In mid August, news broke that more than 200 cows had starved to death in a shelter in Chhattisgarh owned by a Bharatiya Janata Party leader named Harish Verma. After the reports appeared, Verma protested that he had not received funds that the government had promised him for the shelter.
But the irony could not have been starker. The BJP has long been opposed to cow slaughter, and the central government as well as the state governments that it heads have clamped down on it. The years since 2014, when the party came to power at the centre, have seen an escalation of tensions around the issue, and multiple incidents of people lynched on suspicion of possessing beef. Yet, in Chhattisgarh, one of the party’s own leaders had allowed cows under his care to die prolonged, agonising deaths.
The incident highlighted the deep tension in India between the economics and politics of protecting cows, as well as other cattle, such as buffalo. Over the decades, numerous leaders and groups have sought to promote the cause, urging that even old and unviable cattle be protected from slaughter. They have argued that cattle should be housed and cared for in shelters. But the economic viability of this solution has never been fully analysed. Despite this lacuna, events over the past century suggest that political rhetoric has drowned out the economic realities of the issue.
Though not much historical research has been conducted on this topic, what little work has been done has suggested that cow slaughter was common in the country in the nineteenth century. In their 2002 book The British Origin of Cow Slaughter, the scholars Dharampal and TM Mukundan conjectured that “probably, every district in India had one or more slaughter house, which also carried out cow slaughter, by about 1840.” (The authors’ sources for making such a claim are relatively thin, however, and they do not look more closely at the social and economic history of cattle slaughter in India.)
Though the conception of the cow as a sacred animal dates back more than two millennia, in their 2012 book A Concise History of Modern India, the historians Barbara D Metcalf and Thomas R Metcalf note that the active use of it as a symbol for political mobilisation began only in the 1860s. According to the authors, the first group to do this was not a Hindu one but a Sikh one—the Kuka, or Namdhari, sect of Punjab. Hindu mobilisation around the issue began only about a decade later, in 1882, after the Hindu leader Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Samaj published a text, Gaukarunanidhi, containing an emotional appeal for cow protection, or gau raksha. Soon after the publication of this text, he established the first branch of the cow-protection organisation, the Gaurakshini Sabha, in Punjab. Surprisingly, given the pitched emotional appeals that many Hindus make today, Dayananda Saraswati argued a case for cow protection on economic grounds rather than spiritual ones. But the spiritual symbolism, too, was developing simultaneously—posters from this period contain the now-popular depiction of the body of the cow as an abode of 33 crore gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon.
As the cow-protection movement quickly gathered momentum, it began to spill over into violence. In a 1980 paper, the historian Sandria Freitag wrote that an 1888 judgment from the North Western Province (which includes most of present-day Uttar Pradesh and Punjab) that decreed that the cow was not a sacred animal served as a flashpoint that resulted in a dramatic intensification of the protection efforts. Freitag noted that cow-protection agitators vented their anger on specific groups: “while in Azamgarh district activities were aimed almost exclusively against Muslims, especially butchers; in Gorakhpur, the Nats, Banjaras and especially Chamars were equally castigated.” Other historians have shown that the cow-protection movement and agitations against cattle slaughter served as catalysts for communal riots between Hindus and Muslims—such as those in Azamgarh district in 1893, in Ayodhya in 1912 and 1913 and in Shahabad in 1917.
But not every leader endorsed aggressive or violent methods of cow protection. In his 1909 book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote that the cause of cow protection should not take precedence over communal harmony, and that an aggressive approach only led to more harm. “When the Hindus became insistent, the killing of cows increased,” he wrote. “In my opinion, cow-protection societies may be considered cow-killing societies. It is a disgrace to us that we need such societies.”
From the 1920s onwards, Gandhi began writing frequently on cow protection—but rather than gau raksha, he used the term gau seva, suggesting service to the cow. In these writings, he argued that gaushalas and pinjrapoles—terms referring to establishments that house cows—were serving merely as depots for decrepit cattle, when, rather, they should function as efficient dairies. Gandhi’s advice to the cow-protection societies of the time was that they “must turn their attention to the feeding of cattle, prevention of cruelty, and preserving of fast disappearing pasture land, improving the breed of cattle, buying from poor shepherds and turning Pinjrapoles into model self-supporting dairies.”
Meanwhile, several economists and other scholars in the early and mid twentieth century suggested that cattle slaughter would not harm the economy, and that the excess cattle that could result from the cow-protection movement might even pose an economic problem. CN Vakil and SK Muranjan estimated in 1927 that the slaughter of one-fifth of the existing cattle would not have any deleterious effect on food-grain availability. TS Venkatraman wrote in 1938 that “India is unique in possessing an enormous amount of cattle without making profit from its slaughter.” The sociologist MN Srinivas wrote in 1952, “Orthodox Hindu opinion regards the killing of cattle with abhorrence, even though the refusal to kill the vast number of useless cattle which exist in India today is detrimental to the nation.”
But the issue continued to find political support—so much so that as Independence approached, cow protection was treated as an important question of policy. In the 1920s and 1930s, individuals such as JH Mankar and DV Pandya, who belonged to Gandhian and other humanitarian groups, were invited to participate in discussions with government agricultural bodies and attend conferences about cattle welfare. Pandya was also part of a committee formed by the Bombay Presidency to study the city’s milk supply.
Policymakers gave serious attention to the role that gaushalas and pinjrapoles should play in cattle development. In 1946, the economist Datar Singh submitted a note to the board of agriculture titled “The Reorganisation of Gaushalas and Pinjrapoles in India,” in which he reported that there were around 3,000 gaushalas in India that year, housing approximately 600,000 heads of cattle. This note received positive attention from several prominent leaders, including Gandhi, who published one extract from it in his magazine Harijan in May 1946, and another in October the same year.
Political arguments against and economic arguments for cow slaughter continued after Independence. In 1964, VM Dandekar, an economist from Maharashtra, published an article titled “Problem of Numbers in Cattle Development,” following which he launched a vigorous campaign for the legalisation of cow slaughter, which caused considerable controversy. In 1966, several political parties, such as the Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, demanded a nationwide ban on cow slaughter.
Not all economists agree with arguments such as Dandekar’s. In an article published in 1995, A Vaidyanathan underlined a trait in Dandekar’s writings on the issue of surplus cattle, wherein he appeared “impatient with, and dismissive of, those who focused on the economic and cultural rationale for Indian attitudes to cattle.” Indeed, in 1969, reviewing KN Raj’s book Investment in Livestock in Agrarian Economies, Dandekar used the dismissive phrase “Cow Dung Models” as the title of his article.
Any hope that differing economic views could be ironed out was removed as the cow-protection movement gained political momentum. In April 1979, the social activist Vinoba Bhave went on a hunger strike to pressure the central government, led by Morarji Desai, to prohibit cow slaughter throughout the country. The same year, KN Raj and his fellow economist KN Nair published two articles in which they pointed out that the issue needed a nuanced approach—one that took into account the varying cattle populations and their uses in different states. Nair’s article pointed out that cattle slaughter in Kerala had not proved detrimental to agriculture or livestock development in the state.
Other nuanced arguments have also emerged over the years—such as that animals should be treated ethically even independent of a ban on cattle slaughter. For instance, a 1994 article in the magazine Down to Earth, on the closure of Delhi’s Idgah slaughterhouse, cited the educationist NS Ramaswamy’s argument that urban abattoirs should be shifted to rural wastelands. This suggestion echoed a recommendation made by a government report on the meat industry released in the late 1980s, which had proposed a ten-year, phased programme of relocating abattoirs situated in cities. The magazine quoted Ramaswamy as saying that “the proposed (rural) abattoirs will eliminate cruelty to animals in transit, eliminate middle men and ensure jobs to people, where they need them.”
The issue continued to flare up regularly. In 1995, the Maharashtra government attempted to impose a ban on bullock slaughter in the state—but reversed its decision in the face of widespread protests. Those who opposed the government argued that the bill was anti-poor. They pointed out that slaughterhouses and ancillary industries provided livelihood support not only to Muslim butchers but also to several Dalit communities involved in the processing of skins and hides.
Though Hindu activists have focussed on cow protection, politicians have often blurred distinctions between animals for their own benefit. Ahead of the 2014 general election, Narendra Modi raised the issue of cow slaughter and warned of a “pink revolution,” referring to an expansion in the meat industry. But with cow slaughter banned in several states in the country, and the export of cows and cow meat also prohibited, the industry’s growth has been driven largely by buffalo.
Indeed, even as the country has convulsed internally over the question of cattle slaughter, the government’s economic policies over the years show that it recognises that meat—including bovine meat—forms an important part of the export economy. The 1963 law that governs the export of meat and meat products allows the export of buffalo. Other policies and regulations put in place over the years, too, have permitted the export of live animals and meat, including buffalo. These rules were in force during the term of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance between 1998 and 2004, and remain in force today.
Over the years, these regulations have contributed significantly to the country’s foreign exchange earnings without causing any major dip in cattle numbers, suggesting that slaughter is likely not deleterious to the cattle economy. Rather, India continues to have vast numbers of cattle that it cannot look after: as per the latest livestock census figures, India reports 5.3 million stray cattle. The states that report zero stray cattle—Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim—are not from the “cow belt” or Hindi heartland, where cow worship continues to be an emotive issue.
This makes evident that aggressive cattle-protection movements do not necessarily lead to a population of cattle that is healthy and well cared for. Further, even as the political call for cow protection is louder now than it has been in decades, any movement that ignores the complex economics behind humans’ relationships with cows and other cattle would lead to the suffering of both people and animals.
Correction: The print version of this story erroneously stated that Meghalaya, along with Nagaland and Sikkim, reported having zero stray cattle. The states that reported zero stray cattle were Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim. The Caravan regrets the error.