The lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, on 28 September, 2015, by Hindu mobs, on suspicions of eating beef on Eid-ul-Adha, did not inspire condemnation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The recent Dalit backlash at Una, in Gujarat certainly did.
Cow vigilantism in India has allowed prime time voices of the nation to redeem their political ideologies. It has also allowed for an introspection into India’s communalism under colonial rule.
Cow Vigilantism in the 1880s
According to orders issued by the Board of Administration for Punjab, in 1849, the sale of beef was banned in Multan. In the early 1880s, the same festival which marked the killing of Akhlaq, led to communal riots in Punjab, which later spread to the United Provinces (Benares) and Bihar (Patna). The cow-vigilantism in 1880s was the first recorded instance in modern India.
Hindu agitations for cow protection proceeded with establishing support from the existing traditionalist anti-colonial groups and demonstrating the allegedly “nationwide” opposition to beef consumption through protracted petitions to the government.
A key leader of the 1880s’ cow vigilantism was Swami Dayanand Saraswati, whose pamphlet Goukarunanidhi (Ocean of Mercy for the Cow) was a widely distributed text that was drafted in support of the movement.
First Cow Riots of Modern India
Cow riots first happened in April, 1881, when a Muslim butcher bringing in an uncovered basket of raw beef into Multan was fined, followed by an order issued on 23 April that all beef being brought into the city be permitted only through a specific gate. As Muslims rose in protest, riots broke out in Punjab. These were quelled by a special police force deputed through taxes levied on the inhabitants of Multan.
Just eight years before the beef riots first broke out, the Journal of the East India Association (1873) reported upcoming research suggesting that the sacred Vedas and the writings of Manu clearly bore out incidents of beef consumption, even by the devoutest Hindus.
In 1883, during Bakr-Id, due to Hindu pressure, the local magistrate in Multan had issued an order on a maulvi restraining the sacrifice of a cow which he had purchased from a Brahmin. The order was lifted in the Lahore High Court, and the maulvi succeeded in having the cow slaughtered.
This encouraged the Muslims. In the following year, the number of cows sacrificed in Delhi during Id rose from about 30 to 170. By 1886, the number had escalated to 450. In Ludhiana that year, riots broke out during Bakr-Id. Hindus seized beef claiming it had been slaughtered inside the town in contravention of the government’s statutory ruling of 1849. In Ambala, a local Hindu festival coincided with the Id celebrations, initiating further tension. The tensions were aggravated in the following month, in October, when Muharram partially coincided with Dussehra. Riots broke out in Delhi, Hoshiarpur, Faridpur, Alapur, Etawa, and Ambala.
Riots in Bengal, UP and Bihar
An important text written by Bulloram Mullick – Essays on the Hindu Family in Bengal (1882) – claims that beef eating is a common practice for the heterodox Theistic Bengalis. Under the influence of enlightenment brought about by the Brahmo Samaj, such a claim is absolutely credible.
Nonetheless, after a hiatus of about twenty years, when beef riots broke out again it was in Calcutta, in 1909. In January, that year, Muslims sacrificed a cow in public. The Hindu mob rebellion was so severe that a joint force by the police and military was called into action to dispel the rioters.
In 1912, violent riots ensued in Fyzabad and Ayodhya. The Fyzabad incident began when a Muslim, walking behind an English regiment with a cow that was not required for sacrifice in Ayodhya, began taunting Hindu crowds. The Muslim man was allowed to go, but the Hindus killed a maulvi instead, inaugurating a three-year-long dispute which was only somewhat suppressed by an emergency order issued in 1915, under Section 144 of the Criminal Code, forbidding sacrifice of cows in Ayodhya during Id.
Patna, Muzzaffarpur and Gaya, in Bihar, witnessed widespread clashes between 1911 and 1917. On 30 September, 1917, a mob of 25,000 Hindus attacked a Muslim village in Ibrahimpur. When the riots happened in Delhi, especially during the worst year that was 1924, both Hindus and Muslims took turns murdering innocents and desecrating temples and mosques. Katra Nil, Ballimaran, Sadar Bazaar, Lahori Gate and Bagh Diwar were the bloodiest areas of the city.
Laws for Cow Protection
Under colonial rule, the sanctity of the body of the sacred animal was never as contested as during the 45 years between 1880 and 1925. What today is a seemingly ex gratia demand for cow vigilantism had actually shaped up under the inadvertent aegis of the British Empire. So, when the questions are raised about what the nation wants to know about cow vigilantism, it must be borne in mind that cow protection was never a national idea – at least to begin with. It had nothing to do with animal husbandry as it is touted today.
When India was formed, prohibition of cow slaughter became an Indian constitutional provision – under Article 48 – as ambiguously reproduced from the colonial rulings of 1849 and 1915, which in turn were colonial measures adopted to quell mutual and rabid intolerances between the communities on grounds of food, unleashed in 1857.
Arguably then, the notion that the cow is sacred in India is an interpretation of the British administration buckling under the pressure of Hindu mobs.
(The writer is is founder-editor of Coldnoon: Travel Poetics (International Journal of Travel Writing); his book on the Indian Railways is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He can be reached at @chatterjeearupk. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)