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Cows: A Symbol of Divinity and Discord in Modi's India

7 MINS READAug 29, 2016 | 09:30 GMT
Cows: A Symbol of Divinity and Discord in Modi’s India
Hindu monks and devotees worship cows in a temple celebration. Cows are both a source of spiritual devotion and political strife in India.
(DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi's need to appease the upper-caste Hindu nationalist wing of his party and attract lower-caste Dalit votes will challenge the party's ability to win state assembly elections next year.
  • Divisions between the numerous Dalit subcastes will undermine efforts at forging a unified movement.
  • Modi's electoral efforts at Dalit outreach will continue, galvanizing vigilante groups into launching more attacks on Dalits.

Recent events in India have highlighted the challenges Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces in navigating the country's enduring caste divisions. A group of vigilantes in India assaulted four men July 11 whom they accused of killing a cow in the city of Una, Gujarat. Cattle slaughter is illegal in Gujarat. The victims, members of the Chamars, a subcaste of the Dalit (or untouchable) caste, which skins animals for their hides, said the cow they were processing had died naturally. A video of the assault, which showed the men tied to a car and flogged, spread online, prompting a protest by 10,000 Dalits in the state's capital, Ahmedabad. Dalits later dumped cow carcasses in front of government offices, torched buses and blocked a highway, and some 30 caste members attempted suicide.

The stakes for Modi are high, particularly in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous municipality), where state elections will be held next year. For him to realize his national economic goals, India's prime minister must convince parliament to pass land and labor reform. That, in turn, hinges on his party's ability to win seats in the upper house of parliament, forcing Modi to walk the tightrope between the interests of the Hindu nationalists, who are members of the traditionally dominant upper castes, and the populous but historically marginalized lower ones.

A Symbol Stirs Controversy

This is not the first time cow slaughter has generated controversy in Indian politics. Last year, villagers in Uttar Pradesh beat a Muslim man to death after accusing him of storing beef in his refrigerator. Unlike that death, which elicited a halfhearted rebuke from Modi, the prime minister's response to the Gujarat incident was more forceful. Modi, who normally floats above the morass of political squabbling, condemned and belittled the gau rakshaks ("cow protectionists") who attacked the Dalits, arguing that the historically downtrodden caste deserved protection. His reaction was not limited to rebukes.

On Aug. 1, Modi engineered the resignation of Anandiben Patel, chief minister of Gujarat's government and a member of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Though other factors contributed to Patel's resignation, the Dalit unrest in a BJP stronghold (and Modi's home state) made her a political liability for the prime minister. Modi knew that speaking against the gau rakshaks would have repercussions. Almost immediately, high-ranking figures from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the parent group of the BJP, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu reform group associated with the party, shot back, saying Modi's stance would hurt the party at the polls. This dynamic highlights an enduring tension in Indian politics between the upper and lower castes. In political terms, this means Modi has to strike a balance between the mainly upper-caste Hindu nationalists and the Dalits.

The difference in Modi's reaction to the Muslim man's beating death and the flogging of the Dalits comes down to politics. Despite constituting 14 percent of India's population, Muslims are not a core voter constituency for the BJP (no Muslim won any of the BJP's 282 seats in the lower house of parliament). The BJP recognizes that its policies favoring absorption of Muslim-majority Kashmir into the union, banning cow slaughter nationwide and abolishing the Islam-based civil code governing Muslim customs including marriage effectively scupper any attempts to win Muslim support. The Dalits, on the other hand, represent up to a quarter of India's 1.3 billion people. They are Hindu and thus a constituency that a party emphasizing Hinduism feels it can capture. One in five residents of the most important electoral state, Uttar Pradesh, which will hold elections next year, are Dalit. Modi has already launched a grassroots campaign aimed at wooing Dalits in the state, and his challenge is to continue this while minimizing the alienation of some members of the Hindu right-wing, represented by the RSS.

Even as the parliamentary arithmetic slowly shifts in Modi's favor, he wants to increase his party's representation in the upper house of India's legislative chamber, where it remains a minority. This is a prerequisite to passing legislation on land and labor reform through both houses of parliament. State assemblies, which nominate members to the upper house of parliament, are crucial in this regard. 

Religion, Politics and the Cow

Much as Jesus is portrayed as a herder of sheep in Christianity, the Hindu god Krishna — among the most widely worshipped in India — is portrayed in his youth as a herder of cows. The cow's religious significance explains why many devout Hindus avoid eating beef. Additionally, the cow is sacred in Hinduism for a few reasons. First, some ancient Hindu texts forbade slaughtering milk-giving cows. Second, the cow was venerated for the food and farming products it produced, connecting the animal with life and fertility. Third, the cow's docility made it a symbol of ahimsa, or the principle of nonviolence. And fourth, the animist strain in Hinduism in general provides a space for venerating animals.

The cow has played a special spiritual role in Hinduism. But the animal has also served as a political symbol historically. During the late 19th century, for instance, the Hindu reformist movement Arya Samaj began promoting cow protection to sharpen the contrast between Hindu identity and beef-eating Muslims and (Christian) British imperialists. Today, cow slaughter is outlawed in most of India's 29 states. Still, cows can be processed for their hides if they have died naturally. Dalits have traditionally done that job and other work considered by higher castes to be spiritually polluting. This includes cleaning toilets, cremating the dead and handling the carcasses of dead animals.

Despite their shared status as the lowest of India's castes, divisions within the Dalits hinder their cohesion as a political bloc. The Dalits have been unable to create a national alliance uniting the Dalit subcastes, only four of which are politically active. The rest are not, in part due to illiteracy. The scarcity of resources in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is $1,400 means that once groups gain power, they are not willing to share it, even with other Dalit subcastes. This helps explain hierarchy and why some Dalit groups dominate at the expense of others. Until these factors change, the Dalits will fail to unite.

But despite their lack of unity, the Dalit vote is crucial for the BJP's 2017 election hopes, and Modi will continue making overtures to the caste in the form of education and employment initiatives. At the same time, the BJP will condemn rogue gau rakshaks while applauding peaceful cow-protectionist groups. The extent of those initiatives, however, will not satisfy the demands made by some activists. Fiscal constraints and the absence of land reform, for instance, mean the BJP will not fulfill demands that the government give 2 hectares (5 acres) of land to each Dalit family. This means that Chamars will continue their hide-making profession because of the lack of alternatives. And despite condemnations by the BJP, the reactionary protests by cow protectionists will continue.

The opposition, including the rival Indian National Congress, will try to capitalize by linking the underprivileged condition of many Dalits with Modi and the BJP. The BJP will be forced to respond but will tread lightly to avoid alienating the party's right-wing base. This highlights a key constraint on Modi's reform agenda: his need to appease various competing and even hostile interest groups under the BJP's umbrella. As a result, Modi will struggle to push land and labor reform through parliament.

Why Are Cows Sacred to Hindus?

In many parts of South Asia, cows are revered and considered inviolable. The cow's place as a sacred being in Hinduism has its roots in canonical scriptures. The god Krishna is also commonly portrayed as a young cowherd.

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