No other non-human vertebrate has, at least in recent history, enjoyed the symbolic, legal and moral stature currently accorded to the cow in India. Its slaughter is punishable by life imprisonment in Gujarat, and carries severe jail terms in other states, notably Haryana and Rajasthan, that are often akin to the sentences for culpable homicide. Gau rakshaks have assaulted and murdered in the pursuit of bovine protection. In many of these cases, the police have filed cases against the victims as well as the accused. Most recently, there has been a move towards documenting and tracking cows and their progeny through an Aadhaar-like system.
The tiger — India’s national animal — is conserved but not venerated, and while its slaughter is punishable by law, it isn’t a cause for moral and political outrage. The symbolic status of the cow has few parallels, except, perhaps, with royalty. When rulers existed by divine right, an attack on their body was considered an assault on the state as well as society.
Historically, as D N Jha pointed out in The Myth of the Holy Cow, there is substantial evidence that beef was consumed, across classes and castes, during the Vedic period (c. 1500-500 BC). As with many pastoral societies, milch and draught animals — in this case the cow — were part of both rituals and diets. It was not until centuries later that the “sacredness” of the bovine was established in a form that would be familiar to us today. It began only with the emergence of post-Vedic Brahminism, well after the birth of Christ. The idea of cow protection, Jha and others have argued, did not gain widespread appeal until the 19th century, when Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj began to use it as a tool for political mobilisation.
The significance of this transition of the cow to a creature both animal and divine, needing protection and veneration, was explored by the sociologist Louis Dumont in his seminal work, Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (1981). A system of inequality as complex and enduring as the caste system requires a symbolic and ritual buttressing, and constant reinforcement. The veneration and subsequent “protection” of the bovine was essential to the movement of caste “from a system to a structure”, Dumont argued — it was through their relationship to the cow, and each other, that the two poles of the caste system, Brahmin and Dalit, were imagined and their positions cemented.
“It is clear,” wrote Dumont, “that the impurity of the untouchable is conceptually inseparable from the purity of the Brahmin… It is remarkable that the essential development of pure and impure in this connection bears on the cow.” The killing of the cow, even involuntarily, is a crime and “the murder of a cow is assimilated into the murder of a Brahmin”.
Cows are a form of wealth as well as a way to measure “dakshina” to priests. On the other hand, almost parallely, the status of the Dalit too is determined by the cow. They had/have the job (in the caste system) of disposing dead cattle and treating and working with their skins. Dumont pointed out that among the most numerically preponderant Dalit castes in the Gangetic plain are the Jatavs, and even in Tamil Nadu “those of the drum” — made from animal skin — once had a low ritual status.
The cow then, like the Brahmin of yore, is “half-animal and half-divine” and “effectively divides the “highest from the lowest”. Dumont recalled that scriptural and mythical sources equate the murders of the cow and the Brahmin, and that panchgavya — dung, milk, urine, curd, ghee — derived from the cow is used in “purification” rituals when caste taboos are transgressed, and in the thread ceremony for upper caste males.
Theoretically, through the setting up of the poles and, therefore, the basis of the caste hierarchy, cow veneration and protection became one of the underpinnings of what B R Ambedkar called “graded inequality”. Simply put, in the unique form of discrimination prevalent in the subcontinent, there isn’t a clear distinction between haves and have-nots — instead, in nearly all cases, there is someone above you as well as someone you are above. This ranking of castes and sub-castes is made logically possible by placing the cow — and by extension, the Brahmin — at the top of the ritual hierarchy, and those that deal with its carcass, at the bottom. It is through the animal that the two ends of the inequality meet, and the system comes full circle. The cow as a “pure”, “divine” animal, therefore, is also about maintaining the privileges that accrue from being at the top of the caste hierarchy.
In practical terms, this symbolism plays out in violence and discrimination — the flogging of Dalits in Una in July last year was a case in point. Many of those who work in industries and professions associated with the skin, remains and meat of the cow and other animals are Dalits and Muslims — two communities who are, not coincidentally, also among the poorest in the country.
The current drive towards “cow protection” has, going by Dumont’s work, a dimension that goes beyond its justification in the Constitution of India. Article 48, a Directive Principle of State Policy, reads: “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 breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
The discourse and practice around the anti-cow slaughter movement is amenable to more than just economic analysis. The ideas of purity and pollution stemming from the animal, and its metaphorical association with the top of the caste hierarchy open up the systemic motivations behind its “protection” to a new set of questions.