forerunners of modern-day “cow protectors” sometimes tried to physically prevent cows from being transported to locations where they might be killed for meat or skinned for leather. Moreover, if cow slaughter were ever to be completely banned, it would prohibit the tradition of cow sacrifice on Eid al-Adha, the holiest Islamic holiday.

Some accounts, however, suggest that many of the most outspoken Muslims were neither particularly attached to the idea of beef as food nor to cow sacrifice. They identified beef with their poor, and had already taken to sacrificing goats instead of cows on Eid after centuries of living in a pro-cow society. In India, the festival is actually known as “Bakrid” (Bakra-Eid), stemming from the Urdu word for “goat.” Rather, these Muslims were rankled by the idea of a Hindu religious practice being codified and forced upon non-Hindus. If unchecked, Hindu leaders—even those who spoke out against the caste system and advocated secularism, as some later would—might continue to institutionalize their own religious doctrine, privileging themselves further in the eyes of the law. Cow protection, then, did not merely threaten the relationship between Muslims and cows, but presented a danger to their very position—already subordinate—in Indian society.

In these early decades of the modern cow protection movement, the feature that distinguished it from previous politicized treatments of the cow was its wholehearted embrace of the policing of others. Where earlier, rulers co-opted the cow to gain the support of a tiny elite, large populations of average Hindus now set out to codify their dietary hierarchy in order to elevate themselves. In this way, they wielded the cow as a weapon.

In the twentieth century, the mantle of cow protection continued to be taken up by leaders of the Independence movement. Mohandas Gandhi, in particular, was a fervent advocate of cow protection; he once wrote a fond ode to “mother cow” in which he insisted that the cow’s life of unrequited self-sacrifice made her nobler, more worthy of respect, than our own human mothers, who required assistance in old age and the “expenses of burial or cremation” in death. To Gandhi, the very purpose of Hinduism was to share the message of cow worship with others; “true cow protection” meant “conquering the Muslims by our love.”

As a pacifist, Gandhi strongly disapproved of the violence employed by some of his peers in the name of cow protection. The movement, he said, had devolved into a sectarian “feud” that stood little chance of resolving itself. Like other Indian figures in the struggle for independence, Gandhi
championed tolerance and envisioned an India in which no one religion took precedence over any other. Yet his rhetoric betrayed an attitude of superiority, a prescription of “conquest” over those lesser individuals whose religions had not yet evolved to prohibit cow slaughter. Gandhi occupied a strangely intermediate position among political and religious leaders of his time. He was not a Hindu nationalist, yet his political philosophy had been deeply informed by Hindu principles. He advocated for India to become a “secular state” that did not institutionally prioritize any particular religion over any other, but he vociferously defended and sought to circulate one of his own religious views. Spirituality informed Gandhi’s life and politics. When he was assassinated in 1948—less than six months after India won its independence from Britain in 1947—he was leaving a multi-faith evening prayer that he conducted daily, inviting worshippers of all castes and religions. The killer, a Hindu nationalist, shot him three times, point blank, in the chest. Nathuram Godse and his seven co-conspirators were affiliated with a paramilitary organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which sought to establish supremacy of Hindu ideology and culture in India. The RSS had emerged some twenty years prior on the heels of rising anti-colonial sentiment; leaders hoped that, come Independence, a strong Hindu organization might be able to fill the political vacuum left by the British and, in doing so, quell pluralist ideology. Indeed, just four years after India became independent, the RSS helped form a right-wing organization—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—that would go on to push its agenda in Parliament for the next seventy years.

IV: Beef Lynching and the Foreboding Present

Today, the beef industry employs some two million Muslims and Dalits—members of casteless (“untouchable”) communities—and produces two million tons of beef per year. The meat that is not exported is consumed in the five Indian states that do not attempt to curb the industry, as well as by many of India’s poor, Hindu and non-Hindu alike, who favor beef as a cheap source of protein over the purer dietary restrictions available to caste Hindus. The industry has sustained itself for decades—centuries, even. The trend of lynching Muslims and Dalits in the name of cow protection is fairly recent. According to unofficial estimates, ninety-seven percent of cow-related hate crimes between 2010 and 2017 occurred after the election of India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in 2014.

During his campaign, Modi, who belongs to the BJP, famously circulated stories of his childhood as a train-side tea-seller, choosing to make his lower-caste background visible. This is not unusual—the RSS and the BJP often tout leaders and politicians from lower castes as evidence of their participation in a shifting tide in Indian social ethics. Yet these examples only tell part of the story—while many local politicians and, indeed, some influential ones have belonged to lower castes, the vast majority of the BJP’s internal leadership remains dominated by Brahmins and other “forward” or upper castes.

The reality is that it is in the interest of groups like the RSS and the BJP to appear to care for the interests of lower castes, even if they are reluctant to offer ideas for constructive policy initiatives to eliminate discrimination and violence. Rather, their broader goal is to secure a Hindu hegemony in India. Frustrated lower-caste Hindus seeking people to blame for their misfortune and struggle are an excellent group with whom to build an anti-Muslim coalition. To this end, much rhetoric of the Hindu right invokes an image of a pan-Hindu movement united around a common resentment for legacy of Muslim colonial rule and an interest in protecting core Hindu values. Modi is at the forefront of promoting this vision, and his ascent to power reflects the country’s acceptance of these values. He even speaks Hindi with a strange, anti-Muslim affectation—he avoids common words in spoken Hindi that are borrowed from Urdu (which is quite similar to Hindi but owes some quarter of its vocabulary to Arabic) and replaces them with arcane words of technically “pure” Sanskrit origin. His most ardent sympathizers may not understand everything he says, but the symbolism is present nonetheless.

Politicians on the Hindu right often appear to imply that threat of a Muslim invasion or takeover persists; some warn of “love-jihad,” a conspiracy that suggests Muslim men are falsely declaring love for young Hindu women in droves in the hopes of marrying them and converting them to Islam. Others allude to the cow, proposing stricter criminal punishments for cattle trading and, in some radical cases, advocating for a total national ban on the industry. These proposals do not have to mention Islam explicitly for Hindu vigilantes to know who to blame—after centuries of distortion and misunderstanding, the cow has successfully been cast as an object of Hindu sanctity. Indeed, more than half of cow-related attacks in recent years have targeted Muslims, while some ten percent of the victims have been Dalits.

Predictably, Modi and other BJP politicians have refrained from expressing unequivocal criticism of the violence. Some behave as though the crisis has no religious component, speaking up only when crimes have been committed against Dalits while ignoring the far more frequent attacks on Muslims. Others make blanket statements condemning violence as an ineffective solution while maintaining their commitment to cow protection. Thus, India’s mainstream Hindu right enacts religious violence while leaving the dirty work to zealous mobs, denying accountability for the lynchings they help incite.

The post-Modi rise in cow-related violence has been especially significant in states led by BJP governments like Uttar Pradesh, where Mohammad Akhlaq and his son were lynched in Dadri in 2015. This is partly because officials within these states are unlikely to be especially critical of such attacks. India’s Culture Minister, who is from Uttar Pradesh, described the Dadri killing as an “accident” and a “misunderstanding.” These comments, which might not immediately make sense in the context of a mob killing, were likely in reference to conflicting reports about the kind of meat that was found in the Akhlaq home. The attackers naturally believed it was beef, though the family insisted they had been eating lamb. Forensic tests conducted shortly after the attack confirmed the family’s claims. Yet there are some who would argue that, if they had indeed been eating beef, the attackers might reasonably have been “provoked” into their crime. Some eight months after the attack, a new lab report found that the original samples from Akhlaq’s home had come from “a cow or its progeny.” Lawyers assigned to defend the attackers planned to use these results to argue that they had, indeed, been compelled to violence. Later, it was revealed that the meat that caused all this may not have even been found inside the home—some reports placed it in a trash can some distance away.

But these particulars—the exact nature and location of the pieces of meat that supposedly triggered this attack, and the questionable veracity of each conflicting report—are less important. What is perhaps more telling is that the initial forensic tests were ordered by police investigators, as though Mohammad Akhlaq’s last meal was at all pertinent to the gruesome way in which he was killed, as though his death might have been something less than murder, his killers less than culpable, if he had been eating beef.

The myth of the cow, peddled by a fundamentalist right-wing regime and embraced by fierce, frenzied mobs, has thus been neatly adopted into systems of justice and bureaucratic enforcement. Amid the fervor, ahimsa—the prescription of nonviolence from which cow protection slowly emerged—has been quietly and brutally forgotten.

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