India’s Complicated History Of Gau Raksha - A Complete Timeline

India’s Complicated History Of Gau Raksha - A Complete Timeline

“Truth, exclusive devotion to non-violence and cow protection are the chief points of Hinduism. One who neglects them is no more a Hindu.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Cow protection seems to be the only feature of Gandhi’s speech that cow vigilantes and protection committees seem to zone in on nowadays, and not the non-violent aspect of it all. This is not a new phenomenon in India, although it has come into the harsh media light over the last two years. While the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) may be at the media forefront of the Gau Raksha movement, many of today’s ‘legitimate’ Gau Rakshaks find their roots in the Bhartiya Gau Raksha Dal, a Right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation founded by Pawan Pandit, that conducts operations across the country. While Pandit himself states that taking the law into one’s own hands is not the way his volunteers go about things, the rising complaints against Gau Rakshaks paints a different picture – are they truly affiliated with the organisation or are self-styled vigilantes, we don’t know for sure.

‘Gau Raksha’ has been a long-standing sentiment through Indian history, but never has it been this violent. While today’s bovine militia has turned Gau Raksha into a cringe-worthy term and we call for the banning of the Gau Rakshaks, Karnataka’s Union Minister of State, Commerce & Industry, Nirmala Sitharaman defended the group, stating, “I would like all of them [Opposition], particularly the members of the Indian National Congress, to recognise that cow protection was part of our freedom movement. There is nothing new in it.”

Sitharam isn’t completely in the wrong here, Gandhi did preach for cow protection and it was a part of the freedom movement, but human memory can be very selective, especially when it comes to rationalising and justifications.

Fuelled by religious lexicon and driven to violence, the idea of cow protection has over the last two-three years drawn quite a stark divider in Indian society. From the Dadri lynching in September 2015, to the attack on close to 15 men including 55-year-old Pehlu Khan leading to his subsequent death in Alwar earlier this year - both of the deceased’s families had cases filed against them instead of against the attackers - the nature of cow protection in India may have contorted in its nature, but it’s a practice that has its roots in history. In our current political climate, we take a step back to see how far the ideology has come; how it has been contorted from its initial stages in the 1800s to now being politically and socially pegged as a religious requirement for optimal piety.

1881 - The first recorded movement, of sorts, took place with the support of Arya Samaj and its founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and the message of cow protection travelled with the group across the northern part of the country. As Neera Chandhoke writes, they mobilised public opinion with pamphlets and speeches, set up gau rakshak societies and got thousands of signatures for petitions addressed to the colonial government for a ban on cow slaughter. In 1882 Saraswati went on to establish a special committee for the protection of cows called Gaurakshini Sabha.

1890s - As the movement progressed and grew so did the ire of leaders of the Muslim community. With increasing number of committees being set up as well as the Gausewak and Gaudharma Prakash newspapers being published, the suspicions only grew, so did the tension between the two communities. This lead to a communal clash between the Hindus and Muslims in Bombay in 1893. reports, “It erupted against the background of the rise of a militant cow protection movement – Gaorakshak Mandali – that many Muslims regarded as provocative and was launched in Bombay Presidency in late 1892.” This is hailed by many as the first communal clash incited by, atleast in part, the ‘holy mother.’

1919 - The Khilafat movement was launched by Muslims under colonial rule in a bid to put pressure on the British government who wanted to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate. The leaders of the movement joined forces with Gandhi and it is said that they gained support from leaders of the cow protection movement as well if they in turn supported the ban on cow slaughter. The non-cooperation movement and Khilafat movement was seen as a uniting of the two religious communities, while both had their own aims at that point in time. While it’s believed that Gandhi himself refrained from bringing up cow protection at the conference, the sense of quid pro quo lingered.

1949 - Cow politics continued and only gained strength following independence, and prohibition on cow slaughter officially entered the Indian Constitution, although, as a Directive Principle of State Policy, and thus, Article 48 was born. Directive Principles are meant to guide states in law and policy making and are themselves not enforceable. Soon, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, under Congress rule, passed laws banning the killing of the cows.

1966 - Unhappy with the lack of legal backing, various cow protection groups came together to protest outside the Parliament November 7 demanding a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter. Riled up in mob, the crowd attacked the Parliament which led to police retaliation, firing and lathi charge - eight people died in this violent confrontation.

2005 - While the bovine beauties may have taken a back seat for a couple of years we see a comeback in cow-driven politics when Gujarat successfully bans cow slaughter in the state, with support from the Supreme Court - Maharashtra and Haryana followed suit with a complete ban, leading to an uproar across the country.

2015 to present - The Dadi lynching in September left the country shaken and the true face of cow vigilantism was seen my the entire country. While some factions denounce every violent act committed in the name of cow protection, others continue to deny its existence. But how far will just merely stating you ‘condemn’ an action take you? How many such acts have taken shape as discrimination and prejudice against Muslims and members of the lower caste? Violent cow vigilantes - if they can even be called protectors anymore - roam the streets with zero fear of repercussions. They aren’t all wrong, of course, people who do break the law on cow slaughter and transportation can be handed over to the police. When lawless prevails and aggression is the first reaction; while jallikattu exists in a country where killing people over alleged beef consumption continues, and numerous cows continue to roam the streets munching on plastic - no one is being protected here, neither human nor cattle.

Representational feature image via PBS

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