Updated: August 18, 2018 9:00:56 pm
The views of the RSS regarding cow slaughter are rooted in the nineteenth-century Hindu reform movement’s use of cow veneration as a symbol to create a boundary marker that would help unify the fractured Hindu community. Dayanand Saraswati, better known for establishing the Hindu reformist Arya Samaj in the late nineteenth century, also set up a cow protection society, the Gau Rakshini Sabha; it was aimed at mobilizing Hindus on a community basis, which was also a core objective of the Arya Samaj, but served as a source of recurrent tensions with Muslims.
Hundreds of gaushalas were built as part of its effort to drum up support for Hindu nationalism.61 Cow protection, which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi, also had the backing of a significant part of the Congress party during the long period after Independence, when it dominated Indian politics. After Article 48 of the Constitution made cow protection a state subject in India’s federal system, several Congress-ruled states quickly passed laws banning cow slaughter, and some form of cow protection now exists in a large majority of India’s thirty-six states and Union Territories.
India’s Supreme Court in 1958 upheld state laws banning the slaughter of cows, and the calves of cows and of buffaloes, as consistent with Article 48 of the Constitution, but Article 48 cannot be used to mandate cow protection as it is only a guiding principle for legislative purposes. Three-quarters of those states banning cow slaughter make it a cognizable offence, while in half it is a non-bailable offence. State laws currently vary widely, from a total ban on slaughter and on the consumption of beef to permission from state authorities to slaughter cows depending on issuance of differently defined ‘fit-to- slaughter’ certificates.
Penalties also vary widely. Several states have no bans on cow slaughter and beef-eating. Since the BJP’s landslide victory in the 2014 parliamentary elections and its subsequent state election victories, several states have toughened their laws on this issue. BJP-ruled Gujarat, for example, in March 2017 amended its Gujarat Animal Preservation Act of 1954—which criminalizes cow slaughter as well as transportation of cows for slaughter and possession of beef as non-bailable offences—by extending the maximum sentence for cow slaughter from seven years to life imprisonment, making it the state with the strictest cow protection laws. BJP-controlled legislatures in Maharashtra and Haryana also toughened cow protection legislation.
Within the sangh parivar, the VHP and its affiliated groups, especially the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini (youth organizations for young men and women, respectively), have taken the hardest line on cow slaughter. What sets the VHP apart tactically from the RSS (and the BJP) on cow protection is that it seems more willing than the RSS or its other affiliates to engage in agitation, and possibly violence, to enforce the bans against cow slaughter and the consumption of beef.
Togadia said at a press conference on 14 April 2017 that the spike in cow vigilante activity was due to the failure of the states to frame laws to end illegal cow slaughter, and that the violence took place when cow vigilantes sought to protect cows. About a year earlier, Rajesh Pandey, the national convener of the Bajrang Dal, had said in response to alleged government laxness on cow slaughter that his organization would ‘have to create some kind of fear and pressure, as not even a single cow should fall into the hands of slaughterers’, even citing the Dadri lynching as an example of the backlash that would occur if cow slaughter continued. A VHP national secretary, Radha Krishna Manori, told the press on 16 April 2017 that the VHP affiliates Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini in two years ‘will stop beef eating in Goa’, and moreover ‘they do not need the help of the state’s BJP government to do so’.
This threat suggests a conviction within the VHP that Goa’s BJP government, which relies on some Christian support in a state that is one-quarter Christian, might oppose what the VHP demands, much in the way it did not go along with those who wanted to terminate state assistance to Christian schools that used English as the medium of instruction. The threat to use the Bajrang Dal and the Durga Vahini, groups that sometimes employ strong-arm tactics against opponents, could create a law-and-order crisis in Goa that pits two of the most prominent members of the sangh parivar against each other.
If a crisis develops due to different approaches to important issues like cow protection, the RSS would probably seek, quietly and outside the public eye, to negotiate some kind of solution satisfactory to both sides, as it did on the ghar wapsi issue in Uttar Pradesh. Further complicating the situation in Goa is that one of the BJP government’s major coalition allies, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), also wants a complete ban on cow slaughter in the state, a demand reiterated by its erstwhile ally, RSS rebel Subhash Velingkar. Goa has laws punishing cow slaughter, but these laws also have provisions for a ‘fit-for-slaughter’ certificate, while beef imported into the state for consumption is permitted.
The cow protection issue, while publicized heavily because of vigilante activity, became less important in the sangh parivar since the late 1990s, as economic development rose to the top of the BJP’s agenda, a priority supported by the labour affiliates of the RSS, especially the worker and farmer affiliates. The cultural affiliates, especially the VHP, however, continue to make cow protection a priority. The RSS has assumed its balancing role when there are different policy orientations among the affiliates.
Possibly hoping to revive public interest in the issue, the VHP organized a conference, the Gau-Sanskriti-2006, in March 2006. In attendance were several hundred delegates, representing cow protection shelters from across the country, Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), as well as over a hundred scientists and doctors whose aim was to pave the way for a research-and-development centre on the productive uses of the cow. Perhaps reflecting national exhaustion over further politicization of the issue, the ‘achievements’ section of the report on this conference on the VHP website focuses not on lobbying for a national legislation or better adherence to existing laws on cow protection, but rather on its economic benefits.
While the RSS has consistently called for legal action to end cow slaughter on a national basis, it has taken a low-key approach to the issue since the late 1990s. After the April 2017 spate of cow vigilante violence noted above, Bhagwat said that a ban on cow slaughter ‘has to be carried out [by the states] while completely obeying the law and the Constitution’. Focusing on a legalistic approach to the issue, he added that in states where politicians from the RSS have assumed power, the laws against cow slaughter have been tightened. In short, he was repeating Golwalkar’s earlier advice that persuasion and the ballot box—and not agitation—are the best routes to fundamental change.
As the BJP has evolved politically, it has also become more sensitive to the negative impact of cow vigilantism on its efforts to portray Hindu nationalism as a moderate force. While continuing to support an end to cow slaughter, the issue is not near the top of its policy agenda and it has sought to avoid confrontation with groups in regions where beef consumption is a regular part of the diet, as in north-eastern India. The RSS, however, does not want the BJP’s pursuit of votes and its focus on economic development—using the slogan ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’—to sideline cow protection, as some calculate has happened with the Ram Janmabhoomi issue.
With this in mind, the RSS has tacitly accepted the VHP’s activism on behalf of the cow. The VHP’s activism also serves as a check on the political marginalization of these cultural Hindutva projects, while maintaining the RSS’s moral standing to mediate differences within the sangh parivar. Compromise for the sake of unity has long been the guide for RSS decision-making regarding differences within the parivar and this applies to the subject of cow slaughter too. But like all issues of piety, the danger is that motivated outliers on the right in the name of devoutness will act in aggressive ways that will test both the BJP’s and the RSS’s ability—or will—to constrain them.
Excerpted with permission from ‘RSS: A view to the Inside’ by Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle, published by Penguin India
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