On the day that we sought to become the fourth country in the world to land a spacecraft on the moon it depressed me hugely to read this story about cows in a Mumbai newspaper. “Breeding female cows will help end lynching: Giriraj”, said the headline. The story that followed said the Minister for Animal Husbandry, Giriraj Singh, told reporters that the Government of India was working on a scheme to artificially inseminate cows to ensure that mostly female calves were born. The minister believes this will persuade cattle farmers to stop abandoning their animals and this will help reduce lynchings. Does the Minister of Animal Husbandry not know that it is not on account of stray cattle that Muslims and Dalits have been lynched with disturbing frequency in recent years?
Muslim dairy farmers have been attacked while transporting their own cows, not stray cattle. And, Dalits have been attacked when caught skinning dead cows to provide raw material to leather, pharmaceutical and related industries. The lynching epidemic has forced dairy farmers to abandon old cows instead of selling them for slaughter, and it is this that has caused numbers of stray cattle to grow alarmingly. In states like Uttar Pradesh, they now roam in packs and have become feral. An old lady was killed by a cow recently and the video of this killing was uploaded. In states across northern India gangs of wild cows have started ravaging crops. The menace is so serious that farmers are forced to waste their meagre earnings on fencing their fields. What really depressed me about the minister’s comments was that they reminded me that this obsession with protecting cows has caused primitive hatreds and hideous violence to rise to the surface in our dear motherland. And, this makes a very bad fit with our lunar dreams.
In this column I have often blamed cow vigilantism on Hindutva. I was wrong. Last week, I read two biographies of the father of Hindutva, Vinayak Savarkar, and discovered that one of the things he disapproved of totally was cow worship. Let me use Savarkar’s own words as quoted by Vikram Sampath in his biography. “The symbol of Hindutva is not the cow but the man-lion or Narasimha… considering the cow to be divine and worshipping her has rendered the entire Hindu nation docile like the cow.”
From the two biographies I read of the revolutionary that the Congress party erased from our history books, I discovered that I was completely wrong about Hindutva. Instead of being an ideology akin to Nazism, as the prime minister of our neighbouring Islamic Republic believes, it is an ideology of Hindu reform. Savarkar rejects the caste system and makes a serious case for Hindus to respect science and modern technology. He is scathing not just about Gandhiji’s attempts to blame the Bihar earthquake on untouchability but also about the Shankaracharya saying that it happened because of attempts to end the caste system.
Having grown up believing that Hindutva was a dangerous, divisive ideology, I find myself surprised at how important an idea it could be for our times. Savarkar was no fan of the RSS but since the BJP’s mothership has huge influence in today’s India, it is my sincere hope that Mohan Bhagwat finds time to read the two biographies I just finished reading. He may discover that what India needs to build on is the very enlightened view of Hindutva that Savarkar evolved in the long years he spent in prison. On days of dark despair in his tiny cell in Port Blair’s notorious Cellular Jail, he used thorns and whatever else he could find to write his thoughts on the walls. He was denied books, paper and ink and spent months in solitary confinement.
It is true that he was unsympathetic to Muslims, but he would have disapproved of them being killed on the excuse of saving cows. He would have approved proudly of India trying to enter her name in the small list of countries which have dared to explore the unknown frontiers of outer space. At the risk of invoking the wrath of secular trolls, I am going to say that I believe his ideas of modernity and cultivating the scientific spirit make him more relevant today than Gandhiji.
The Mahatma was a very great man, so I speak with respect, but it is hard not to admit that some of his ideas were obscurantist to the point of being dangerous. Had they been acted upon, India would today have been pacifist enough to be fully vulnerable once more to be invaded by people with only contempt for her ancient heritage, her wise religions and her vast contribution to civilisation. Even as we keep our eyes on the moon this week, we must not take them too far away from the Islamic Republic next door.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 7, 2019 under the title “Hindutva in modern India.” Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh.