History of cow protection in India

The verifiable history of the status of the cow in India showcases how it has always been venerated by Hindus.

History of cow protection in India

Roots of veneration for the Cow

The special status given to the cow in India has a long history, going all the way back to the Vedic period. Notwithstanding the various claims that beef eating was prevalent in Vedic society, there is no doubt that the cow had acquired a special place in the minds of the Vedic Aryans. Cows were donated to priests who conducted Yajnas while goddesses were praised by being compared with the cow. It had become one of the most common Vedic symbols for maternity and fertility as its products came to occupy a central place in various Vedic yajnas.
With time, the significance of the cow got magnified and we see, between the 5th century BCE to the 4th century CE, many texts alluding to the inviolability of the cow. Arthashastra mentions that cow slaughter was illegal. Manu Smriti too lists govadha or cow slaughter as a crime. The two great epics also reiterate similar views about the cow. One passage in the Mahabharata states that one who kills a cow lives as many years in hell as there are hairs on the cow’s body. In Anushasan Parva, a long section is devoted to inculcating worship of the cow. Both Ramayana and Mahabharata describe the divine qualities of Kamdhenu, the cow belonging to Rishi Vashishtha. Mahabharata also mentions another cow, Nandini, whose milk is said to make men immortal. The doctrine of the cow’s sanctity is well elaborated in the Puranas too.

Islamic onslaught and the Hindu fightback

Veneration for the cow had further increased by the medieval period. Although the stages through which the idea of the cow’s sanctity spread are not very clear, there is little doubt that the notion of the cow’s sacredness had become widespread and deep-rooted. However, this notion was challenged and attacked with unprecedented severity with the arrival of Muslim invaders who, inspired by their iconoclastic spirit, not only destroyed temples and murtis but also took to slaughtering cows on a massive scale.
For Muslim invaders, these slaughters were a way to spite the vanquished Hindus and assert the superiority of their own faith, and the Hindus saw this as an assault on the very roots of their Hindu identity. As a result, they became even more attached to their Gau Mata. Gau Raksha or Cow Protection became a matter of the highest importance. It became a major symbol of Hindu fightback and resistance against Islamic rule. Many prominent Hindu kings, across geographies and centuries, were seen asserting their credentials as protectors of the cow.
Vijayanagara empire, which was described as “a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests”, kings of which took the title of Gobrahamana Pratipalanacharya- the protector of cows and Brahmins. Even for Shivaji, the great Maratha king, cow protection was an issue of great importance. However, the task of cow protection wasn’t limited to Hindus kings. In a few cases, pragmatic Muslim rulers made laws for cow protection to garner the support of Hindus. Akbar, for instance, made cow slaughter an offence punishable by death.
As the Mughal empire started weakening, Hindu powers such as the Marathas, Sikhs and Dogras replaced Muslim rulers and made cow slaughter illegal. It became a crime that often invited severe punishment such as life imprisonment, as in the case of Kashmir, or death, as in the case of Punjab. In general, the decline of Muslim power in India resulted in the political and legal framework becoming more favourable to the cause of cow protection. However, the rise of the British power acted as a check to this trend as a new set of complications arose from this development.

Arrival of the British and renewal of the debate

In the pre-British phase, where the contours of the cow protection issue were defined by the expansion of Muslim power and population, conflicts centred around cow protection were resolved through direct conflicts or negotiations between the two conflicting parties viz. Hindus and Muslims. However, the new reality of British rule meant that Hindus not only had to deal with Muslim opposition but also had to seek the support of their new political masters who were going to act as arbiters on the disputes surrounding cow protection.
The British policy towards cow slaughter was ambiguous and inconsistent from the start. While they agreed to continue the ban on cow slaughter in some of their treaties with Indian rulers, they refused to do so in some other cases. For instance, in 1802, the British refused the offer of Scindia, the ruler of Gwalior, to cede more territory to the English if they agreed to a cow slaughter ban in areas already ceded to them. However, they agreed to temporarily continue such a ban when they annexed Punjab.

The Kuka outbreak in Punjab

It was in Punjab where the first organised effort for cow protection in the modern era was seen during the Kuka outbreak of the 1870s. Before going into the specifics of this episode, it’d be useful to take a look at the attitudes and laws regarding cow protection prevailing in Punjab before the start of the British rule. Punjab had a long history of strong anti-cow slaughter sentiment and laws. Upset by the widespread cow-slaughters by Muslims, the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak had lamented, “why cow and the pundits are suffering?”
Bhai Gurdas, the original scribe of Guru Granth Sahib said that the Muslims“demolished temples and raised mosques and committed sin by killing the cow and the poor.” Guru Gobind Singh also raised his sword for the protection of the cow. He invoked the goddess’ help in his task “to end the cow slaughter from the world.” As Sikhs gained power, cow slaughter was banned in Punjab. As per Fauja Singh, by the beginning of British rule,

“The Muslims in Punjab had not used cow meat for about three-fourth of a century.”

However, this status quo favourable to cow protection was upset as the British begin to gain control of Punjab.
A controversy erupted in Lahore in 1846 when a European artilleryman attacked and injured 3-4 cows from a herd which was passing that way. This led to huge protests. Many people were arrested. Two protesters were executed and two others were externed from British territories while the European soldier who caused the trouble was let off with a warning, “to be more careful how he used his sword in the future.”
As at Lahore, the arrival of Europeans at Amritsar led to the killing of kine, and there were several complaints about it. To pacify the rising anger of people, the Governor General of Punjab, in 1847, prohibited slaughter in Amritsar, the holy city of Sikhs. However, this concession was available only in Amritsar and there was no prohibition in other parts of Punjab. Even this concession was withdrawn as the British completed the annexation of Punjab in 1849. Governor General Lord Dalhousie issued an order which said,

“Nobody would be allowed to interfere in the faith and traditions of a neighbour.”

It was perceived as a license for cow slaughter and open sale of cow meat at every place. For Amritsar, a Board of Administration ruled that the prohibition, which had formerly been maintained out of deference to a Sikh sovereign, had to be removed and that in every large town a spot for the shambles and butchers’ shops was to be appointed.
There have been suggestions that the British policy with respect to cow slaughter was an attempt by British to win the support of the Muslims who not only formed a numerical majority in the province but had also sided with the British during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh war. Another explanation says that since the British like Muslims were consumers of beef, they were more likely to favour the Muslim position on the issue. Yet another theory is that these measures were part of a deliberate ploy to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Whatever the reasons, these measures led to widespread resentment amongst the Hindus and Sikhs. As cow slaughter increased after the lifting of prohibition, Amritsar became a trading centre for raw skins where not only cows but also bulls were slaughtered. Soon a riot, on the issue of cow slaughter, broke out between Muslims and non-Muslims. Subsequently, many cases relating to cow slaughter reached the courts which decided these cases in favour of the Muslims. This led to further resentment among Hindus and Sikhs. According to M M Ahluwalia,

“The innocent, illiterate and religious-minded people of the Punjab found a new picture of ugliness and loss in the holy city of Amritsar which completely differed from the picture of those days when Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors ruled Lahore.”

The anger against cow slaughter kept building and by 1869 an explosive situation had been created. Lt. Governor, Punjab wrote in an 1869 note,

“Like the meat-stricken cartridges, the protest against the cow slaughter can engulf the entire country in violence just in a month.”

Around the same time, the Kuka movement was launched by Baba Ram Singh who was bitterly opposed to the British subjugation of Punjab. He was also very angered by the British policies which had brought back cow slaughter to Punjab. Baba Ram Singh said,

“These butchers have come from a foreign land (London). They have set up butcheries. I am deeply aggrieved at the killing of the cows. Oh Sikhs of the Lord, time has come to sacrifice our lives.”

In June 1871, a band of 10 Kukas, also known as Namdharis, carried out an attack on a butchery in Amritsar. A fight ensued in which many butchers were killed. Kukas were able to free nearly 100 cows in this attack before fleeing away in the darkness of night. As the news of the attack spread, the butchers were terrified and shut their businesses. The government launched an investigation at the end of which 4 were awarded death penalty, 2 were externed to Andaman and 3 were declared absconders. One month later, the Kukas carried out a similar attack on a slaughterhouse situated near a gurudwara in Raikot. 3 persons were killed and 9 injured in this attack. After a few days, the slayers of the butchers were tracked down and many of them were executed after trials.
After the execution of Kukas involved in Amritsar and Raikot incidents, the whole sect was filled with anger which was directed towards not only the British but also states of Nabha, Jind and Patiala which had helped track down the heroes of the Raikot slaughterhouse case. A band of Kukas now decided to come out in the open and abandon the strategy of carrying out attacks in the dark of the night. It was decided that a group of martyrs would be organised to carry out an attack on the princely state of Malerkotla which was seen as a weak state that could be occupied. Baba Ram Singh, the leader of Kukas advised against such an attack as he thought that the Kukas weren’t strong and prepared enough to take on the might of the British government. However, the group led by Heera Singh and Lehna Singh decided to go ahead with the audacious plan.
Nearly 125 Kukas attacked the palace in Malerkotla on 15th January 1872. In a severe fight with state forces, Kukas lost 7 men while 8 men from the state troops were killed. It was a valiant fight by the Kukas given the fact that they had no guns and a very limited supply of swords but seeing no possibility of capturing guns, money or horses from the palace, the Kukas decided to leave Malerkotla. However, as they were retreating, they were powered by troops of Patiala state near a village named Rur. From there, the captured Kukas were shifted to Sherpur.
The deputy commissioner DC Cowan, alarmed by the happenings in Malerkotla, called in 750 army troops and 9 cannon at Malerkotla. When the captured Kukas arrived there from Sherpur, they were blown away by the cannons as thousands of people from Malerkotla watched the spectacle. The British empire came down heavily on the Kukas. Baba Ram Singh was arrested and deported out of Punjab. This was followed by a series of repressive measures and in a short time, the Kuka movement was made ineffective and powerless.

Arya Samaj and Gaurakshini Sabhas

The bravery of Kukas generated a strong sentiment in favour of cow protection. However, the Kuka approach also displayed the dangers of a violent confrontation with the government and was probably the reason why the earliest cow protection agitations of 1880s adopted a different approach. This new approach consisted of 3 main items.
1. Mobilising supporters through propaganda activities such as speeches and pamphlets.
2. Formation of voluntary associations to establish an organizational base.
3. Sending signature petitions to the government demanding a ban on cow slaughter.
This template created by Swami Dayanand was employed repeatedly in cow protection agitations of the 1880s. Swami Dayanand was undoubtedly the most influential figure of the movement who, more than anyone else, was responsible for turning cow protection into an all India campaign. Arya Samaj, established by him in 1875, had a reformist orientation. However, on the issue of cow protection, it agreed with the traditionalists. In 1882, Swami Dayanand along with orthodox Hindus who had been his opponents earlier founded the 1st Gaurakshini sabha, or cow protection society in Punjab.
The main activities of the sabhas included rescuing wandering cows and giving them shelter in gaushalas and collecting signatures from people to demand a ban on cow slaughter. The Arya Samaj branches actively supported these sabhas in their cow protection work. Arya Samaj not only assumed leadership of the cow protection movement in Punjab but also took the movement to other parts of India. The Arya Samajis used the printing press effectively to disseminate the message of cow protection faster and wider. Soon, many Gaurakshini sabhas were established in various provinces. These sabhas were particularly effective in Northwestern provinces and Oudh (later, United Provinces), Bihar and the Central provinces.
A government report in 1882 noted the key role played by Swami Dayanand in the spread of the movement. It mentioned the formation of a committee, formed under the Swami Dayanand’s guidance for collecting signatures to demand a ban on cow slaughter, which had raised Rs. 6-7 lakhs in Calcutta. Whether such a committee was actually formed or not, there is no doubt that Swami Dayanand was instrumental in popularising the idea of legislative action by building public pressure to limit or ban cow slaughter.
On the ideological level, Swami Dayanand, with his ‘back to Vedas’ motto, defended cow protection by arguing that veneration towards the cow had its origin in the Vedas and hence cow slaughter should be banned. In addition to religious arguments, he also provided economic arguments in defence of cow protection. In his pamphlet Gaukarunanidhi, he argued that cows needed to be saved because a shortage of dairy products was causing physical degeneration of the Aryan race. He also claimed that while a dead cow could feed 20 people, a living cow and her offsprings in their lives could provide sufficient food to feed 1 lakh people in a day to show the economic benefits of protecting the cow instead of killing it.
Another important cow protection activist in this period was Gopalrao Hari Bhide, a lawyer and social reformer from Nagpur, who advocated cow protection mainly for its economic benefits. He established the Nagpur Gaurakshini sabha which had its own press and newspaper. The Nagpur sabha was said to have been responsible for reducing the number of cows slaughtered annually in Nagpur from 16,000 in 1887 to 500 in 1892. On its 2nd anniversary in 1889, the Sabha organised a procession that included 20,000 people and 452 cattle purchased from local butchers.

The movement in the Bhojpuri belt

While Punjab and Central provinces were the early centres of cow protection activity, it was the Bhojpuri speaking region of current day Eastern UP and Western Bihar, where the movement had its deepest impact. It’s here, particularly in districts of Azamgarh, Ballia and Ghazipur in UP and in Saran and Shahbad in Bihar where the cow agitation acquired its greatest social depth and was most assertive and aggressive. The trigger for the spread of the cow protection movement in UP came from an 1886 judgement of Allahabad High Court which said that the cow was not a sacred object as defined in section 295. Hence the Muslims who slaughtered cow could not be held guilty of inciting religious violence.
Even before this ruling, the British policy towards cow slaughter had been perceived by Hindus as disrespectful to their religious convictions. In Bhojpuri speaking areas, which came under British control at the start of the 19th century, a ban on cow slaughter had existed for long. As per some claims, the ban went back all the way to Akbar’s time. However, in 1806, just 5 years after East India Company had taken over the area, clashes over the cow slaughter issue took place in Mau as it wasn’t clear if the old ban on cow slaughter was still effective in the town. In the 1860s, tensions arose again due to an official order. In 1863, the Azamgarh magistrate declared that Muslims were free to kill cows behind closed doors. The order was reversed after protests by Hindus but in 1865, a sanction was given for establishing a slaughterhouse in the town. Yet again, in 1885, the Azamgarh magistrate, while convicting 3 Muslims of Mau for the public killing of cow, expressed his opinion that the government order of 1808 banned the slaughter of kine for Qurbani (sacrifice) alone and not for food.
To Hindus, this position was not acceptable and they argued that the ban had been imposed for the whole year and not just on certain occasions. They also drew attention to the old custom sanctioned even by the Muslim rulers which had been the basis of peace between Hindus and Muslims historically. However, the government in probably trying to promote Muslim interests against the background of what it perceived to be the rise of Hindu nationalism, paid no attention to the Hindu arguments. Naturally, Hindus felt that the government was siding with the Muslims. Given this background, the 1886 High Court order mentioned earlier, brought a fresh wave of anger and resentment among the Hindus and they concluded that an organised effort was required for the protection of the cow.
Eastern UP, which was already witnessing a build-up of Hindu consciousness through the Nagari movement to make Hindi the official language, provided favourable conditions for the growth of a cow protection movement driven by an urge to protect Hindu interests. Soon, Gaurakshini Sabhas were established. In Allahabad alone, 3 Sabhas were set up. Sriman Swami was the main leader of the Allahabad sabha. he travelled extensively to spread the message of cow protection. He addressed nearly 50 meetings in 1888 in UP alone. Cow Protection movement proved highly successful, and organising efforts swept the urban centres of U.P. between 1888 and 1890. Besides Allahabad, in the first year, cow protection activities were reported in Kanpur, Lucknow, Ghazipur, Benares, Aligarh, Pratapgarh.
Extensive touring by leaders such as Sriman Swami also resulted in the movement building up a strong organisation not only in the urban centres but also in the rural areas of East UP and West Bihar. By 1891-1892 the centre of support had shifted emphatically to the countryside, in particular to the rural eastern districts of Ghazipur, Ballia, Azamgarh and Gorakhpur. By 1893, the cow protection movement was almost entirely based in these rural areas. Gaurakshini Sabhas were set up in these places and within a short period, they acquired the status of a powerful social institution that could command resources and obedience from its followers for the cause of cow protection.
For the collection of funds, the Sabhas came up with the innovative mechanism named Chutki where at each meal a pinch (Chutki) of food per member of the household was set aside for the sabha. These household contributions of grain were given to a local agent who converted them to cash. This money was then passed up the hierarchy to a Sabhapati (who was responsible for 40-50 villages) and further up. The money was used for maintaining Gaushalas, purchasing cattle headed for slaughter and to pay the traveling preachers who held meetings in the area. Besides Chutki, the supporters of the Sabha in certain occupations were used for the collection of funds through collection boxes that were prominently displayed by moneylenders, traders, and liquor vendors.
The Chutki collection agents were also responsible for enforcement. With Muslims, a stick and carrot approach was adopted where the agents would persuade butchers to sell their cattle. In some cases, butchers were offered rent-free land if they gave up cattle trade. Coercive techniques such as the boycott of Muslims were also adopted, especially to prevent them from doing cow sacrifice during the festival of Baqr Id. Sometimes large crowds would make Muslims sign an agreement or Iqrarnama where they were made to promise the avoidance of Qurbani of the cow. The measures against Hindus who broke the rules were equally strict. This is evident from the case of one Lakshman Paure who had sold a bullock to a butcher. The sabha directed a social and economic boycott of Paure till the time he got back the bullock. In another case, a sabha ‘court’ fined one Sita Ram Ahir for impounding a cow to a government pound which was then sold to a butcher. When he refused to pay the fine, he was outcasted for 24 days and various religious penalties were also applied.
The messaging of Gaurakshini sabhas was focused on the divinity of the cow. In many meetings, a picture of a cow was placed on the stage and the audience would be told that the cow was the universal mother since everyone consumed cow’s milk. Therefore, killing a cow was matricide. People were exhorted to establish sabhas for ensuring the protection of their mother. The presence of locally influential figures such as zamindars was used to draw larger crowds. Traditional fairs such as Allahabad’s Magh Mela were used for disseminating the message. For communicating with members, a system of Patias or snowball letters were used. These Patias were to be forwarded by the recipient to as many people as specified in the Patia whose contents ranged from cow protection appeal to specifics such as the date of a meeting or campaign.
Here is an example of a typical Patia.

“This Patia comes from the world of cow. It brings and entreaty to the brother Hindus. The religion of the cow is being destroyed…..we entreat our Hindu brothers to watch over the cow in every village and every house.”

As the strength of the sabhas increased, East UP and West Bihar were affected with the call of cow protection. The highest intensity of sabha activities was witnessed in Azamgarh district where the sabha activities started much later than in Ballia and Ghazipur. In January 1893, villagers near the town of Mau rescued a herd of cattle from butchers. When Police arrived to rescue the cattle, a crowd of nearly 200 Hindus drove the cattle to various parts of Ballia district. Conflicts over cow slaughter increased in the following months. In May 1893,  two sabha meetings were held in the district. In the second meeting, a demand was put forward that there should be an end to Qurbani and that action be taken to it.
In such a tense atmosphere, a government notice, like so often before, made the situation worse. The order of June 1893, released a few days before Baqr-Id, directed that Muslims of all villages where there was danger of disturbance to inform the authorities if they intended to perform Qurbani. A total of 426 Muslims gave notice of their intention to perform Qurbani. Many of these included those from villages where traditionally Qurbani was not being performed. The Hindus viewed this as undue official encouragement to cow slaughter.
The Gaurakshini sabhas decided to take things in their own hands to stop the performance of Qurbani on Baqr Id. Consequently, crowds of thousands of men that included locals as well as men from Ballia and Ghazipur districts, gathered in Azamgarh on the Baqr Id day of 1893. As they moved around from one location to another in a bid to stop Qurbani and release cows, large scale riots broke out in various places. Many people died and 35 cases of unlawful assembly and rioting were filed in Azamgarh district alone. The network of Gaurakshini sabhas was disbanded after the excessive violence of Baqr-Id in 1893 and the movement was effectively suppressed. However, the spirit of cow protection could not be banished.
It appeared in the region again as a major force after the riots of 1912-13 in Ayodhya. There was a strong revival of demand for cow protection. This culminated in a massive outbreak of violence in the Shahbad district of Bihar in 1917.  The scale of conflict in Shahbad was much bigger than that of 1893 riots. Many observers described violence as “unprecedented since 1857.”  What began as a conflict in the villages of Piru and Ibrahimpur escalated into a huge conflict that engulfed a vast area. Officials reported a warlike situation and acknowledged that an area of nearly 150 square miles had passed out of their control for a few days. Normalcy could be brought back only with strong military reinforcements. Official figures reported 41 dead and 176 injured. The riots had affected 124 villages in Shahbad district while 28 villages were affected in Gaya. More than 2000 people were sent up for trials.
The cow protection movement that swept through east UP and Bihar from the 1880s to 1917 was socially the most broad-based Hindu campaign till that point of time. This is evident from the social base that powered the movement. The initiative for the establishment of Gaurakshini sabhas in many cases came from petty bourgeois elements such as teachers, lawyers, clerks and government officials who had links with both the village and the town. Another critical group supporting the movement consisted of Swamis, Sanyasis and fakirs. However, according to the officials, the main supporters of the movement were the great Hindu trading and banking class. According to A Macdonell, Lt. Governor of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, ” Marwaris were the supporters and fomenters of the agitation.”
Another crucial group supporting the movement consisted of zamindars who were locally respected and influential and thus their presence lent respectability to the sabhas. This group was also crucial in terms of providing muscle power, often in the form of Lathi carrying men known as Lathials, to the sabhas by mobilising the men at their disposal. Jagdeo Narain Singh, a Bais Rajput who was the president of Ballia Gaurakshini sabha and has been described as “the soul of the movement” in eastern Azamgarh, was one such figure and played a crucial role in marshalling people in various conflict situations. The zamindar class was drawn mainly from 3 caste groups viz. Brahmins, Rajputs and Bhumihars. The sanyasis and traders mentioned also belonged to the upper castes. Combined together, they represented the typical caste base behind the earlier Hindu revival movements.
However, what provided extra social depth to the movement in east UP and Bihar was the active involvement of non-dvija cultivating castes such as Ahirs or Gwalas, Kurmis and Koeris. The militancy and independent action of these groups in 1890-93 phase was clearly evident but it was the 1917 showdown in Shahbad which fully displayed their autonomous strength. In 7 cases (out of total 140) 560 men were sent for trial in Shahbad. In these cases, 127 Ahirs/Gwalas were convicted. This shows how prominent their role was in Shahbad.
It’s worth noting that the reappearance of cow protection activities after 1910 in Patna division coincided with the rise of the Gwala movement which saw Ahirs organising themselves in the quest for higher social status. Ahirs presented a considerable amount of literature to show their Kshatriya origins. In many caste meetings of Gwalas, herding of cows was mentioned as an important task. We can see how even independent of Gaurakshini sabhas, cow protection was an important goal for Ahirs. Seen in that light, the active participation of Ahirs along with Kurmis and Koeris (who too were striving for higher social status), in the cow protection movement during the 1880- 1917 period is not at all surprising.
We end the description of the campaign in Eastern UP and Bihar with the observation that it was the most potent of all cow protection agitations. It expanded the social base of the emerging Hindu national movement and exhibited the sentimental pull of the cow symbol and its power to unify diverse sections of the Hindu society and with great vigour and force it reiterated the age-old fact that cow protection was an essential element of the Hindu identity.
The period from 1880 to 1920 saw intense cow protection efforts all over North and Central India. Many a time, these efforts triggered communal clashes. In 1886, disturbances were reported on Baqr-Id in many cities of Punjab. Similarly, there were riots in Bombay and Junagadh in the 1890s. Riots broke out near Calcutta in 1909 when a cow was sacrificed publicly. In 1912 rioting was triggered in Ayodhya. The issue of cow protection kept arousing tensions for the next 3 years in Ayodhya. Kartarpur village in Saharanpur saw intense riots in 1917 when the Hindus of the village demanded to have a complete ban on sacrifices during Id. In the legal action that followed, 142 Hindus were given sentences ranging from 2-year imprisonment to death.

The 1920s and the Gandhian twist in the tale

As MK Gandhi agreed to support and lead the Khilafat movement in 1919, temporary unity amongst Hindus and Muslims was witnessed. In this period, the violent incidents related to the cow issue were reduced considerably. The following period leading up to independence was dominated by Gandhi. He continued to use the love for mother cow in his imagined vision of the Indian nation. However, his version of love for the cow did not allow for the use of aggression for the cause of cow protection. As was typical of him, his stress was on changing the hearts of the Muslim community through persuasion although the long history of Hindu-Muslim conflicts centred around the cow issue suggested that the effectiveness of such an approach was dubious at best.
The impact of Gandhi’s views came to be seen in the Congress party’s articulation of the cow slaughter issue. The issue of cow protection was politically too useful to be given up but now it had to be raised within the framework of Hindu-Muslim unity. This approach was exemplified by the slideshow presentations by Chittu Pandey of Ballia in 1930-31. These slideshows tried to draw the onus of cow slaughter away from Indian Muslims by giving details of cow slaughtering in foreign countries. Another Congress leader, Narbada Prasad Singh, said that 7 lakhs cows were killed every year in India: 1 lakh for Muslims, 2 for the British and 4 for dyeing cloth. He concluded by stating that if Indians stopped using foreign cloth, they would have Swaraj and save seven lakh cows. Other speakers tried to win over Muslims by praising the ‘enlightenment’ of past Muslim rulers regarding cow slaughter. Yet another Congress leader Sahib Singh went to the extent of saying that English had actually taught Muslims to slaughter cows. As we can see, the overall Congress approach was to downplay the Muslim indulgence in cow slaughter by focussing on the attack on the British government. While these attempts had no impact on longstanding Muslim views on cow slaughter, they certainly worked to constrain the options available to Hindus for a solution to the issue.
The other Hindu party, Hindu Mahasabha, mentioned cow protection among its main objectives. Since 1920, cow protection had been adopted into the party’s sangathan narrative but like the Congress, Hindu Mahasabha doesn’t seem to have created any grassroot mobilisation. In summary, the vigour and intensity created in cow the protection movement by organisations such as Gaurakshini Sabhas were lost to a great extent after 1920. As a result, in 1947 on the eve of independence, the demand for a law to ban cow slaughter remained unfulfilled.

Status of cow protection in princely states

However, the situation was different in the princely states. Hindu and Sikh ruled states took great efforts to limit the slaughter of all domestic animals. Licenses for selling meat were very limited. The few who received a license had to set shop in locations far away from the main markets. Slaughtering was restricted to set times, usually early in the morning and was subject to substantial fees. The restrictions used to get stricter on festival days. For instance, in Jodhpur, no Muslims were allowed to take out a goat in the bazaar during any religious celebration. Cattle slaughter in all Hindu and Sikh ruled states was banned. The killing of cows and male bovines attracted hefty fines and long jail terms: 7 years in Patiala and Kashmir and 6 years in Nabha. Even the import of beef from British India was not allowed in many states.
In Muslim states, the standard approach was that of restrictions on cow slaughter. In Bhopal, Rampur, Bahawalpur and Khairpur hundreds of cattle were killed annually on Baqr Id. Many more were killed for food. Nawab Hamidullah of Bhopal seriously contemplated a scheme for turning his state into a major supplier of beef to the Indian Army. Hamidullah is reported to have said that he didn’t mind at all being “an arch cow slaughterer.”
However, there were a few states such as Tonk which had banned cow slaughter.

Developments after independence

After independence, many had hoped that at long last a national ban on cow slaughter would become a reality. However, secularists such as Nehru and Ambedkar managed to put a ban on cow slaughter to the list of ‘legally not enforceable directive principles’. Nehru kept resisting the demand for making a central law banning cow slaughter by hiding behind the argument that the cow slaughter ban was a state subject. However, despite Nehru’s antipathy, many Congress ruled states brought anti-cow slaughter laws in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, demand for a central law were getting stronger and there seemed to be widespread support for such a law in the country. One prominent figure who built a strong cow-protection campaign after independence was Swami Karpatri Ji. He had been involved with the cause of cow protection since 1947. He played a key role in getting slaughterhouses shut down in the holy city of Mathura. The pressure exerted by him was partly responsible for the enactment of anti-cow slaughter laws in UP and Bihar in the 1950s. However, Karpatri Ji’s ultimate goal was the enactment of a central law for banning cow slaughter all over India. He kept working tirelessly for that goal for nearly two decades.
However, a central law to ban cow slaughter ban was nowhere on the horizon. As a result, it was decided in 1966, in a huge Gau raksha sammelan in Prayag that the time for petitions was over and it was time for Balidan (Sacrifice) for the sacred cause of Gau raksha. The demand for Gau raksha was presented before the Home minister in September 1966. It was also decided that a huge protest be held in front of the parliament on 7th November 1966. This turned out to be the biggest ever protest against cow slaughter. More than a million Gau Rakshaks assembled in front of the parliament to demand a ban on Gau Hatya. It was a totally peaceful and non-violent protest. Karapatri Ji declared from the stage,

“We have nothing against a particular political party. The people of the ruling party are our own people. We want their welfare. We have only come to demand Gau raksha”

Despite this, the government came down heavily on the protestors. The police started a lathi charge and then bullets were fired on the crowd that included many prominent sadhus of India. A curfew was imposed in Delhi. As per official estimates, 11 people were killed. However other sources indicate that this figure was much higher and ran into hundreds. Karpatri Ji was arrested the next day and sent to Tihar jail where he was attacked by some inmates. It was a violent attack in which he received head injuries and lost vision in one eye. The government relented after the brutal assault on Gau Rakshaks and formed a committee to find ways to implement a cow slaughter ban. However, this was just a delaying tactic and a cow slaughter ban remains as elusive as ever.


The demonstration in 1966 was the last major cow protection agitation in India. In the 53 years that have since passed, more states have enacted the anti-cow slaughter legislation, and barring West Bengal, Kerala and Northeastern states, most have an anti-cow slaughter legislation of some sort. However, these laws are not uniform and, in some instances provide enough loopholes for enabling cow slaughter. What is more worrying than the state of anti-cow slaughter legislation is the change in attitudes of people with regard to this issue. With the modernisation of India, one is witnessing a greater tolerance to eating beef among certain sections of Hindus. This has been accompanied by concerted efforts to question the inherent morality of anti-cow slaughter laws and re-open the debate on an issue that, at least in principle, had been settled long ago in favour of those who oppose cow slaughter. We find numerous efforts to justify beef eating which is sometimes articulated as an issue of choice and freedom, which also has harmful economic effects. This kind of relentless propaganda has resulted in the growing support for a pro-cow slaughter position.
On the other hand, those who are engaged in defending and protecting the Gau Mata are being attacked from all quarters and find themselves isolated as neither the government nor the broader society has been sympathetic to their position. What has come to be known as the cow vigilante issue in the recent years is the most clear expression of such an attitude. The Gau Rakshaks who are fighting tooth and nail to protect cows from the organised onslaught of butchers and cow smugglers are being painted as the villains and have been branded as cow vigilantes in the public discourse on the issue. It’s a matter of concern that an increasing number of Hindus have unquestioningly swallowed such narratives and seem to have become defensive about a cause which is among the longest and most heroic struggles of Indian history.
Therefore, it is important that a central legislation which is genuinely committed to protecting the cow must be implemented across the country. Besides the legal part, people, especially Hindus who oppose the cause of cow protection must pause and reconsider their views on the issue. They would do well to remember that the veneration of the cow is one of the oldest and deep-rooted beliefs of Hindus. Throughout our history cow protection has had the support of most sections of the society. It would not be an overstatement to say that there has existed a ‘cow consensus’ for most of India’s history. This consensus was challenged only when there was an influx of foreign elements such as the Afghan invaders in the medieval period and the British in the modern period. In other words, opposition to cow protection is something very un-hindu and un-indian. By the same logic, support for cow protection is the most naturally Indian thing. Therefore, to give up the ideal of cow protection would mean giving up an important part of our Hindu and Indian identity.
Cow protection is not only an ancient value, but also a huge driver in building the Hindutva movement in the modern period. The modern cow protection movement is as old as the Hindutva project itself. This is one issue that brought Hindutva proponents of all hues together. This issue found favour in not only with reformists such as Swami Dayananda but also with traditionalists such as Swami Karpatri Ji. This was an issue that provides strength and social depth to the nascent Hindutva movement in the 1880s. It would probably not be too wrong to say that the spirit of the Hindutva wouldn’t have spread so fast had there been no cow protection movement. In fact, there’s a good chance that in the absence of cow protection, there would have been no Hindutva movement worth talking about. That even a secularist like MK Gandhi could not completely disown this issue shows how important this issue has been for the Hindutvawadis. Today when a party that owes its growth to Hindutva and cow protection in power, it’s only natural for people to expect a more central place for cow protection in the government’s agenda.
Finally, there is nothing to be ashamed or defensive about the cause of cow protection. It’s one of the most sacred and ancient values of this land for which generation after generation has affirmed its commitment. From the average ordinary people to the greatest monarchs and gurus, this was a battle that every Hindu fought for centuries. There can be nothing more kind, humane and heroic than fighting so resolutely and for so long in defence of a meek and innocent animal. There’s probably no other culture or civilisation in human history that has done so. This means that cow protection represents not only an Indian consensus but also a core element of Indian exceptionalism. This is a legacy that we ought to be proud of. This is a cause we ought to celebrate.

About Author: Pramod Kumar

Pramod is a teacher from NCR. He is interested in Indian history and culture.

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