In school, we were often asked to write an essay on “The Cow”. The composition would almost invariably start as “The cow is a four -footed animal. It gives us milk…” But the modern version of the essay will be quite different. The cow has been a subject of ‘’veneration” for Hindus from time immemorial. But the present day’s “love” for the cow of a particular political party far surpasses the age-old tradition.It has even been pleaded that the cow should be declared India’s national animal.

The cow is considered sacred by Hindus.The figure of the cow has often been shown as a Hindu deity signifying the nurturing quality of motherhood and as a symbol of India’s different religious communities. Sometimes the cow figure has been identified as ‘kamadhenu’, the wish-fulfilling cow, a composite mythological creature with the body, hoof and horns of a cow,birds’ wings and a peacock’s tail, and the face of a beautiful woman. Other images comprise “Gau Mata” or “Jagat Mata”, in which the cow’s body encompasses all the Hindu deities, the rishis and the sacred mountains and rivers as well. The Mother Cow image of “Chaurasi Dev Darshan” also appears as the abode of eighty four deities, uniting the many strands of Hinduism within one sacred and all- encompassing body. The cow has ever provided an unrivalled rallying symbol for Hindu religious nationalism through the colonial and post colonial periods. The image of the cow is that of the universal nourisher that provides milk to people of all religions.

It is such images of the cow that have been associated with recurrent cow protection agitations since the 1880s. Barring half a dozen states, mainly in the north-east, cow slaughter has been declared illegal in the rest of the country. Heavy fines are imposed on offenders,even punishable with a life term in Gujarat. Cow protection committees are even insisting on implementing the laws and set up vigilante committees to enforce the same.

The UP government has clamped down on illegal slaughter houses. So have Haryana, Rajasthan and Jharkhand. There has been considerable violence in the name of protecting cows. One is reminded of the cause of cow protection in colonial India leading to violent vigilantism, including the riots of 1893 in eastern UP which were sparked by attempts to forcibly prevent Muslim butchers from slaughtering cows. In contemporary India and in spite of the ban, there have been attacks on Muslims by Hindu vigilantes on the suspicion of consuming and trading in beef.

Moreover, cow vigilante groups, now referred to as animal rights activists have turned the cow into a cultural symbol of violence by using the sanctity of the holy animal to resort to violence, even lynching. The traveller, Alberuni, in his book India, has mentioned different reasons for the ban on killing cows or consuming beef: “Brahmins used to suffer from the eating of cow’s meat.

For their country is hot, the inner part of the bodies are cold, the natural warmth becomes feeble in them, and the power of digestion is so weak that they must strengthen it by eating the leaves of betel after dinner, and by chewing the betel nut…. As this is the case, they forbade eating cows’ meat, because it is essentially thick and cold”. Alberuni also highlighted the economic reason. Specifically, the cow serves man by providing milk and ploughing fields. The Arthashastra, which had a profound influence on state policy from the second century BC to the 12th century A.D. had recommended the consumption of meat and slaughter of barren and dead cows. In ancient Hindu texts, there is no mention of any restriction on eating buffalo meat. In the Vedas, there is a list of about 50 animals which could be sacrificed and consumed. However, cow slaughter was discouraged during the Maurya reign from 187 B.C to 322 A.D. And after the foundation of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century, the cow became a cultural symbol for Hindus.

The Mughal emperor Babar, declared that killing of cows must be prohibited. He wanted his son Humayun to do the same in 1529. The later Mughals were lenient in matters of cow slaughter, but it was declared a punishable offence by Hyder Ali in the second half of the 18th century. Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Bahadur Shah Zafar banned cow slaughter. In the Maratha kingdom, Shivaji was referred to as the saviour of the cow. The Gau Dakshini Sabha was founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1882. It initiated the BJP-RSS-VHP campaign against cow killing.

There are demands for a countrywide law to ban on cow slaughter,which is however against the Constitution. The Supreme Court in July 2015 had passed an order to frame guidelines to prevent animals from being smuggled out of India for the Gadhimai festival in Nepal. In July 2016, the apex court directed the ministry concerned to frame rules under Section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,1960.

The draft Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(Regulations of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017 was notified in January 2017. It was clarified by the government that the rules were intended to protect the animals from cruelty and not to regulate the existing trade in cattle for slaughter houses.

Cow vigilantism may become counter-productive if not addressed properly. It has often been argued that beef is a part of the traditional diet of Christians and Muslims, and the ban will affect the livelihood of minorities. Socially ,it may alienate the Muslims and Dalits who depend on the leather industry. Also, the “cow economy” is important from the birth of the cow to its death. Milk is complete food; cow dung is effective manure; cow urine is used in some ayurvedic medicines.

Recently, an association of cattle traders moved the Supreme Court to submit that their livestock is being forfeited on the basis of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Care and Maintenance of Case Property Animals) Rules, 2017 which allows the seizure of privately owned cattle even before the owner has been proved guilty of cruelty in court. The actual scenario is dangerous. The rise of lynch mobs is disturbing. The government has neither notified the rules in Parliament, as per the provisions of the 1960 law, nor has it renotified them after the amendments as per the Supreme Court’s order.