Vegetarianism and Gau Mata: Instrumentalizing Hinduism and Mainstreaming Hindutva
Unlike Semitic religions, Hinduism has amorphous boundaries and lacks core, fundamental guidelines. No God is sitting above watching human beings. There is also no concept of heaven or hell or one book guiding the faithful for eternity. There are some principles that most Hindus agree but nothing is mandatory for being a Hindu. Such lack of core and boundaries makes Hinduism especially difficult to instrumentalize. Still, Hindu nationalists have been successful in making Hindutva the dominant ideology in arguably the most populous country on the planet. This article studies two ideas that Hindu nationalists used during the last hundred years to popularize them as intrinsic to Hinduism and then use these ideas to instrumentalize. These ideas were vegetarianism and reverence for Gau mata (mother cow). Even when historically these ideas are not innate to Hinduism and a large minority of Hindus do not consider it essential to their faith today, these ideas have captured the imagination of hundreds of millions of people and led to two landslide victories for the BJP and Prime Minister Modi.
India is already or soon going to become the most populous country in the world. India’s economy is also growing faster than many advanced economies so it is already world’s fifth largest economy and likely to be the third largest by 2030. India is also the third highest emitter of carbon dioxide by volume in the world, although its per capita emissions were lower than most advanced economies (Dotto and Mogul 2023; ET Online 2022). These statistics makes India’s future important not only for the Indians but also for the whole world. If India becomes a liberal democracy, with an open and growing carbon-neutral economy, in the second half of this century, one can be hopeful about the future of the world and human species. Conversely, if India falters in its march towards a vibrant future, every single person in the world will suffer the consequences.
Rise of religious nationalism, extremism, and populism has weakened democratic institutions in many advanced democracies. Illiberal forces in many countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, have achieved what was unimaginable two decades ago. The attack on the US Capitol and Brexit have shown that the liberal democratic future imagined after the collapse of the Soviet Union is a utopia. Indian democracy is also threatened by illiberal forces. When India decided to become democratic after independence, most of the pundits did not give it much chance. Almost all of other decolonized countries also chose democracy after independence but hardly any succeeded. Considering its poverty and diversity in first decades of independence, Indian democracy was a miracle. Unfortunately, now when it has grown into a middle-income country, with strong democratic institutions and a robust economy, everything that it has gained during the last seventy five years is at risk because of a new kind of extremist and aggressive Hinduism (US Department of State 2022; 2023) . This article focuses on how Hinduism, one of the most open and welcoming of great religions, was instrumentalized to support majoritarianism, hatred, and militancy. The first part will demonstrate that Hinduism lacks a core or clear structure and boundaries. The second part will analyze the growth of two concepts, vegetarianism, and veneration for Gau mata, that were not innate to Hinduism but were used by Hindu nationalists to instrumentalize Hinduism and gain power.
Hinduism is diverse, inclusive, and lacks a core. Even the word Hinduism is not acceptable to all Hindus. Some of them call their religion Sanatana Dharma (translated as eternal or universal order, way or duty) or Vedic Dharma (way of the Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures). Unlike Abrahamic religions, it lacks a common origin story, prophet, God, book, or dogma. God’s existence, its relationship with human beings and religious dogma, the key concerns and reasons of conflict within and among most other great religions are non-issues in Hinduism. Hindus worship animals, believe in magic and demons, and brook fetishism. Religious truth is relative and for the most part inaccessible so what one gets is a complex, sometimes contradictory, assortment of doctrines and practices (Nigosian 1994, 75; Saleem 2021).
Lack of a core collection of religious doctrines and absence of a single god or preeminent personality makes Hinduism is very difficult to define. Who is a Hindu and what is Hinduism are very difficult questions to answer. For instance, J. E. Llewellyn in his book, Defining Hinduism: A Reader (2014) had difficulty dealing with the vastly different positions various scholars of Hinduism have taken on Hinduism. Some writers thought Hinduism was an umbrella term for a variety of similar indigenous religions in India. Others after years of study could not take an unequivocal position on the existence of Hinduism.
Living in an era that is shaped by the doctrines and politics of Abrahamic or Semitic religions and their conflict with modernism and secularity, makes these religions frame of reference for other religions. Hinduism seen through this frame appears deficient or incomplete or flawed, not worthy of being called a religion. However, if one rejects this frame and studies Hinduism impartially, one realizes that Hinduism belongs to a type of religions that have dominated our planet for millennia. Hinduism is similar to or one of thousands of other indigenous religions that grow in a certain place and culture over centuries. Like other indigenous religions, Hinduism “has no single historical founder, no central revelation, no creed or unified system of belief, no single doctrine of salvation, and no centralized authority… Also, there is no clear division between the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ – or natural and supernatural: religion and social life are inseparable and intertwined” (Partridge and Dowley 2018, 143-44). Based on this (indigenous religion) frame, Islam and Christianity would appear particularly narrow, dogmatic, and rigid, not worthy of being called religions. In fact, David Frawley (2018, p. 40) contends that it is “the very beauty of Hinduism is that it cannot be defined in a simplistic manner. It contains all the mystery and complexity, magic, wonder and enigma of life itself” and Acharya Peter Wilberg argues that Hinduism is more modern than Abrahamic religions as “Hinduism is not an ethnically exclusive religion and it understands itself as inclusively embracing the partial truths of other religions from within a higher, holistic perspective. In contrast, Judaism is both an ethnically and doctrinally exclusive religion, whereas Christianity and Islam are ethnically inclusive but doctrinally exclusive faiths” (Wilberg 2009, p. 30).
The above ‘indigenous’ characteristics of Hinduism has led many to call Hinduism a culture or civilization instead of a religion as diversity and complexity in Hinduism is incomparable with any other great religion. Stephen Jacob, for instance, points out that while all religious traditions are diverse, “the diversity of Hinduism is of a completely different order to the diversity found in other religious traditions…There is nothing that you can say about Hindus or Hinduism without some form of qualification. This has led some commentators…to suggest ‘our problems would vanish if we took “Hinduism” to denote a socio-cultural unit or civilization that contains a plurality of distinct religions’”(Jacobs 2010, pp. 6–7).
While studying a religion, it is imperative to apply both emic and etic approaches. When a researcher uses an emic approach, she attempts to understands things through the eyes of the believer. Anthropologists prefer emic approach when they are studying groups, tribes, religions, societies, etc. Sociologists prefer etic approach which requires the researcher to sees things as they are and to make sense of how a religion effects the behaviours, beliefs, and group-belonging in a society or group (Partridge and Dowley 2018, 102). Although, in this article, views of Hindus experts about their religion have been discussed, such as Acharya Peter Wilberg and David Frawley, most of the experts quoted are not Hindus. It is, therefore, important to quote the most famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi, on this issue. Gandhi was accused of not being a Hindu because he had rejected some of the key concepts, such as untouchability, given in Vedas, Puranas, Smritis, Shastras, etc. Gandhi said that according to his belief, unquestioning belief in Shastras (compendiums or books of sacred Hindu knowledge) is not required and Hindu is the one “who believes in God, immortality of the soul, transmigration, the law of Karma and Moksha, and who tries to practise Truth and Ahimsa in daily life, and therefore practises cow-protection in its widest sense and understands and tries to act according to the law of Varnashrama”(Gandhi and Kher 1996, 3).
So, while Hinduism lacks a core, there are some concepts that Gandhi thought made him a Hindu. Unfortunately, most of these concepts are not part of Vedas which are considered by a large section of Hindus as the equivalent of the Bible or the Quran. Vedas, the oldest of the hundreds of Hindus religious texts, are revered by many. Swami Vivekananda, one of the key architects of modern Hinduism, believed that Vedas were divinely revealed. He called Vedas the first and the most complete undistorted collection of spiritual truths. According to him, Vedas deserve to occupy the highest place among all scriptures because while eternal laws were revealed in later Hindu scriptures and other religious scriptures, such as the Bible, but the Vedas were unrivaled in their presentation of the truth. According to Wilhelm Halbfass, Vedas contain nothing or only vague references to the concepts (such as karma, cyclical worldview, ahimsa, caste system, vegetarianism, veneration of cow, Ram, Ramrajya, etc.) and gods that nowadays most people, including most Hindus and Gandhi, associate with their religion. The choice is now believing the Vedas or Mahatma Gandhi as both define a Hindu in different ways.
Professor Romila Thapar calls Christianity and Islam linear religions where change happens the original structure of the religion gradually adapts as it interacts with varying historical circumstances. In contrast, there is no particular direction of progression in the case of Hinduism, a non-linear religion, as it has no original or basic structure. Changes similar to Semitic religions can be easily seen in Hindu sects or traditions, such as Shaktism and Arya Samaj. Hence, it might be more appropriate to talk about Hindu religions, instead of a single Hinduism. Additionally, the religion understood and taught by Brahmans in Sanskrit was very different from countless indigenous manifestations of Hinduism at the popular level. Even beliefs that seem to be common to all sects of Hinduism, such as Karma and rebirth, are disparate. For instance, Vedic heaven (Pitruloka, meaning house of ancestors) is quite different from the Puranic one (Brahmaloka, meaning abode of Brahma or gods or Satyaloka, meaning house of the Truth). The differences between them are of a different order than the squabbles about heaven that divide Muslim or Christian sects (Thapar 1989; 1997). The above discussion demonstrates that Hinduism has lacks core and fundamental guidelines.
Instrumentalizing Hinduism: Using veneration of cow and vegetarianism for Hindutva
It may come as a surprise to many that the word “Hindu” of any of the dozens of religious scriptures of Hinduism. This was a term coined by outsiders to define the inhabitants of Indian subcontinent. It was the British colonialists that divided Indians into two major religious groups, Muslims and those who were not Muslims and practice local indigenous practices. They named the latter group as Hindu as was done by many previous outsiders.
Sanjukta Banerji Bhattacharya, in his article on modern Indian thought (2022), argues that the arrival of British and their gradual dominance, Indian religious thought suffered an epistemological crisis as traditional epistemologies could not explain the 18th and 19th centuries British India. Both Hindu and Muslim religious reformers then tried to imagine new epistemologies or reinvent old epistemologies to comprehend, analyze, and explicate what was happening before their eyes. Liberalism, colonialism, socialism, democracy, rationalism, humanism, nationalism, etc. were ideas that were Western and new to India, albeit a crude version of all these ideas can be traced in Indian political thought. Moreover, expansion of education, which was previously only limited to Indian religious and ruling circles, to a group that was not part of both classes meant debate was now extensive, questioning sources that were previously accepted without even a slight demur. This “jolt” resulted in rise of new thinkers and a renaissance in Indian religious thought. These thinkers understood that their society have to change and adapt but they also wanted to retain and take pride in their own culture and civilization. There was a complex interplay of acceptance and rejection of modernity and Western civilization. The love-hate relationship with modernity can be found in almost all major reformers. For instance, Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84) advocated for widow marriage and intercaste marriage and against child marriage, he also said that no nation could shine on borrowed feathers. Similarly, Rajendralal Mitra (1822-91), a Bengali polymath and first Indian President of Asiatic Society of Bengal, argued that Indians should reject everything that hinders that their country’s progress and accept whatever that helps it develop and supported Western education and widow remarriage but defended child marriage (Chandra 1970). Unsurprisingly, this period of Hindu renaissance, also called (great) Hindu awakening, kindled an interest in ancient India in the Western educated Hindu middle classes. Hence, scholars of this era see a new love for classical Hindu language and literature, a novel focus on ancient Indian history and mythology, and revival of public interest in Hindu scriptures. Later on, in the second phase of this great awakening, reformers and scholars turned insular and there was a rise in xenophobia and hatred for Muslims and Christians as explained below.
The focus of the first phase of this renaissance was social and religious reform. The end objectives might have been religious, social or cultural but political goals was largely absent. Primarily, the idea was how to uplift the community and less to decolonize the country or reassert the community in the political arena. Perhaps it was the effect of longterm political instability, colonization wars, and the 1857 War of Independence that politics took a back seat. Most of the reformers of this stage, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, wanted their communities to focus inward, rejuvenate, and not try to fight the colonial masters or other communities. These reformers wanted Indians to educate themselves and eradicate the social evils that had plagued the Indian communities for centuries. Child marriages, gender discrimination and gender-based violence, lack of Western education, caste system, irrational religious beliefs, etc. were the issues debated and discussed. The revivalism of Hinduism, consciously or unconsciously, brings Hinduism closer to British and Muslim, the colonialists and the other major community. Hence, one sees reformist elements attracted to monotheism and finding monotheistic tendencies in Hinduism. Idol worship is also criticized. Conversely, contentious issues that increased the gulf between Hindus and non-Hindus were given less importance. Vegetarianism or cow-slaughter were either given not much importance or like in other cases, Hindus were asked to reject vegetarianism as their Vedic ancestors used to eat and enjoy meat and beef. Thus, Rajendralal Mitra, Bengali reformer quoted earlier, had no issues writing that not only ordinary ancient Hindus but also Hindu gods and avatars relished sacrificing, killing, and eating beef (Dutt 2013; Bhattacharya 2022).
The second phase starts around the 1870s. The change was gradual but unquestionably monumental. Religious conservatism overpowered progressiveness and reforms were derided, instead of being applauded, not by the orthodox, uneducated Hindus but by the educated. A large section of Western educated Hindus in the 1860s and later embraced tradition, instead rejecting it. Translations of ancient Indian texts, Asiatic society research, and Western education on one hand and racism and colonial exploitation on the other, resulted in a national pride in Indian civilization and a growth in Indian nationhood. The story of this new communal nationalism was fraught with conservatism, reactionary thought, traditionalism, hatred and violence. Strangely, it was not only the young Hindu thinkers who embraced tradition. Even old reformers rejected their statements and positions in favor of widow marriage and women education and liberation and started lauding old Hindu practices. Most writers in Bengal were writing plays in favor of social reform in the 1850s and 1860s. In the 1870s, the trend changed and reform was ridiculed in numerous plays. What was also visible was a hatred for “outsiders”. This nationhood sentiment was not only anti-British, but also showed hatred for Muslims. Muslims, who had lived in Bengal for generations, have been derisively called “jaban” or foreigners since the 1830s but this became fairly common in the 1870s. Indo-Muslim era and culture was rejected and all glory was reserved for the ancient Hindu culture, particularly the Vedic times. Vedas became the repositories of all knowledge and all wisdom. Many organizations, which took pride in the nation, were formed in the 1860s and 1870s. The nation was understood as mostly communal, not universal, in these organizations. Examples of such organizations are the Jatiyo Gaurabh Sampadani Sabha (Forum for the Attaining of National Pride), Hindu Mela, and Sanjeevani Sabha (Rejuvenation Forum). In the 1870s, proving superiority of Hindus and Hinduism over other religions and science became popular. So, the once beef-eating Hindu reformer Rajnarayan Basu gave a lecture on the superiority of the Hindu religion and another famous social reformer, Debendranath Tagore, the father of Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, presided at the meeting in which lecture, called ‘The Superiority of the Hindu Faith’ was delivered (Murshid 2018, 322-28; Bhattacharya 2022).
The rising nationalism and love for Hindu customs resulted in highlighting of two issues that separated Hindus from non-Hindus in India, vegetarianism and hatred for beef eaters. Vegetarianism and hatred for beef -eating was not part of Hinduism (or whatever it was called then) in the pre-historic times. Vedas, the most authoritative religious texts mention dozens of events where cows were sacrificed and eaten. While there are several hymns in praise of cows and animals, killing and eating of animals, including cows, was not considered an injustice to animals in the Vedas. In fact, cows and animals were revered as they played an important part in religious sacrificing rituals, thus giving glory to Vedic gods and preserving life.
As Professor D. N. Jha explained in his book The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009), gods, brahmans, and common people, all liked eating beef. Indra, the greatest of the Vedic gods enjoyed having animals sacrificed for him, At one place in Rgveda, Indra is quoted as saying that his followers cooked fifteen plus twenty oxen for him. Rgveda also inform us, at other places, that Indra has eaten the flesh of one, hundred, three hundred and a thousand buffaloes. Indra especially liked having bulls. Agni, the fire god, is second in importance to Indra in the Vedas. He was also liked eating meat and his staple diet consisted of ox and barren cows
As shown above, cattle slaughter, including cow slaughter, and beef and meat eating were common during Vedic period. Cattle were considered sacred but their sacredness didn’t mean that they could not be eaten. The special sacredness of the cow and ahimsa (non-violence) were not part of Vedic literature except at the very end. Even after their appearance, for centuries afterwards, cattle sacrifices continued and beef eating was not abhorred upon. It was only after the appearance of Buddhism and Jainism in the seventh century BC that ahimsa (non-violence) was adopted by these communities. However, initially ahimsa was not linked with vegetarianism. It was only later that ahimsa led to an abhorrence to cattle slaughter and vegetarianism. Fearing to be surpassed by their powerful Buddhist spiritual rivals, Brahmins started integrating ahimsa in their conceptual repertoire, gradually giving up animal sacrifice. Even after the revival of Hinduism or Brahmanism, from third century BC to third century CE, for six hundred years, vegetarianism was not the rule in sacred and other texts. Bhagavad Gita, Manusmriti, and Arthashastra espouse vegetarianism but also violate it. It was only after the appearance of Krishna cult of Vaishnavism that vegetarianism became popular and beef eating became a taboo. Even then, it was limited to upper castes as lower castes which were in majority continue to eat beef. Gradually, in the next millennia, veneration of cow started to enter the consciousness of lower strata. When Mughals conquered India, they acknowledged the sacredness of cows and banned cow slaughter for various time periods. However, beef eating continued and, although most Hindus stopped eating beef, eating meat was common, especially among the lower castes (Pal 1996).
Before Hindu nationalism and instrumentalizing of Hinduism started gathering strength in the last quarter of the 19th century, meat eating was common and although beef eating was abhorred, there was no organized movement to stop the slaughter of cows. Although the reverence for the cow played an important role in the 1857 Indian War of Independence, Hindus and Muslims fought together across India against the British. Organized Hindu cow-protection movement first started in Punjab in the 1870s and then it spread over to other regions of North and Western India. These organizations promoted cow reverence, created gaushalas (where cows can take refuge) and protested and sent petition to the government and courts for a cow-slaughter ban. As they grew powerful, with most Northern Indian feeling a natural affinity to cow protection, a united Hindu group or nation started to take shape. Here was an emotive issue on which Hindus, no matter which god they worship can unite. Hence, something which was not even part of ancient Hinduism was instrumentalized for religious nationalism. Bakr-Eid, one of the two Muslim festivals was the biggest spark as Muslims all around the world sacrifice animals, including cows, to celebrate this festival. In 1886, the Allahabad High Court decreed that a cow was not a sacred object, infuriating Hindus and strengthening the cow protection movement. Eventually the issue became so big that large scale Hindu-Muslim riots happened in the 1890s. In 1893, more than a hundred people were killed in one such riot in Azamgarh district of current Uttar Pradesh. These riots and clashes highlighted the differences between the two communities and seriously damaged prospect of a single, secular Indian nationalism. Muslims started suspecting that the Indian National Congress, which was striving to create such a nationalism, was Hindu body working for Hindus. They then started to create their own organizations.
Arya Samaj, a reformist monotheistic Hindu organization, played a large part in popularizing cow protection and thus creating two groups of cow-lovers and beef-eaters. Its founder, Dayananda Saraswathi, published the Gokarunanidhi (Ocean of mercy for the cow) in 1880 or 1881, to stop cow slaughter. He also formed a gaushala and a cow protection society, besides petitioning Queen Victoria for cow protection. However, Dayananda did not include anything related to cow-worship or vegetarianism in his ten founding principles of Arya Samaj, demonstrating that these two practices were not considered essential for Hinduism even by an ardent lover of cows (Sharma 2017; Nalwa 2021).
During the first half of the 20th century, many Hindu reformers, writers, and political leaders, advertently or inadvertently, instrumentalized Hinduism for political purposes. As Serajul Islam Choudhury argues in his chapter in the book titled, Tagore, Nationalism, and Cosmopolitanism: Perceptions, Contestations and Contemporary Relevance, both Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, two giants of Indian national movement strived for unity but both used Hindu symbols and a sought spiritual unity based on Hindu culture, which, unsurprisingly, made Muslim suspicious (Choudhury 2020, 51).
Two symbols related to Hinduism, vegetarianism and cow-worship, gradually became very important part of Indian nationalism. Gandhi did a lot to publicize both of them. He was a walking advertisement of vegetarianism and cow-worship. Cow-worship, which was peripheral, became a central principle of Hinduism because of Gandhi who called it Hinduism’s “unique contribution to the evolution of humanitarianism” (Gandhi and Kher 1996, 28). Gandhi once said, “Mother cow is in many ways better than the mother who gave us birth. Our mother gives us milk for a couple of years and then expects us to serve her when we grow up. Mother cow expects from us nothing but grass and grain. Our mother often falls ill and expects service from us. Mother cow rarely falls ill. Our mother when she dies means expenses of burial or cremation. Mother cow is as useful dead as when alive” (Jha 2009, 17). At another time, he declared, “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. . . . The cow protection ideal set up by Hinduism is essentially different from and transcends the dairy ideal of the West. The latter is based on economic values, the former . . . lays stress on the spiritual aspect, viz., the idea of penance and self-sacrifice for the martyred innocence which it embodies” (Jha 2009, 17-18). Gandhi never promoted violence against Muslims to save cows but he also wrote, “Go to any Hindu child and he would tell you that cow protection is the supreme duty of every Hindu and that anyone who does not believe in it hardly deserves the name of a Hindu” (Gandhi and Kher 1996, 30). He asked Hindus to be patient as he wanted Muslims to voluntarily give up cow slaughter. However, it was clear who he thought were the good people and who were bad people, who need to mend their ways.
Gandhi’s family was strict vegetarians and except for a very short period of time in his teens he remained a vegetarian. In fact, he went a step further gave up milk and its products and almost became a vegan. Many times in his life, he was so sick that doctors warned him that if he did not break his vegetarianism vows, he would die but he remained steadfast. He believed that meat not only unnecessary but unsuited for human beings. He told people that spiritual progress was not possible unless they stop killing other species for their bodily wants and that greatness of a nation could be judged from the way it treated animals. Gandhi wrote that initially vegetarianism was something in which he was socialized by his family and culture but later as a student in England, he became vegetarian by choice after reading a pamphlet by Henry Salt, titled A Plea for Vegetarianism, and from that day forward, according to his autobiography, the spread of vegetarianism became his mission (Mallika 2018).
Gandhi’s vegetarianism had profound impact on Hindus and vegetarianism, which was bring attacked as ancient and unhealthy, got a strong moral force backing it. Gandhi backed secular nationalism, respected Islam and other religions, and made the Indian National Congress, the torchbearer of secular nationalism in pre-independence India, a party of the masses but his strict vegetarianism also made him a symbol of Hindu unity and Hindu nationalism as his lifestyle promoted a course unacceptable to Muslims. Gandhi’s vegetarianism and its promotion brought united the Hindu community and even lower castes, which had eaten meat for generations, were ashamed of eating meat. The instrumentalization of Hinduism – by promoting reverence for cow and vegetarianism – for Hindu unity was successful, irrespective of whether it was Gandhi’s aim or not. Ambedkar (1948) argued that vegetarianism was initially adopted by Brahmans to go up over Buddhism which was once the most popular religion in India and has now, over the centuries, become symbol of purity to distinguish between lower castes and Muslims, who eat meat, on one hand and Savarna (high-caste) Hindus (Ambedkar 1948). However, due to the hegemony of the Savarnas, the Dalits and other lower caste individuals and groups adopted vegetarianism, a process of Sanskritization where lower social class individuals and group adopt the customs and habits of higher classes to lay a claim to higher social status. Sanskritization has allowed some minor level of caste mobility by giving lower castes the hope that if they remain within the varna (caste) system and “work hard” i.e. become more like Brahmans, their caste and status would become better. Thus, Sanskritization not only has played a cohesive role across castes the Hindu society but also vegetarianism a goal to be achieved (Waghmore 2017).
Besides Gandhi, in the early part of the twentieth century, different Hindu nationalist organizations (sabhas and Hindu Mahasabha), adopted the cow protection movement to create or awake the Hindu nation. Cow became symbol for India and attempts by Muslim to divide India became something similar to Muslims age-old habit of slaughtering cows. Cow slaughter again became a major source of tension and riots in the Faizabad/Ayodhya area of UP from 1911 to 1913. In September 1918, on Bakr-Eid, riots broke out and 47 Muslims, including seven children, were killed and burnt in Haridwar, now in Uttarakhand. Hindu Mahasabha and Hindu nationalists or Hindutva supporters also got organized and more vocal. They forced the Congress party to give importance to cow slaughter ban. It was primarily because of Gandhi’s rejection of such a ban that the Congress survived the pressure and did not came out in support of ban (Adcock 2010; Bruckert 2019).
After the independence in 1947, along with Hindu nationalists, many Congress politicians were in support for making a country wide cow slaughter ban part of the constitution. Secularists, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, successfully resisted the ban but they had to include the. Article 48 in the 1950 Constitution of India as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Prohibition of the slaughter of cows and related species thus became a guide to policy formation but it was not enforceable in any court. The Article 48, titled “Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry” states, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” Although there was no mention of the religious basis of this prohibition, it was the primary reason. After this article, there were several attempts by Hindu legislators for a national ban but all of them failed because of Nehru’s opposition. Nehru had, however, no problem with cow slaughter bans at the state (provincial) level. Therefore, many Congress-ruled states passed various laws banning cow-slaughter in the 1950s and 1960s. Muslim tried to get these laws declared unconstitutional but the Supreme Court rejected it (Chandrachud 2019).
The RSS, the premier Hindutva organization, also decided to forcefully use cow slaughter issue to regain respect it had lost after Gandhi’s murder and build its network with Hindu religious organizations. They were at the forefront for a national cow slaughter ban, along with Hindu Mahasabha and Bharatiya Jana Sangh. The politicization of cow slaughter issue was done to embarrass the Congress governments which ruled India from 1947 to 1977(Andersen and Damle 2019, 176-77). While movement for national ban was not successful, most of the Indian states imposed some kind of a cow slaughter ban in the first forty years after independence.
The formation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its gradual rise as the dominant party in India was unprecedented for a Hindu nationalist or Hindutva party. As it won multiple elections at the state level in the 1990s, it instrumentalized Hinduism by proclaiming that Hindus and Hinduism was in danger in a country where Hindus are around eighty percent. After forming state government governments, it started mainstreaming Hindutva, otherizing Muslims and other minorities. In many states, cow slaughter bans were made stricter and movement of cows was made more and more difficult (Saleem 2021).
BJP leader and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two election wins has led to the instrumentalizing of Hinduism to a new level. Hindus are in danger is the frequent trope and Modi is presented as the only one who could save Hindus. Cow reverence and vegetarianism now forced at the official level even when most Hindus eat meat as they always have from pre-historic times. There are dozens of examples of what scholars have called “food nationalism” or “vegetarian nationalism” by the Modi government, a select few have been given below. In 2017, Air India, then government-owned, decided to serve only vegetarian food in the economy class on domestic flights. Also in 2017, a notification was issued that restricted movement of cow across state boundaries, however, it was revoked by the Indian Supreme Court (Anderson 177-78). New ministries and departments were created at the state level to save, honor, and protect cows and its progeny (Saleem 2023). PM house started serving only vegetarian food to dignitaries. Government schools stopped including eggs in the mid-day meal provided to children even when doctors recommended them to deal with the protein deficiency in poor Indian children. Premier universities, such as the various Indian Institutes of Technology, started promoting vegetarian only diet and cafeterias (Dhawan and Gurmat 2021). Muslims, Christians, and Dalits were no longer only being otherized and ridiculed as beefeaters, they were injured and killed, often with the overt or covert support of the local police department. Cow lynching i.e. lynching of someone who is accused of being involved in cow slaughter is now something not uncommon. Muslim and Dalits have been killed even when had legal documents to transport cows for dairy industry or for sale. Even suspicion of eating beef has led to lynching of Muslims. In many such instances, police were either involved from the start or looked the other way while Muslims were being lynched. PM Modi have mostly not commented on such brutalities or if he has commented it has been very late. In July 2018, the Indian Supreme Court urged the Parliament and state legislatures to make laws specific to lynching and take other legal and administrative measures to punish the offenders quickly. However, nothing has been done in this regard even after five years (Ranjan 2023). Taking a cue from the Congress, Modi has allowed his state governments to take the lead in cow veneration and vegetarianism and make life difficult for Muslims and Dalits. Therefore, one can see the worst episodes of Hindutva at the state level. However, as explained above, the process of instrumentalizing Hinduism and mainstreaming Hindutva continues at the Centre level too (Bruckert 2019).
The process of instrumentalizing Hinduism and mainstreaming Hindutva that started in the last quarter of 19th century has come a long way. Veneration of cow and vegetarianism were its key instruments. First, this process destroyed the dream of a united India and Pakistan was created. After the Partition, this process has almost destroyed the dream of a secular Indian nation as envisaged by Indian founding fathers and as given in the Indian Constitution. Non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, are now otherized and considered not part of the Indian nation by millions of Hindus who regularly vote for the BJP and Modi, irrespective of their other economic, social, and political accomplishments or failures.
The actual situation is that despite the hegemony of the vegetarians for the last seventy five years in India and Sanskritization only around 40% of Hindus and 30% of Indians claim to be vegetarians. So, a dominant majority of Hindus are meat-eaters. But these low figures might be an exaggeration because most Hindus are ashamed to admit that they eat meat or beef because of unabated valorization of vegetarianism and the persistent stigmatization and criminalization of beef-eating. The vegetarian population of India might be less than 20% (Natrajan and Jacob 2018). Add it the fact that India is one of the largest beef exporting nations in the world (Peel 2022). Although the beef exported is mostly of water buffalo, such high level of exports makes it difficult to accept the Hindu nationalists’ argument that they love animals, especially those that play a large role in agriculture, and hate violence.
The future of India is bleak and will become bleaker if Modi wins a third term in 2024. The food nationalism of Hindutva and its other diktats to oppress not only the minorities but the majority of Hindu Indians does not bode well for the largest democracy in the world.
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