On November 7, 1966, a large group of people approximately numbered at 100,000 assembled at an open space near the Parliamentary complex. Led by a group of ash-smeared, trishul-brandishing Naga Sadhus, the group had a single demand — a countrywide ban on cow slaughter. The gathering was anything but a surprise. Hindu right-wing organisations had been planning this moment for the last two years. But the magnitude of it caught most, especially the government, off guard. By noon the leaders were extolling the virtues of the ‘mother cow’, and soon moved towards the main gates of Parliament and let loose a spree of violence, smashing windows and overturning cars.
The demand for a ban on cow slaughter had come up in the Parliament, in the Constituent Assembly and even during the nationalist movement in the past. The religious and economic importance attached to the cow perhaps went back even further. However, the gathering of November 7 was in many ways a watershed moment in Indian politics. “A good case for the 1960s as a turning point can be made on the basis that it was the decade when the Hindu Right first made its mark in India as a political force,” writes historian Ian Copland in his article ‘History in Flux: Indira Gandhi and the ‘Great All-Party Campaign’ for the Protection of the Cow, 1966–8’. However, as Copland goes on to explain, the cow protection movement of November 7 by the Hindu Right, also in many ways was a turning point in the political career of the Congress party and particularly in that of its leader and then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
A soft spot for the cow had been expressed by traditionalist leaders in the Congress previously but had been severely put down by the party’s paramount leader Jawaharlal Nehru, whose adherence to the values of secularism continues to be viewed as the most important facet of his leadership. However, the 1966 cow protection movement changed the way the Congress party looked at policies around the holy animal.
The Congress manifesto for the upcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh has given quite a bit of space to matters pertaining to the ‘holy cow’. From building gaushalas in every panchayat to starting the commercial production of cow urine, the manifesto was coloured in lighter shades of saffron. However, this is not the first time that the party was to look at the cow for political mileage.
Congress’ cow politics before Indira Gandhi
Perhaps the oldest proponent of the cow symbolism within the Congress was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. “He made the cow symbol an integral part of the Shivaji festival, which he had instituted and popularised,” writes historian Anthony Parel in his article ‘The political symbolism of the cow in India’. Apart from the Shivaji festivals, Tilak used the cow symbol in other contexts as well, particularly in his political campaigns. “The Home Rule campaign was compared to the cow protection movement: ‘India is a great cow’, he frequently told his audiences, ‘that cow has given you birth. You are maintaining yourself on that cow’s industry, on her fruitfulness’,” writes Parel.
Yet again during the Gandhian movement, while the Mahatma vehemently stressed on Hindu-Muslim unity, he still did hold up the cow symbolism on several occasions. In 1924, he inaugurated the Go Seva Sangh, asserting that cow protection was of ‘greater moment’ than swaraj itself. As late as 1942, while giving a speech, Gandhi is believed to have noted that “If she (the cow) dies, we also die along with her — we, that is our civilisation.” However, Gandhi’s proclivity towards the cow was in no way an anti-Muslim tirade. “In advising the Hindus to take a religious interest in the cow he was not intending to incite them against the Muslims. He said so in many ways and on many occasions,” notes Parel.
When an independent India was taking birth, the question of the cow came up yet again among Congress politicians who were part of the Constituent Assembly. Several leaders from the Hindu-conservative wing of the Congress asked for a ban on cow slaughter to be part of the constitutional framework. Particularly vociferous in this regard were Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava, Seth Govind Das, Shibban Lal Saxena, Ram Sahai, and Raghu Vira. However, Nehru and Ambedkar remained firm that legislation against cow slaughter be left to the states. Even in 1955, when a private member’s bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha demanding a centralised ban on cow slaughter, Nehru promised to step down if it was carried. The House rejected the bill by 96 to 12 votes.
Congress’ cow politics under Indira Gandhi
The agitation of 1966 caught Gandhi off-guard. However, she did not give in to the agitation immediately. In an interview to Times of India Gandhi claimed she did not intend to “cow down to the cow savers”. However, she could hardly maintain her stance for long. A section of the Congress was already in favour of a country-wide ban on cow slaughter. “Shortly before the march in Delhi, rightist majority in the executive committee of the Congress Parliamentary Party had pushed through a resolution calling for a total national ban on cow-slaughter, if necessary by invoking Section 249 of the Constitution,” writes Copland. Further, Gandhi did realise that committing Congress to a policy that made it appear as opposed to the cows of India meant risking a large percentage of votes in the elections due in February 1967.
However, Gandhi was not willing to give in to a complete ban since it would be against the party’s secularist ideology and would have also appeared disrespectful to her father’s memory. She needed a mid-way approach that could keep the cow protectors happy while at the same time not risk the image of her party.
Gandhi, Copland explains, addressed the issue at two fronts. First, in an address in the Lok Sabha on January 5, 1967 she explained that she was deeply concerned about the problem of cow-killing and was setting up a high-level committee of animal husbandry experts and politicians to check on the feasibility of a total ban on cow-slaughter. Further, she called on the states that had not enacted anti-cow-killing laws to bear in mind their obligations in that respect under the Constitution.
Secondly, she promised a high-level committee of inquiry that would consider the scope of the existing constitutional provisions for cow slaughter and look at their possible amendment. However, Gandhi was careful to ensure that majority of the members of the committee consisted of trustworthy Congress politicians, secularists, as well as federal and state bureaucrats. The measure came as a disappointment to most Hindu right-wing party members, some of whom were part of the committee as well. The two groups were often at odds over the issue with the cow sympathisers seeking a total ban and those from the Congress insisting that there were other ways of protecting cows rather than prohibiting slaughter. Finally, the committee came out with its report in 1973 stating that a total ban on slaughter was unnecessary.
Copland notes that while the whole controversy over the cow did unsettle Gandhi to a large extent, it was also instrumental in shaping her career and giving her the image of a steely, resolute leader who could take care of majoritarian interests just as well as those of the minorities. After the Congress split in 1969, the faction led by Indira Gandhi is known to have taken a conscious turn towards socialism, taking up the causes of the underprivileged and the minorities. Interestingly, the new symbol of the breakaway faction led by Gandhi was that of a cow suckling its calf.