A judge of the Allahabad High Court recently made an observation that cows, being sacred to Hindus, should be designated as the national animal of India. It trended as news and sparked a heated discussion across social media. That an obiter dictum could be so newsy underscores how contentious the subject of cows is to Indians, both for those who revere it and for those who don’t.
It is in this backdrop that a reshaping of the Muslim attitude toward cow becomes an ineluctable imperative. In the mainstream religious discourse of Muslims, the absence of sensitivity for Hindu sensibility for cows does not reflect well on the ethics of good neighbourliness. Muslims know it too well that the cow is sacred to Hindus, its slaughter the worst sacrilege, and its meat is an abomination to them. Common sense dictates that one would be respectful of another’s sentiments. A cavalier disregard doesn’t help cultivate good inter-community relations.
The narrative is further vitiated when clever liberal-secular arguments are employed to rationalise deeply ingrained religious prejudices. Liberal arguments should be used for promotion of liberal ethos, not for justification of communalism. To say that the State has no right to check what’s on one’s plate is a good argument, but doesn’t apply to contraband — which beef is — with cow slaughter being prohibited by law in most of India, in 20 out of 28 states, and 6 out of 8 Union Territories. It goes far beyond the so-called cow-belt. Most of these laws banning cow slaughter were enacted in the 1950s, during the high noon of Leftward liberal polity, in accordance with Article 48 of the Constitution that makes protection of cow one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. Constitutionalism being the leitmotif of liberalism, those who raise slogans of swearing by the Constitution would acquit themselves better if they helped prepare a law-abiding citizenry by inculcating in them a respect for existing laws, rather than adducing transgressive philosophical arguments that might instigate them into being on the wrong side of law and sensitivities, but also becoming vulnerable to vigilante violence.
When periodic reports of lynching, on suspicion of storing beef or carrying cows for slaughter, were shocking the conscience of the nation, a pertinent point was sorely missing from the condemnatory narrative. The interest of the Muslim minority would be better served if it could be convincingly said that cow slaughter being legally prohibited, and Muslims being a law-abiding community who would not brook such violations by their members, the allegations are not only implausible but outlandish. Instead, the argument usually peddled is that the State doesn’t have a right to peep into one’s fridge. Would they say the same if a deer or a peacock, both protected under law, were slaughtered for meat? The ferocious contumacy of the fridge reasoning can imply admission and have deleterious implications for the collective psyche of both the communities. The default response of Muslims shouldn’t be victimhood but further engagement.
Between history and justification
An already skewed discourse is further confounded by pressing history into an egregious rationalisation. The moot point that cow slaughter is banned in much of India is obfuscated by disingenuous citing of historical evidence. Well, historian D.N. Jha’s book, The Myth of the Holy Cow, could have been right in inferring that in the remote antiquity Indians ate beef. But, so what? Is that more important or the living reality that in the last about 3,000 years, most Indians have held the cow sacred, and no sacrilege is more abominable to them than its slaughter?
Another argument pressed into justification for violating the law against cow slaughter is the alleged “hypocrisy” of allowing beef consumption in some states, but not in others. It’s simple, in some states, particularly in the northeast, there are no laws for cow protection. It’s much the same as some states being dry and some not. This line of reasoning wilfully ignores the crux of the issue. If Hindus don’t have the same problem with beef consumption by, say, Christians or some tribes, that’s because they just eat it. Unlike the Muslims, they don’t carry a theo-political narrative of conquest and subjugation in which cow slaughter had been used as a tool for demoralising a defeated nation. It was insult added to injury.
Earlier, D.D. Kosambi, a pioneer of Marxist historiography in India, in his book, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, had suggested, “heavy, dark, sluggish, hardy, fertile, productive with little care, far cleaner than it looks, docile enough to be led by a child, but suspicious of innovations and perfectly capable when roused, of charging a tiger or a locomotive, the buffalo would be a fitting national symbol for India.”
If similar suggestions about buffalo and cow were to arouse dissimilar reactions, one must explore the reasons thereof.
Buffalo, with all its utility and ubiquity, is just another domesticated animal, whereas cow, as the usage suggests, is holy, and its sacredness is to be preserved and protected from sacrilegious slaughter by those in pursuit of a religious ideal of iconoclastic purity achieved through the desecration of sanctities of other communities.
The cow has been a perennial bone of contention between Hindus and Muslims since the first invasion of Arabs in the early 8th century CE when the Umayyad general Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sind and Multan in 712 CE. The issue has been central to the dynamic of Hindu-Muslim relation, predicated on the relative political standing of the two communities. It is pre-modern in origin, and predates the rise of communal politics during the colonial period. Historian Gyanendra Pandey, in his book, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India, has demonstrated how the issue of cow slaughter formed one of the foundational blocks of contending discourses of communalism — the other emblematic issues being the Urdu-Hindi dispute, and music-before-mosque as the Hindu religious processions insisted on winding through Muslim streets.
The problem has had a long lineage, therefore historicising it would place it in perspective, and help us understand its genesis, and find a solution.
Insult to injury
Al Biruni (d. 1048), the father of Indology, who came to India in 1017 along with Mahmud of Ghazni during one of his 17 campaigns, and stayed back for about a decade to learn about India, writes in his encyclopaedic Tarikh al-Hind that when Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Multan, “…he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery”. This anecdote typifies how cow slaughter, beside mutilation of idols and desecration of temples, has been essential to the grammar of politics since the inception of Muslim rule in India. It added insult to injury and worked as a psychological tool for demoralising the vanquished. The imperial hubris was best reflected in how the festival of sacrifice universally known as Eid-ul Ad’ha came to be named here as Baqreid — the festival of cow — wherein Baqr (q pronounced from epiglottis) means cow, and eid means festival. That, because of homophony, it’s thought to be the festival of goat, is a providential corrective to a pernicious discourse.
The situation was further aggravated by theological convolutions of ulema who insisted on cow slaughter, stating that any deference to the Hindu sentiment would be tantamount to sharing in their idolatrous belief.
But, unlike today’s narrative makers who use liberal idioms and constitutional reasoning to promote communal discourse, there were sensible Muslim rulers who outlawed cow slaughter. The story of the will that Babur left for his son Humayun to forbid cow slaughter is all too known. Howsoever slack the enforcement, cow slaughter remained banned in the Mughal empire from its beginning to end (1526-1857). Later, modernist reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan urged Muslims to give up this practice, and still later, the leadership of the Khilafat Movement pleaded the same.
Since the issue was deeply embroiled in the interpretation of Islam, it would be appropriate to prohibit cow slaughter under theological sanction insofar as Maslaha (public welfare) is among chief Maqasid (goals) of Sharia, and it is evident that the practice runs contrary to public welfare, particularly of the Muslims. Inasmuch as the existing modern laws are effectively based on Maslaha, and meet the Maqasid of Sharia, cow slaughter shall be prohibited both as a secular and religious duty by the Muslims. They would do well to remember that the more prevalent meaning of Maslaha in India is prudence.
The author is an IPS officer. He tweets @najmul_hoda. Views are personal.