Lounging outside a small office space, underneath a vibrant portrait of a cow, members of the Bhartiya Janta Party’s Cow Development Cell, who are driven by a pro-Hindu agenda, recited their recent struggles of setting up roadblocks, ransacking cattle trucks and setting free cows that were apparently being taken to the slaughterhouse.
“We have to do it to save our cow mother,” said Subrata Gupta, head of West Bengal’s branch of the group.
Across India, the status of the cow, which is considered sacred in Hinduism, has emerged as a highly divisive issue since conservatives reassured by the rise of the BJP, which bases its political ideologies on Hindu nationalism, have been demanding stricter limitations on beef consumption and increased protection for cows. While Maharashtra extended its ban on cow slaughter to secure even bulls earlier this year, Haryana went on to impose stringent punishments to protect the sacred animal.
The subject of cattle welfare has been in the spotlight since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014 with broad electoral support after campaigning an inclusive message related to economic revival in India, which happens to be a nation of many different religions and cultures. Since he assumed office however, his government has worked diligently towards promoting yoga, a lifestyle choice with roots in Hinduism, as well as Sanskrit, a language that was commonly used by the Hindu liturgy.
Some religious minorities in India have contended that the beef bans and other restrictive measures adopted by the Modi administration have been aimed at them.
“The BJP is trying to make Muslims feel like they’re not Indians,” said Siddiqullah Chaudhary of Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind, a national Muslim-rights organization.
Muslims are not the only ones objecting to these changes.
“These religious things are spreading everywhere,” said Anubhav Chakraborty, who is Hindu yet opposes banning beef on the principle that it erodes India’s secular tradition.
However, BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli said those who oppose the efforts to ban cow slaughter should read the constitution of India, which apart from guaranteeing freedom of religion, also states that the country should modernize both agriculture and animal husbandry in order to improve breeds and also prohibit the slaughter of cows and calves over time.
Today, the possession and consumption of beef is still legal in West Bengal and a few other states, as India continues to be the world’s largest exporter of the meat. Even though the law enforcing beef bans varies from state to state, much of the meat is acquired from water buffaloes that ironically are not privy to the same religious privileges as cows. While Gujarat set a seven-year jail term and Rs 50,000 fine for the offence, Delhi settled for five years and Rs 10,000.
Yet, cattle smuggling continues to be a common cross-border problem, amounting up to $600 million each year, which is why Gupta’s Cow Development Cell feels the need to set up rapid action groups that would stop cattle trucks without any legal authority to do so but with hopes that cows and bulls would no longer be trafficked to Bangladesh, where they are usually sold to beef processing units, bone crushing factories and tanneries. Kohli disapproved of such actions, saying there is no need for Gupta’s group to act in a vigilante manner.
Anant Mondal, a member of West Bengal’s Cow Development Cell bragged of how his group had heckled truck drivers and freed as many as 92 cows a few months earlier as local police officials denied any knowledge of the incident. In January, a similar incident involving right-wing activists had taken place in another small town where reportedly several hundred cattle had been set free. 32-year-old Debraj Mitra, one of the participants in that incident, said cattle smuggling has bothered him for many years and it has only been possible to act against the crime with Modi at the helm of affairs finally.
“There is always a first time,” he said. “With Modi in power, we might get support from the top.”
Like Gupta in West Bengal, Sachin Patil has been taking similar actions against cow slaughter in Maharashtra. 31-year-old Patil, who believes that the recent beef bans across India have reenergized most Hindu’s want for cattle welfare, said as a member of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he wants to preserve India’s culture and values by protecting cows.
“A cow sacrifices whatever she has, from the day she is born to the day she dies,” he told the media. “If we don't aggressively protect the Indian cow right now, soon we will have to show our children photographs and tell them, 'See, this was a cow, this is where milk used to come from, not from cardboard boxes.' Today the cow, our mother, is asking us why we don't take care for her, why we leave her to get slaughtered when she gives us all she has.”
Patil is the head of Keshav Srushti Gausheva Parishad, one of the 2,000 cow shelters in the country that are run by the RSS and other right-wing organizations. Patil’s shelter is a four-acre property that houses 220 cows, oxen, bulls and calves.
“When children throw their parents out of the house, they have nowhere to go but old age homes,” he said. “In the same way, when cows stop being viable, they are thrown out and they have to come here. This is wrong.”
Mahendra Ambar Singh, head of another shelter Sanyas Ashram, which looks after cows, bulls and calves that have been rescued from slaughterhouses, purchased from cash-strapped farmers or donated by people who can no longer care for them, explained how the cattle under his supervision produce milk and urine that are utilized by those who believe the former offers innumerable health benefits and the latter helps to naturally purge toxins from the body.
“To think that the cow is only useful for milk is myopic,” said Subodh Kumar, who runs cow shelters in New Delhi and Mathura. “Cow dung and urine are by far the most significant components of everything she gives.”
All of these cow shelters from across the country reportedly manufacture at least 24 products, constituting cow urine and cow dung, that are sold at low cost in shops backed by the RSS’s large network within India and overseas.
“The Gaumaya Face Pack helps remove pimples and black spots, Nandini Hair Oil is an all-season oil for healthy hair and body, Gaumaya Black Dantamanjan is tooth powder that can be applied on the gums, teeth, and tongue using your finger or a brush if required, Nandini Snanadi Vilayan is a shampoo that reputedly makes hair soft and supple.
Cow urine detoxifies the body and can cure serious health problems, especially diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and skin disease,” said Shruti Warang, a practitioner of traditional Hindu medicine, known as Ayurveda, as well as head of production at one of the cow shelters. “The demand for these products is from everyone because they medically benefit whoever uses them, including non-Hindus.”
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