Fifty Years Ago, Hindutva Groups Led the First Attack on the Indian Parliament

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
07 November, 2016

Nearly 35 years before the attack orchestrated by the Laskhar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed took place in 2001, on 7 November 1966, a massive protest comprising nearly 125,000 people charged the Indian parliament. The protest was part of a movement for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, led by various Hindutva groups. In his September 2016 story, In the Name of the Mother, Ishan Marvel reported on how the state is nurturing the gau rakshaks, or cow-protection vigilantes, of Haryana. In the following excerpt from the story, Marvel recounts the first-ever attack, and how it was a “a day of violence and vandalism.”

In ancient times, according to many historians, such as DN Jha and Romila Thapar, beef was a part of the diet of most communities living on the subcontinent, including Brahmins. Cows, among other animals, were also sacrificed for many Brahminical rituals. The popular sentiment against cow slaughter began to reify in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the emergence of Hindu nationalism. By the early twentieth century, organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had started using the cow as a political tool to mobilise Hindus.

In late 1948, during the constituent assembly debates, a few members of the assembly demanded that cow protection be made a fundamental right. However, among others, BR Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee, opposed the idea, preventing India from becoming the first country to provide a fundamental right to an animal. Eventually, a compromise was reached, as a ban on cattle slaughter was declared one of the Directive Principles of State Policy—guidelines to be kept in mind by central and state governments while framing laws. The resulting Article 48 of the Constitution reads, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines 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.”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the cow mother motif was used by Hindutva groups to rouse religious sentiments among the Hindus.

On 7 November 1966, a movement for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, led by these organisations, culminated in a massive demonstration, when a crowd of nearly 125,000 descended upon Delhi. It was an unprecedented attack on the Indian parliament. (It would be 35 years before the next one, orchestrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed in 2001.) The procession started from Roshanara Garden, Red Fort and Ajmal Khan Park. According to archival news reports from The Tribune, around midday, as the mobs neared the legislative centre—with “saffron-robed sadhus” carrying swords, spears and trishuls in the vanguard—“a day of violence and vandalism” began to unfold as the demonstrators laid siege to the surrounding areas of Connaught Place and central Delhi, attacking two electrical substations, Irwin Hospital, the Government of India Press, Delite and Odeon cinemas, and other establishments.

The “focal point of the demonstration,” however, was right before the Parliament House, where “the demonstrators, who filled the mile-long Parliament Street, were addressed from a huge platform by leaders of the organising parties, Members of Parliament and religious leaders.” At around 1.25 pm, the demonstration took a violent turn after a “highly inflammatory speech” by the Jana Sangh MP Swami Rameshwaranand, who at the time had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for unruly behaviour. Incited by his call to surround the parliament, the crowd rushed to break the police cordon, hurling stones and other missiles. The police resorted to using tear gas and lathi-charging, before finally opening fire to keep the demonstrators from entering the building.

The foiled mob then again went on a rampage, throwing lit petrol-soaked rags at neighbouring buildings, such as those housing All India Radio, Press Trust of India, Press Information Bureau, Transport Bhawan, Shram Bhawan and Gol Dak Khana. According to The Tribune, there was “extensive damage and destruction,” so that by 3 pm, “there was hardly a building in Parliament Street or Connaught Circus which did not bear evidence of vandalism.” Government vehicles, including a mail-van and four buses; an Indian Oil petrol pump; and several milk booths belonging to Delhi Milk Supply Scheme were set on fire, and “even traffic lights were not spared.” In addition, the houses of the then Congress president, Kumarasami Kamaraj, and the then union minister of supply and technical development, Kotha Raghuramaiah, were attacked.

Though the situation was officially declared under control by 7.30 pm, the army and the Central Reserve Police Force were called in to help guard important government buildings, and localities around central Delhi. “By the evening the army was patrolling the streets, for the first time since the dark days of 1947,” Ramachandra Guha noted in India After Gandhi. Additionally, a 48-hour curfew was announced under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which deals with “unlawful assembly,” and was finally lifted on the morning of 9 November, since no untoward incidents were reported in the preceding 24 hours. According to a UNI report, dated 8 November, over 250 private cars and two-wheelers were damaged the previous day, mostly within a two-mile radius of the Parliament Street police station, at a loss of about Rs 90 lakh. The report also mentioned that no compensation would be paid to the owners since rioting was not covered under comprehensive insurance. Another PTI report stated that 830 persons—mostly sadhus—had been taken into custody, including Rameshwaranand.

On 9 November, the then home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, resigned after his colleagues in the Congress demanded that he do so during a meeting of the Congress parliamentary party executive.

The next day, the minister of state for home affairs, Jaisukh Lal Hathi, released an official statement, according to which, out of the 40-odd persons who received gunshot injuries, eight had died, including a constable. Opposition leaders, especially those belonging to the Jana Sangh, demanded a judicial inquiry into the killings. Atal Behari Vajpayee, then a Jana Sangh MP, lamented that “the undesirable elements, who resorted to violent activities in the demonstration against cow-slaughter, had done a great harm to the pious cause.” Even now, half a century later, a rally is held each year in November at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi to commemorate the 1966 demonstration.