The Politicisation of Beef in India
Cow Vigilantism is a strange pairing of two words, two words which I imagine the writers of dictionaries never really envisioned being used together. It is only after an upsurge of mob attacks targeting those suspected to be involved in the consumption or distribution of beef that the term has saturated media reports and permeated thought processes and conversations in India.
A basic understanding of India tells you that the cow is considered a sacred animal in the Hindu religion – a religion whose followers make up 80 per cent of the country’s 1.3 billion population. Cows with necks dripping with adornments and offerings walk the same streets as people dressed in rags on the brink of starvation. It’s a confronting dichotomy.
The wide eyed, gentle natured animal has grown to be seen as a divine symbol of life, resulting in many followers of Hinduism abstaining from consuming beef. Whilst this custom is technically one of individual religious beliefs, given the sheer numbers of Hindus in India, eating beef has morphed into an act attached to an anchor of stigma.
Photo by Lara Sutherland
Since 2014, consuming beef has gone from being a cultural taboo to being considered a punishable offence, with laws regarding beef becoming stricter and rigidly enforced legislatively and, more worryingly, extrajudicially. In the past five years, the number of reported incidents of saffron clad mobs armed with guns and bricks viciously attacking those suspected of consuming or carrying beef has sky-rocketed to over 300. Most of the victims have been Muslim.
To understand the reasons for this sudden upsurge in beef related piousness amongst portions of the Hindu population, it is important to understand the current political landscape of India.
India is a country which is, at least according to its constitution, a “Secular Democratic Republic”. However, intertwining secularity with democratic rule becomes incredibly difficult when 80 per cent of the population subscribes to one religion. When a country’s national identity becomes conflated with religious identity, secular democracy becomes an oxymoron.
Given the sheer size of India, geographically and population wise, and the mind-blowing diversity of cultures within it, the fact that a large majority of the population follows one religion makes appealing to that religion an extraordinarily effective political strategy. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, has capitalised on this strategy heavily since rising to power in 2014.
Photo by Lara Sutherland
The Modi doctrine is characterised by the re-emergence of Hindutva, a political ideology which seeks to redefine the religious and political identity of India by ‘Hindu-ness’ - in other words, it’s Hindu Nationalism. One of the ways Hindu Nationalism has tightened its grip on minorities is through a rise in political discourse surrounding the issue of beef.
By its nature, the success of any sort of nationalism is contingent on creating an ‘other’. In India’s case, politicising the issue of beef has become a means of othering the already marginalised 14.2 per cent of the population who are Muslim.
Political symbolism in general is remarkably powerful through its ability to entangle values and belief systems with objects in the material world, as any harm to the physical object is enough to mobilise action to protect the beliefs represented by it. The cow
in India is a particularly pointed political symbol due to the imagery of motherhood surrounding it, which parallels the symbolism of ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India), making it easily weaponised to advance a nationalist agenda
You mix one part religion (the hindu nationalist kind), one part patriotism, and one part maternal imagery, and you have created the perfect recipe for justifying the killing of minorities in India under the benign gaze of the government.
This recipe, encapsulated in the image of a four legged animal, provides the sustenance for these cow vigilante groups who view themselves as the mortal bringers of divine justice. And that’s what makes them so hard to punish, because what is the significance of a prison sentence to someone who believes they have received divine authorisation to avenge the death of a cow by taking another human’s life?
The politicisation of beef in India can be seen as indicative of a larger, more dangerous trend of the country shifting away from the secular ideas it was founded upon and reshaping its national identity to reflect Hindu values.