Cow provincialism

Market forces, changed tastes and the televisual media alike have ensured that the salwar kameez, and “mehndi” and “sangeet” ceremonies, have marched into our lives, but these are at least colourful and relatively inoffensive. We cannot say the same about life-threatening cow nationalism.

Written by Janaki Nair | Updated: July 21, 2017 12:55:51 am
cow, Venkaiah Naidu, india Vice President, bull worshipping, nationalism, BJP Clearly, some agrarian societies in India remained relatively untouched by the obsessive forms that cow-nationalism took in the northern, Hindi-speaking belt. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Now that the BJP has sounded one more loud bugle in its Deccan campaign with its choice of M. Venkaiah Naidu for the Vice President of India, we would do well to take stock of the peninsula’s links to virulent north Indian preoccupations. In a recent piece, the Malayalam writer Ramachandra Aluri had set the ball rolling by exceptionalising Kerala’s practices of bull worship, meatarianism, and integrative local festivals of Onam and Vishu. We all know the state enjoys the longest history of religious co-residentiality in the sub-continent — possibly the world.

These are not matters to take lightly any longer, as we are all now under one or another kind siege. But the boot is really on the other foot: Karnataka too has had a long and warm, not to say creatively enriching, relationship with the bull. The examples of Kerala and Karnataka should be used to exceptionalise the region that has, not for nothing, been called the “cow-belt”. (which is also, so to speak, the Hindi belt). The bull, despite its commonplace associations with a flaring-nostril masculinity and a stock market inexplicably on the rise, has powered not only the religious imagination but many representational forms and suffused popular culture in ways that have produced respect and tolerance, rather than virulence and hatred.

Who does not fondly recall the man who appeared at the gate on a Saturday morning, belting out a tuneless grate on his nadaswaram, but making the decorated bull he brought along nod its bony head. What better name for the flowering bauhinia on Bengaluru parks and roads than “basavana pada”, the bull’s cloven foot, stamped on those exquisite leaves? And who has not admired and shown awe for those gigantic monolithic bulls that are scattered all over the Mysore/Karnataka region? They are the very image, despite their enormity, of placidity, faithfulness and dependability.

Such cultural signs apart, we would be hard pressed, particularly in Karnataka today, to find any historical equivalent of “cow-protection” movements that were the bane of the north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A concern for the well being of cows amongst the Sikh Kukas (Namdharis) in the 1860s was transformed by Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj into an anti-cow slaughter movement, which gained aggressiveness by the 1880s. “Rallying around the cow,” to use the historian Gyanendra Pandey’s memorable phrase, became a powerful tool in uniting Hindus divided by caste, ethnicity and class in Northern India, though not always successfully. The cow soon became a handy symbol, in the agrarian economies of Gangetic India, of maternity and fertility, in whose name petitions were written, songs were sung, plays were performed, and not least, violence was increasingly condoned. The riots that began from at least 1893 and are still with us today are among the most ambiguous legacies of that region.

In Mysore meanwhile, experiments with cow and bull breeding, for draught and milch cattle, and the pack bullock, were undertaken by the famous Amrit Mahal Department, thoroughly reorganised by the innovative Tipu Sultan, to become Mysore’s pride and joy in the 19th century. “It is not unusual,” said a Mysore tract on cattle in 1895, “for some well to-do men, from motives of charity, it being considered a meritorious act, to purchase [Doddadana] breeding bulls at their own cost and let them free. These bulls are also allowed free grazing by the villagers. They pay frequent visits to the neighbouring villages and attend to cows in season, keeping off inferior ‘Nadudana’ bulls.” This gentle insemination programme gave way to artificial insemination using Danish semen which also first took shape in Mysore.

Clearly, some agrarian societies in India remained relatively untouched by the obsessive forms that cow-nationalism took in the northern, Hindi-speaking belt. Khadi wearing and some desultory learning of Hindi in jail, were the preferred modes by which Mysoreans chose to express their loyalty to the emerging Indian nation. There was an attempted empowerment of precisely those agrarian classes and castes through their aggressive incorporation into the modern world, of education and jobs, through policies of reservation and state support for industries. No single community was made to bear the burden or costs of that princely state’s achievements or failings. Those legacies too are with us still.

So it is a very recent, and a very new nationalism indeed that has gripped the people of a region who had historically had been free of such preoccupations. Market forces, changed tastes and the televisual media alike have ensured that the salwar kameez, and “mehndi” and “sangeet” ceremonies, have marched into our lives, but these are at least colourful and relatively inoffensive. We cannot say the same about life-threatening cow nationalism.

There has never been disrespect for the cow in most parts of India, but there has been no magnificent obsession with it either. Every school child affectionately recalls Punyakoti, but the Shaivite, bull-worshipping cultures of southern India have not hegemonised the national imagination nor have the peninsula’s meatarian cuisines transformed the plates and palettes of the nation through force. One lives in hope, then, that should Venkaiah Naidu win the vote, he will remain loyal to a provincial vision whose legacies urgently need to reach others, if only to teach them about the value and importance of difference. Meanwhile, a Geographical Index tag for cow-nationalism would go a long way in helping those wishing to put some distance between virulence and tolerance.

The writer teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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