The death of 22 rescued cows at a shelter in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district from suspected nitrate poisoning in many ways encapsulates India’s two-faced approach to cow protection. As an aside it may be mentioned that this paradoxically is not dissimilar to the attitude India has towards one of the strongest votaries of cow protection – a man revered as the father of the nation but one whose thoughts are dismissed as easily as his words are extolled.

At one level, the cow is treated with near manic reverence while at another it is subjected to such callous disregard that it seems reasonable to ask if a humane death would not be preferable to the torture it suffers inside and outside shelters. Abandoned beasts roam the streets, surviving – and suffering – on the detritus of the same humans who will take up arms and commit murder, ostensibly to “protect” them.

And those that are rescued suffer painful deaths in the fashion that the cattle in Badaun did, given fodder laced with poison. The facts of the case are stark enough, but they do merit retelling. According to news reports, the animals fell sick after they were given fresh pearl millet leaves with the state-supplied fodder. Officials haven’t explained why the addition to the diet was considered necessary, or whether it was to make up for fodder diverted elsewhere? Officials haven’t also explained how they jumped to the conclusion that the leaves led to nitrate poisoning.

What is clear though is that the callousness shown towards the cattle was several shades worse than that of people transporting animal carcasses. On a parity of perverse reasoning, those responsible for poisoning the cattle to painful deaths in Badaun are far more culpable than those seeking the meat of a bovine for nourishment, or its hide to earn a livelihood. For this, if anything, is a statesponsored assault on cattle, in a nation that has of late added a dimension to cow protection that Gandhi would have deemed repugnant.

The deaths in Badaun are the latest to rock Uttar Pradesh, a state helmed by a man who claims cow protection as his creed. In July, 35 cows were found dead in a state-run shelter in Prayagraj. Officials concluded that the cows were struck collectively by a convenient bolt of lightning, which hypothesis if true must have been quite an incredible act of nature. The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister promptly ordered an inquiry, but its conclusions haven’t made their way to the public domain.

In Ayodhya, 50 cows died mysteriously in a state-run shelter earlier this year. Lack of adequate facilities also reportedly led to multiple cattle deaths in Mirzapur and Banda districts of the state. And while mystery and fantasy converge in poisoned leaves, the energies of those who swear by the ideals of cow protection are expended on killing suspected cattle smugglers. If Gandhi were alive, he would be entitled to ask if we have gone mad.