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India: No Freedom didn’t come riding on a cow, trouble did | Manimugdha S Sharma

19 April 2017

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The Times of India

In the 60-odd years since the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 till Independence in 1947, numerous Indians were hanged, shot, imprisoned or transported for life to the Andamans. All of them gave up their lives or suffered untold hardships for cow protection, if Union minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s words in Parliament—that cow protection was the spirit of the Freedom Movement—are taken at face value.

Historians are aghast at this casual, almost matter-of-fact statement by the BJP minister. “I cannot think of anything more distant from nationalist politics than this,” says Professor Dilip Menon of Witwatersrand University, South Africa.

Dr Benjamin Zachariah of Trier University, Germany, believes this claim is a farcical one. “Cow protection didn’t get the British to redeploy troops. No effective anti-colonial activist fought the British with cow dung. What is this spirit of cow protection supposed to be? And if it were true that cows drove the British out of India in some mystical way, who do the cow protectors think are the relevant enemy to drive away?” Zachariah says sarcastically.

So what was the spirit that guided the anti-colonial movement in India? “Political freedom, social equality and cultural diversity. Cow protection was neither a demand of the Swadeshi (1905) nor the Khilafat and Non Cooperation Movement (1920). It played no role in Civil Disobedience (1930) or the Quit India movements (1942). It was absent from the INA and the Naval Mutiny of 1946.

Cow protection was also absent from the great revolutionary movements like the Ghadar and HSRA (Bhagat Singh and comrades). It finds no mention in the 1857 Revolt. In fact, this communal issue played no role in any secular anti-imperialist movement in India,” says Professor Anirudh Deshpande of Delhi University.

Professor Gyanendra Pandey argues in his book ‘The Construction of Communalism In Colonial North India’ that both nationalism and communalism rose together in colonial India. And the cow was a rallying cause for the Hindus.

“Cow protection gained salience in the communal mobilization organised first by the Arya Samaj in the 1880s. Later, it became a staple of Hindu nationalist politics in the 20th century,” Deshpande says.

The Cow Protection Movement helmed by the Arya Samaj with the Kukas in Punjab established Gau Rakshini sabhas or ‘cow protection councils’ in villages and urban areas. The first such sabha was started by the Kukas in Punjab.

“The movement then speared to the United Provinces and helped consolidate the backward castes, the Ahirs in particular, against the Muslims. However, it was only in UP that cow protection underlay nationalist politics. It came to be wrapped into the emerging politics of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan and represented the communalisation of Hindu politics,” Professor Menon says.

Nagpur in the then Central Provinces was a key centre, some would argue the de facto headquarters, of the Cow Protection Movement. The RSS was still several decades away.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati, considered to be the earliest mover of this kind of politics, even started a signature campaign in support of Gau Raksha. He petitioned Queen Victoria and said the people of India, including “18 crore Muslims”, wanted the cow to be protected from slaughter.

Everyone, including the then “Hindi intelligentsia” and the vernacular press, pitched in. Apocryphal reports were published or circulated, sometimes in the name of the Rana of Nepal, sometimes in the name of the Maharaja of Darbhanga and so on—just like the WhatsApp forwards of today.

Pandey also argues in another work, ‘Rallying Round The Cow: Sectarian Strife in the Bhojpuri Region, 1888-1917’ in ‘Subaltern Studies: Volume II’, that the Gau Rakshini sabhas had as members/volunteers teachers, lawyers, clerks and even officials connect the towns to the countryside in this movement. “Strengthening their effort,” he says, “often goading them into action was a motley crew of swamis, sanyasis and fakirs.”

The Muslim was often described as ‘gau rakshas’ (cow demon) in the reports of the time, the enemy of the ‘gau rakshak’ (cow protector, the good guys). And what was interesting, Hindu groups petitioned the government to stop cow slaughter, saying that both Mughal Emperor Akbar and the Nawab Wazirs of Oudh had stopped the practice considering the cow to be a sacred animal.

However, the movement and the hate, both gathered steam with time. And after a decade of such politics of hatred, mass communal riots broke out across the country in 1893. Bombay, Junagarh, North Western Provinces, Oudh, Azamgarh, Bihar and even Rangoon saw riots in which over 100 people were killed.

An alarmed Viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, wrote that the Cow Protection Movement was transforming the Indian National Congress “from a foolish debating society into a real political power, backed by the most dangerous elements of native society”.

The Congress, though, was wrongly credited for this, historians argue, as there were few Congress leaders in all this.

The movement subsided after 1893, though it didn’t extinguish completely. “The excesses of 1893 produced a sense of shame among some of the Hindu leaders and led at the same time to increased government efforts to bring about agreements between the representatives of local Hindus and Muslims,” Pandey says in Subaltern Studies.

The movement faded as the secular anti-colonial movement rose with its own definition of an inclusive nationalism. Indian National Congress helmed it and nurtured it, and with time, this movement became the real threat to the existence of the British Raj.

“It’s probably more relevant to say that while some people were busy protecting cows, other people were participating in the struggle for national liberation,” Zachariah says.


The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use