Gandhi, cow protection and Hindu identity

Abhay Kumar writes that a large section of the “liberal-progressive” intelligentsia is too Gandhian to critically engage with the question that Gandhi played an important role in strengthening the hegemony of the ‘holy cow’ discourse

The self-appointed gau-rakshaks (cow protectors) have created a reign of terror in the country. Attacks on Dalits and Muslims in the name of protecting the “holy” cow are being reported from various places. The Hindutva goons have become a law unto themselves, beating people, thrusting cow-dung in their mouths and sometimes even killing them. Undoubtedly, there has been spurt in cow protectors’ goondaism ever since this present Narendra Modi-led government came to power, but the attacks on innocent people, particularly Muslims and Dalits, in the name of saving the cow have a long history. The cow-protection movements were launched in the 19th century, and later during the nationalist movements, the “holy cow” was used as a mobilizing tool. One of the key advocates for cow protection was Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.


‘Gau rakshaks’ beat up Dalit men in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016 for skinning a dead cow

Almost four decades before Gandhi appeared on the larger political scene, Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj who also organized the first Gorakshini Sabha in 1882, set the “holy cow” discourse. Needless to say, the cow-protection campaigns escalated the Hindu-Muslim tensions, leading to several riots in north India, particularly in Azamgarh (1893), Ayodhya (1912-13) and Shahabad (1917).[1]

One of the main causes of riots, as shown by historians, was the Hindu communalists’ aggressive campaign against Muslims that included provocative language and violence.

Gandhi, however, did not approve of violence in the name of cow protection and sharply differed with the Hindu communalists. Unlike them, Gandhi preferred “persuasion” and other non-violent (ahimsa) ways to achieve gau-raksha (cow protection). He thus strongly condemned those Hindus who attacked Muslims: “if a Musalman brother slays a cow, for instance during Id, on what ground can a Hindu raise his hand to strike him? Is he enjoined by the Shastras to kill a fellow man in order to save a cow?”[2]

He then warned cow protectors against attacking Muslims: “There is really no such injunction in the Shastras; but on the contrary it is against the Shastras to do so. In order to save the cow you can only sacrifice your own life; you cannot take another’s life, nor can you even cherish anger against him.”[3] He further said, “To attempt cow protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism …”[4]

Unlike the Hindu communalists, Gandhi knew that if Muslims were forced to give up cow slaughter, it might turn out to be counterproductive. A Muslim friend’s letter to which Gandhi referred to prohibit Hindus from attacking Muslims hinted at this. “As a Musalman friend writes, beef-eating which is merely permissible in Islam will become a duty, if compulsion is resorted to by Hindus.”[5]

Apart from his preferred method of persuasion, Gandhi did not hesitate to strike a political “deal” with Muslims to gain their support for cow protection. Gandhi thus made it clear that for their support to Muslims for the cause of the Khilafat (Caliphate), Hindus expected in return Muslims’ support for cow protection. “The best and the only way to save the cow is to save the Khilafat,” argued Gandhi. [6]

The Khilafat and the non-cooperation movements brought together the Congress and the Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind, the most prominent organization of Deobandi Ulema, against the British government in the early 1920s. While Gandhi was criticized for supporting a movement launched to restore the Caliph in Turkey, he was astute enough to see the occasion as an opportunity to win the goodwill of Muslims for the cause of cow protection.

While Gandhi preferred persuasion, dialogue and deal-making, he was against the use of the state and law for this purpose. His reliance on civil society and his “bottom-up” approach rejected the use of coercive state machinery and forceful imposition of law for banning cow slaughter.

Gandhi envisioned that even if India attained freedom, such a coercive policy would have no place: “Even in India under Swarajya, in my opinion, it would be for a Hindu majority unwise and improper to coerce by legislation a Musalman minority into submission to statutory prohibition of cow slaughter.”[7]

However, after India actually became free from British rule, state after state began banning cow slaughter. This led to millions of people being deprived of their food and livelihood. Most recently, the controversy over the law banning cow slaughter in BJP-led Maharashtra government is another example of imposition of draconian laws on people.

While Gandhi should be commended for his opposition to the Hindu communalists and his opposition to the use of state machinery and the imposition of draconian laws, he, however, played an important role in strengthening the “holy cow” discourse and constructing the Hindu identity around it. Unfortunately, a large section of the “liberal-progressive” intelligentsia is too Gandhian to critically engage with this question.[8]

In fact, Gandhi remained associated with the cow protection movement throughout his political life. He wrote essay after essay and delivered speech after speech at cow protection conferences. He also served as the president of the standing committee of the Cow Service Association. Industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj was a member of the same standing committee, which pointed to the collusion between brahmanical elements and capitalists on the issue of the cow protection.

In his writings and campaigns, Gandhi argued, “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection” and “Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow”.[9] His concern for gau-raksha made him oblivious to the great diversity among Hindus and their internal conflicts on political, social and economic issues. His mythicized definition of Hindus was: “Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observance of caste rules but by their ability to protect the cow.”[10]


Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malaviya with a cow

Unlike the myth that Gandhi propagated, the fact remains that the identity of “who is a Hindu” is almost impossible to define. The so-called “Hindu” community – which was largely constructed during the colonial period through “enumeration” and electoral politics – is divided along, among others, caste, class and regional lines. No wonder, while many Hindus in India do practise vegetarianism, there are around 12.5 million of them who eat beef/buff.[11]

Not only Hindus today but Indians in the ancient times ate beef. Eminent historians such as D. D. Kosambi[12] and D.N. Jha have conclusively shown that beef remained an “integral part” of the diet for a long time in ancient India. With the help of textual evidence and historical facts, Jha writes about the “early India non-vegetarian dietary culture of which beef eating remained an integral part for a considerable length of time at least in the upper strata of society”.[13]

Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who was a contemporary of Gandhi, and Swami Vivekananda, who had lived most of his life before Gandhi but whose thoughts had considerable influence on him, showed the prevalence of the practice of beef-eating in ancient India. Vivekananda, who is projected by the Hindutva forces as an “icon” of Hindus, had no qualms in saying that “There was a time in this very India when, without eating beef, no Brahmin could remain a Brahmin; you read in the Vedas how, when a Sannyasin, a king, or a great man came into a house, the best bullock was killed.”[14]

But Gandhi conveniently ignored all of these facts. In his construction of the modern form of Hinduism, he exploited the symbol of cow and said that the defining feature of a Hindu was his “ability” to “protect” the cow. Words such as “ability” and “protect” or “protection” implicitly conveyed how there was a “threat” to cows (read Hindus) from the “butcher’s knife” (read Muslims). Occasionally, Gandhi targeted Muslims too, who, he said, were “undoubtedly foolish and obstinate in that they slaughter the cow and needlessly wound Hindus’ susceptibility”.[15]

True, Gandhi’s did not squarely blame Muslims while he expressed his concern for cows. He also criticized Hindus for the plight of cows. To Gandhi, Hindus “starved cows and cattle in general, they did not look after them as they should, they sold cows that were out of milk and never thought that they were sending them to the slaughterhouse. They sold them to the best bidder. They were cruel to bullocks and tortured them with goads.”[16]

Gandhi’s use of the term “cruel” for the Hindus though did not remove fear and suspicion among Muslims. The very foundation of cow protection, in the eyes of Muslims, was built on an anti-Muslim agenda.

Gandhi continued to mythicize history around the cow. As he put it, “In Bhagawat in one place the illustrious author describes the various things which have been the cause of India’s downfall. One of the causes mentioned is that we have given up cow protection.”[17]

In this manner, Gandhi often resorted to drawing on myths. To justify some of his pet ideas, he would often say that “as scriptures say it” or “illustrious or pious persons say it”. By doing so, Gandhi would make sure there was no scope for further debate and critical inquiry.

As scholars have argued, the idea of “decline” is a highly loaded concept and before any scholar tries to find answers to what has caused decline in a particular society, he/she should ask questions like “whose decline?” But Gandhi did not critically look into the decline and conveniently ignored the fact that the cause of any social change is a political, historical and economic churning.

To gain further legitimacy, Gandhi had this to say: “Cow worship means to me worship of innocence. For me, the cow is the personification of innocence. Cow protection means the protection of the weak and the helpless.”[18]

On the contrary, the cow protection movement had little to do with the welfare of the weak and the helpless. Rather, it was controlled by upper castes and funded by Hindu landlords, merchants and businessmen. The recent incident of Una (Gujarat) in which seven Dalits were beaten up for allegedly skinning a dead cow once again bears testimony to this fact.

Apart from cows, Gandhi had also reflected on buffaloes. In his campaign aimed at sacralizing cow, he ended up desecrating buffaloes. Again, he resorted to unsubstantiated facts: “Physicians unanimously declare that cow’s milk is medically superior to buffaloes’ milk”.[19] He also added, “I have heard from Vaidyas that the buffalo’s milk lacks and can never be made to have the hygienic and health-giving properties that cow’s milk possesses. Pious people have told me that cow’s milk is sattvik (possessing finer qualities) whereas buffalo’s milk is tamasik (gross).” [20]

Some basic research will expose the absurdity of Gandhi’s views. There is “no difference in nutritive value and digestibility” between cow milk and buffalo milk. Moreover, buffalo milk has “lower cholesterol contents”, “more proteins” and “more vitamin A” and “more important minerals” than cow milk.[21]

Why is then buffalo an object of contempt? Dalitbahujan ideologue Kancha Ilaiah says that the lack of “sacred status” for buffaloes in civil society is due to the brahmanical hegemony. He further equated the status of buffaloes with that of the Dalitbahujans, the real productive class in Indian society: “The situation of the Dalitbahujan masses is similar to that of a black and beautiful buffalo that gives more milk ­– white milk at that – than the cows of India, but has no sacred status in civil society and no legal protection in the Constitution. Such a situation forces us to ask, whose India is it anyway?”[22]

As was mentioned earlier, the “holy cow” discourse launched in the 19th century was aimed at consolidating the Hindu identity. While Gandhi disapproved of the violent methods of the Hindu communalists, he contributed significantly in strengthening the hegemony of this brahmanical discourse.

[1] D. N. Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow, Verso, London, 2004, pp 19-20.

[2] M. K. Gandhi, How to Serve the Cow, edited by Bharatan Kumarappa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1954, p 14.

[3] M. K. Gandhi, Ibid, p 14.

[4]Ibid, p 13.

[5]Ibid, p 13.

[6]Ibid, p 13.

[7] Ibid, p 14.

[8] One such scholar is Anirudh Deshpande, a professor of history at University of Delhi. While recognizing the role of Gandhi in opposing coercive method to ban cow slaughter, Deshpande overlooked his role in attempting to make cow the centre of Hindu identity. See, Anirudh Deshpande, “The Dear Hindu Holy Cow: An Obituary”, Forward Press, 18 July 2015. Accessed on 15 August 2016 at

[9] Ibid, pp 3-4.

[10] Ibid, pp 3-4.

[11] Roshan Kishore and Ishan Anand, ‘Who are the Beef Eaters in India’, Live Mint, 20 October 2015. Accessed online on 15 August 2016 at This report is based on the latest National Sample Survey (NSSO).

[12] D.D. Kosambi, ‘Caste and Race’ in D.D. Kosambi, The Oxford India Kosambi: Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings, compiled and edited by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.

[13] D. N. Jha, p 23.

[14] Anirudh Deshpande in ‘The Dear Hindu Holy Cow: An Obituary’, Forward Press, 18 July 2015. Accessed on 15 August 2016 at The same quotation is also available in a website that contains quotations of Swami Vivekananda. Accessed on 15 August 2016 at

[15] M. K. Gandhi, Ibid, pp 17-18.

[16] Ibid, p 26.

[17] Ibid, p 8.

[18] Ibid, p 3.

[19] Ibid, p 52.

[20] Ibid, p 53.

[21] Accessed on 15 August 2016 at

[22] Kancha Ilaiah, ‘The Buffalo’s Unholy Milk’ in Kancha Ilaiah, Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism, Samya, Kolkata, 2012. The article first appeared in Outlook, 20 August 2001, p 71.

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