India's PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters/ Danish Ismail

When one considers the possibility of the holy cow being a reason for India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi losing the forthcoming general elections, the irony is inescapable.

Cows have always roamed India’s streets freely, but since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014, India’s Hindi-speaking stronghold has become a sea of cows. With farmers abandoning their old cows and bulls and the animals raiding nearby farms for food, the livelihood of farmers has been affected. Now the menace of stray cows has become a major political issue, threatening Modi’s return to power.  

The cattle economy has been destroyed by Hindu nationalists since Modi came to power demanding that no cows are slaughtered. Now, farmers abandon old cows because they no longer give milk, and can no longer be sold because nobody wants to purchase them.

Hindu farmers used to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about selling old, unproductive cows that become an economic liability. By selling them off, they generated funds to buy newer, younger animals. Cattle sold were be slaughtered, legally or illegally, by cattle traders and abattoirs with or without licenses, or in contravention of license conditions.

Since Modi’s government came to power in 2014, cow protection vigilantes have killed at least 46 people. Along with the fear of vigilantes on the prowl, government laws and policies have made cattle traders shy of dealing in cows. Even municipal workers are afraid of lifting the bodies of dead cows for fear of falling foul of lynch mobs.

Farmers have had to keep overnight vigils to save their crops from being destroyed by abandoned cows and have suffered expensive investments in fencing to protect their farms at a time when their crops are not yielding profits. 

Out of desperation, they have begun locking up cows in schools, police stations, hospitals and cemeteries. For want of food, cows have been dying. Farmers chasing away cows sometimes meet with accidents and die

Homogenizing Hinduism

Four out of every five Indians are Hindu. Hinduism, like India, is not a homogeneous idea. Contrary to popular perception, most Hindus eat meat. If there are Hindus who worship the holy cow, there are also those, including Dalits, the former ‘untouchables’, who are happy to eat beef. In some parts of the country such as Kerala in the south, even upper-caste Brahmins eat beef.

As the saying goes, whatever you may say about India, the opposite is also true. Hindu nationalists want to change that in favor of absolutism. They appreciate neither the diversity within Hinduism nor the individual freedom to eat whatever one likes. To impose a Hindu way of life on non-Hindus, it is essential to first homogenize Hinduism. And so, everybody must be forced to bow before the cow.

Through violence and political bullying and by virtually wiping out the cattle trade, Hindu nationalists have affected the livelihoods of poor cattle traders, many of whom are Muslims.

Hindu fundamentalists have also forgotten about the need to do something about the stray cows.

How do the BJP and its allied cow vigilantes propose to make up for the job losses in the leather industry? Are they going to compensate farmers and cattle traders for their losses? When they set out to defend the holy cow, they failed to consider these things. Some have even resorted to quackery, advising people to drink cow urine to cure cancer

Too little, too late

Farmers’ organizations have demanded that the ban on slaughtering cows be revoked. But as the defense of cow slaughter is deemed politically incorrect, they are unable to make too much noise about it. Yet the anger is immense and could show its head in upcoming elections.

In December, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party lost elections in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, where it had held power for 15 years. The opposition Congress won the election by promising, among other things, that it would build cow shelters to rein in the stray cattle menace.

The problem is particularly acute in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which in federal elections is politically the most important of India’s states in. Its chief minister, selected by Narendra Modi, is an extremist Hindu monk, Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath.

Yet it was only when election season arrived that the chief minister began to understand the power of public anger over stray cows. He gave the bureaucracy an impossible deadline to remove cows to special shelters that don’t even exist. He imposed a special tax on alcohol sales to fund these shelters. The costs involved are frightening. Taking care of the millions of unproductive cows could cost 1.5 times India’s defense budget.

Some accuse the Uttar Pradesh government of being more concerned about cows than humans. In a state known for its poor law and order, the authorities fall over themselves to investigate the death of a cow. Out of this year’s 4.79 trillion rupee budget, the Uttar Pradesh government allocated 247 million rupees for maintenance and construction of gaushalas, protective shelters for cows in rural areas, and 200 million rupees for Kanha Gaushala and Destitute Cattle Shelter Scheme in urban areas.

Furthermore, it has been filing cases against farmers who have locked cows in schools.

Cows’ honor 

As well as tagging and bar-coding stray cattle to keep track of them, the government is creating registers recording the names of cow owners. These measures could allow the state authorities to pinpoint and question farmers who abandon their animals. 

In recent years, Indian farmers have struggled to survive low returns on their crops, and the incidence of suicides among indebted farmers continues to be a serious problem. The waiving of farmers’ debts and the subsidizing of their incomes has become a top political issue. The stray cattle menace is the last thing the Indian farmer needs.

Narendra Modi has supported the cause of cow protection while distancing himself from the violence of cow vigilantes. 

At a time when farmers are in dire need of protection against the menace of stray cattle, the Modi government allocates money for the preservation and genetic improvement of indigenous breeds of cattle.

“The government will do whatever is necessary for the honor and protection of cows,” the finance minister said in his budget speech. 

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