Updated: January 25, 2021 7:38:35 pm
On November 16, 1949, as the Indian Constituent Assembly was nearing its end, it made room for the inclusion of a clause in the Directive Principles of State Policy.“That the State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern scientific and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
The clause to prohibit the slaughter of cows in the Constitution has been a matter of intense controversy and debate since the new republic was formed, and more so in recent years. But the inclusion of the clause must be seen in the background of the significance the animal held during the nationalist movement and the shades of majoritarian sentiment carried within it. It also needs to be understood in context of the Partition and the atmosphere of religious animosity that it created.
The cow in the Indian national movement
The cow has had an intriguing presence in the Indian psyche. There are mentions of devotion to cows appearing in Hindu scriptures, even though there is evidence to suggest that complete abstinence from beef eating did not exist in the ancient Indian way of life. In the political life of the Indian subcontinent, the cow has come up on numerous occasions before the nationalist movement of the 20th century.
Although the Indian National Congress, which spearheaded the freedom struggle saw itself as an inclusive party, from the 1890s, it increasingly turned to predominantly Hindu-related imagery as a means to connect with the masses. For instance, the imagery of Hindu deities like Ganesh and Ram, religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were appropriated to that end. A similar use was made of the holy cow.
“The purity of cow’s milk was likened to the purity and strength of the nation, and cow killing connected to the British consumption of beef was used to portray the British Raj as a regime indifferent to Hindu values,” writes historian Ian Copland in his 2017 research paper titled, ‘Cows, Congress and the Constitution: Jawaharlal Nehru and the making of Article 48’.
Accusations of the British slaughtering cows in large numbers would be spoken about in public gatherings. Historian William Gould, in his book, ‘Hindu nationalism and the language of politics in late colonial India’, notes, “In a city Congress meeting in Agra on June 14, 1930, Hari Narayan and Narayan Lal Bohra described how the British were killing cows in thousands every year.” He adds: “In Kanpur in the first week of September, Raj Narayan estimated that Europeans alone had slaughtered 44,000 cows. In Bhedpur, Etawah, on September 19, one Ram Dutt speaking at a Congress gathering, claimed that the government was responsible for the death of three crore cows.”
To protect the cow was seen as a means of protecting ‘Mother India’. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi helped establish the first all-India cow protection organisation, the Gorakha Sabha. Cow protection, urged Gandhi, “was one of the important duties enjoined upon Hindus as a part of their religion.”
Consequently, a group within the Congress asked for a legislation for a complete ban on cow slaughter. However, the higher authorities in the party, vary of Muslim alienation, rejected the claim.
But as discussions of cow slaughter gained momentum, there emerged a feeling of alienation among Muslims. As Gould notes, “it heightened awareness of ‘Muslim rights’ in relation to animal slaughter”.
The cow in the Constituent Assembly
In the centuries before Independence itself, the tendency in rhetoric was to combine foreign rule as both British and Muslim and cow slaughter as being a practise among both. But with the Partition of the country, and the creation of Pakistan, the Hindu right both within the Congress and beyond assumed that the newfound Indian nation would be a land based on Hindu ideals including that of safeguarding the cow. Consequently, a public convention in Delhi in early August recommended that the new polity “provide in its constitution for the stoppage of cow killing.”
“Previously, that part of the cow protection movement bent upon resolving the problem through legislation had been loosely coordinated by the Goraksha Sabha; now it gravitated into the orbit of industrialist Seth Ramkrishna Dalmia and his newly minted Govak Nivak Sangh (Anti- cow slaughter league),” writes Copland. He notes further how the first act as president of the league, Dalmia set up headquarters in the Delhi house formerly owned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and told his supporters that the green flag of Islam had been replaced by the ‘sacred flag of the cow’.
Consequently, the league arranged for a throng of sadhus to carry out regular sit-ins in front of the house of the prime minister-elect Nehru. August 10 was nominated as National Cow Day. Lastly, a rhetoric was built around saving the cow for the economic needs of the country. “To boost the production of food in India, we have to increase the cattle wealth in our country and we can do that only by stopping cow slaughter,” noted Dalmia, as reproduced in Copland’s work.
Dalmia’s petition found many takers. By August it had attracted around 164,000 signatories. Anti-cow killing resolutions were passed by independent organisations like the Ahmedabad Bullion Association and All India Varnashrama Swarajya Sangh. Several state assemblies and municipal bodies served notices of bills to prohibit cow slaughter. Meanwhile, senior leaders within the Congress were flooded with requests to legislate against cow slaughter.
Correspondence between prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the newly-elected president of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, is noteworthy here. Nehru confided in Prasad that while he had no problem with protecting cattle, he was deeply worried about the tone the proposal was taking. “India is a composite country. If any such step is taken purely on Hindu sentiment, it means that the governance of India is going to be carried on in a particular way which thus far we have not done,” he wrote to Prasad. Nonetheless, Prasad referred the question to the Constituent Assembly with a request that it be looked as part of its deliberations on ‘Fundamental Rights’.
One of the most vociferous among the cow lobbyists in the Constituent Assembly was Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava from East Punjab. Arguing from an economic point of view, he asked the question: “How can you improve your health and food position, if you do not produce a full quota of cereals and milk? This amendment is divided into three parts. Firstly, agriculture should be improved on scientific and modern lines. Secondly, the cattle breed should be improved; and thirdly, the cow and other cattle should be protected from slaughter. To grow more food and to improve agriculture and the cattle breed are all inter-dependent and are two sides of the same coin.” Others who supported him included Seth Govind Das, Shibban Lal Saxena, Ram Sahai and Raghu Vira.
R V Dhulekar, on the other hand, made his argument on more religious grounds. “And our Hindu society, or our Indian society, has included the cow in our fold. It is just like our mother. In fact, it is more than our mother. I can declare from this platform that there are thousands of people who will not run at a man to kill that man for their mother or wife or children, but they will run at a man if that man does not want to protect the cow or wants to kill her.”
But the proposal was met with stiff resistance from the chairman of the Drafting Committee B R Ambedkar who informed that it cannot be included as part of Fundamental Rights since ‘rights’ properly applied only to citizens and cows were not citizens. Finally, it was Prasad who came up with a resolution and proposed the needs of the holy cow in the chapter devoted to Directive Principles of State Policy. Thus was born Article 48.
As a consequence of Article 48, several state governments hastened to enact laws prohibiting the killing of cows. At present, 24 out of 29 states in India have laws criminalising cow killing.
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