‘The cow is just a political animal’

Print edition : September 02, 2016

D.N. Jha: "The cow is used for marginalising both Muslims and Dalits." Photo: The Hindu Archives

The historian D.N. Jha, who taught at Delhi University and was a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research, has long talked about the place of the cow in Indian history. In his book The Myth of the Holy Cow, he presented scriptural evidence to show that the cow was not held sacred in ancient India. “Indra had a special liking for bulls. Agni was not a tippler like Indra but was fond of the flesh of horses, bulls and cows. The toothless Pusan, the guardian of the roads, ate mush as a Hobson’s choice. Soma was the name of an intoxicant but, equally important, of a god, and killing animals (including cattle) for him was basic to most of the Rgvedic yajnas. The Maruts and the Asvins were also offered cows,” Jha wrote. In an interview with Frontline, he said that the Left should try to bring Muslims and Dalits, the two groups affected by politics centred around the cow, together.

“And these gau rakshaks [cow vigilantes] have no love for the cow. Otherwise cows would not have been eating plastic at garbage dumps. They just hate the Muslims and the Dalits. The cow is just a political animal,” he said. Excerpts from an interview:

How do you look at the cow being used as a political weapon? A lot of profane things are being done in the name of an animal claimed to be sacred.

The cow was never used for spiritual elevation. In 20th century everybody used the cow as a political weapon. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Dayanand Saraswati used it for the mobilisation of Hindus. This even resulted in many Hindu-Muslim riots. Since 1925, the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] has used it in the same way. It has been used for politics, not just simple politics, but communal politics. It is an attempt at polarisation. The cow has nothing to do with the sacred or the spiritual. It is just a political animal.

Following recent assaults by vigilante groups in the name of cow protection, is there not a possibility of the minorities and the Dalits coming together?

This is quite interesting in the sense that in the first place, right-wing people used to say that beef-eating was common among Muslims and that they introduced it in India. Now they are accusing the Dalits. On the one hand we have a case like Akhlaq [the lynching victim in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh]. Now, on the other hand, we have a case like the Una incident. The cow is used for marginalising both Muslims and Dalits. The idea is to get rid of Muslims and Dalits, but the result is both are coming together. It is like an adhesive. The RSS is undecided about whether it wants to play caste politics or communal politics. They want to marginalise Muslims, and then again they want to do the same to Dalits. It won’t work, there is a contradiction there.

The RSS claims that before the coming of the Muslims there was no cow slaughter…

How can it say that? People have been eating beef all over. In Kerala, everybody eats beef, except the Namboodiris. Some 72 per cent of the communities [in the country] eat beef. They have been doing so traditionally. In north-eastern India it is very common. The RSS does not know what is happening in this country. They say only Muslims and Dalits eat beef. It is all nonsense.

If you go back in history, there is so much mention of cattle sacrifice and of cows being killed to propitiate deities. There is no doubt that cows were killed and that Brahmins ate cow meat. The practice continued even after the Vedic period. It existed during the Buddhist period and also during the time of the Mauryas. The Manu Smriti also mentions it. These fellows [Hindutva proponents] do not realise that the historical evidence is totally against their viewpoint.

Everybody knows that cows were killed on such occasions as marriage, the sacred thread ceremony, the arrival of the guest, at the time of death, at the time of house-warmings. There are many instances listed in scriptures. If there was an honourable guest, he would be served cow meat. In agrarian societies it was very common. It took Brahmins a long time to change their outlook towards the cow. Later, much later, they gave up eating its meat. If you look at the Vedas or the Dharma Sutras, cow killing was fine. After the Mauryan period, references [to cow slaughter] become fewer and fewer in the texts. Towards the beginning of the first millennium A.D., this change was taking place, mainly in northern India. One cannot give the exact date. It may have taken several centuries. My research is confined to Sanskrit texts, I know little about Tamil or Malayalam texts. I cannot make a statement about that. But it took a long time in northern India for the cow to attain a different status. One reason for the change was economic. As more and more land came under cultivation, the economic importance of the cow increased. The Brahmins said: Okay, our cows won’t be killed, but cows will be killed and the lowest in the caste order can kill but we will not kill. They, therefore, associated beef-eating with the Dalits. This process was gradual, very slow, involving hundreds of years.

In ancient India, we learn, priests were paid in cattle...

Yes, that was the dakshina. The idea that cows would not be killed might have originated from that necessity. The Brahmins only said their cows would not be killed. That idea may have caught on over a period when castes became rigid and agrarian expansion took place.

Was the change only with respect to the cow or all kinds of cattle?

I think cattle in general. But since the cow is under discussion these days, it is important to remember that cows were killed since the time of the Vedas in ancient India. And nobody, not even Brahmins, considered them sacred for a long time.

You talk of Indra being propitiated with cow meat. How come the common man has forgotten what the scriptures say?

At one time Indra was important. Today, Santoshi Mata is important. Parasuram was very popular at one time, now nobody remembers. Changes in the popularity of deities do affect these things. It is not only about economic or caste factors, the religious factor too is important. When Krishna became a popular deity in northern India, the cow was also elevated. He played with cows. The evolution of the Krishna cult also took time. Gradually, the caste hierarchy became more rigid. All these things combined. By ninth and 10th centuries, Brahmins were not eating cows and firmly associated cow-eating with Dalits. But none of the Brahmanical texts mentions cow-killing as a major crime. In traditional Indian literature, crime is classified as major and minor, mahapataka and up-pataka. Cow killing is up-pataka. It is stated that it is as bad as cleaning your teeth with your fingers. That is no crime at all. These right-wing people should study the Dharma Shastras, the normative texts where these things are written clearly. Today they have made cow-slaughter a major crime with draconian laws. You can be arrested on the basis of mere accusation. Yet all this is against their own Shastras.

How do you look at gau raksha samitis?

There may be some people who believe sincerely in the protection of the cow. I also believe in the protection of cattle, in fact all animals. I do not like animals being killed. But why only cow? What about the bull? Although there is a cult of the bull, the cult of Nandi, nobody talks of that. The cow has no temple in the country, whereas the film star Madhuri Dixit has a temple in Jamshedpur. MGR also has a temple; the cow has no temple, poor cow! Yet there is so much hue and cry.

That way isn’t the cow worse off than Brahma?

Yes, the cow has no temple in India, so far as I know. In fact, bulls keep roaming around the temples, and there may be a Nandi cult popular in some parts because of Siva. But the cow only has just one Gopashtami when it is garlanded and kumkum applied.

When did this practice of garlanding the cow start?

I have not come across any reference in ancient texts. It is quite recent, probably 18th or 19th century. Dharma Shastras do not mention garlanding the cow.

Is it not true that in medieval India cows were used as shields in battles?

By that time the cow had become important. But cows could be used as shields when the fight was between two Hindu rulers. But in medieval India, battles were usually fought between Muslim invaders and local Hindu rulers. I have referred to Sikh Kukas, too, in the late 19th century, more or less around the same time as Dayanand Saraswati. But the Kukas used the cow to oppose the British. Dayanand Saraswati had a different purpose. He was into Shuddhi and mobilisation of the Hindus. Both were interested in protecting the cow. Even the Jains. In fact, the largest number of cow shelters are in Rajasthan and Gujarat, the States with a significant Jain population. But the whole thing is a joke in the sense that today there is no on to remove a dead cow from a cow shelter.

Today when the cow is alive, she is the mother, when she is dead…

Even then, when Dalits are skinning a dead cow, they are beaten up or killed. In the biggest gaushala in Rajasthan, some 20 km from Jaipur, 20 cows die every day and there is no one to remove the carcasses. Now, with the Una incident, this problem will become much worse. The Dalits are justified in saying “no” [to disposing of dead cattle] as a matter of revolt. The protection of the cow is more or less a joke. Even if she is a mother, she is sitting in the middle of the road or she is eating garbage, or eating plastic at a garbage dump. What kind of protection is being given? The Dharma Shastras are very clear that the food touched by a cow is impure. It has to be purified. The Brahmins cannot eat that food. So what kind of mother is she?

During the freedom struggle, in late 19th century and early 20th century, many articles in the Hindi press hailed the cow. Even the Gita Press printed many such articles.

The Gita Press has always been a revivalist press. It has played a reactionary role in the national movement. There was a generation among educated Hindus who would religiously read the Gita Press’ Kalyan magazine. Even my father was fond of reading it though he was a liberal man. But it had a reactionary impact on most people.

What about a leader like Savarkar? He was not much into cow protection.

Savarkar was not in favour of cow protection. He said there was no point in protecting the cow after a certain period of time. He ridiculed the hypocrisy of those who accused others of hurting their religious feelings. “They do not mind consuming cow urine but at the same time keep some people at arm’s length,” Savarkar once said. These people do not read their own history. It is convenient ignorance. They do not want anything that is informative, reasonable or rational. They have blind faith. Maybe even blind hatred.

What is the way out for Muslims and Dalits? How do they counter it?

Here comes the role of the Left. The Left should unite these two segments of society. The Left has also been largely Brahmanical. It should give up that background and bring the two communities together.

That role is sought to be played by Mayawati. Perhaps with the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections in mind?

She may try on her own, but let the Left play its role. Mayawati does not want to argue things. The Left can do things logically. Its main bases are in Kerala and Bengal, the two places where the cow is slaughtered. They can do it. There is some rethinking on the part of the Left. Muslims and Dalits are coming together, and the Left is not averse to this idea.

But they should play a leading role if necessary. Somebody like Sitaram Yechury should step in. If you can argue in favour of a Congress-Left alliance in Bengal, why can’t you bring Dalits and Muslims together? There are very few Muslims and Dalits in these parties. That should change. After all, the party founded by Muzaffar Ahmed [in Bengal] should have many more. I have a feeling, there is a churning going on. And these attacks on Muslims and Dalits in the name of cow protection will drive them together. Gau will act as a glue. The vigilante groups’ aggression may just work against them.

It seems there is a churning going on. There is nothing wrong with it. All this needs fieldwork, mixing with people. I do not know how many are willing to do it.

Do you think this cow politics will continue until 2019, or as long Hindutva forces play an important role at the Centre?

Cow politics is a gift of the RSS. The way the RSS is asserting itself and overshadowing the government, the cow will continue [to dominate politics] despite all contradictions.

We seem to be stumbling from one controversy to another, from Bharat Mata to Gau Mata. How do you look at it?

Gau Mata and Bharat Mata are near contemporaries. The concept of the Bharat Mata came up a little more than a hundred years ago. Its visual evocation came up not earlier than 1905 in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore. Gau Mata is of the same vintage. They will continue to vitiate the cultural and political discourse in India in the coming years.

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