The Cow Question in Modern India: Part I

The Cow Question in Modern India: Part I

A brief historical survey of cow protection in India.

By Anand Vardhan

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“His Moslem tiger wants to eat the Hindu cow,” read the strapline of Time magazine’s cover story on Muhammad Ali Jinnah in its issue dated April 22, 1946. In its report, the magazine quoted Jinnah: “I want to eat the cow the Hindu worships. The Moslem has nothing in common with the Hindu except his slavery to the British.”

The cover story was published less than a month after the three-member Cabinet Mission, sent by the British government, arrived in Delhi on March 24, 1946. It had been sent to discuss the structure and process of transfer of power to Indian leadership. At the same time, with the Pakistan movement gaining momentum, Jinnah was tempted to use the political symbolism of the cow as one of the easier ways to push his two-nation theory.

It was used for its appeal as a point of cultural segregation, especially in the north, west and some parts of east India. Cow worship and protection—not to be confused as the same—juxtaposed to cow slaughter, were visible forms of expressing irreconcilable claims on nationhood.

What was doubtful, however, was the popularity of the political use of the cow for religious mobilisation in the mid-20th century. To a large extent, though an intermittent theme, it didn’t become the leitmotif of how communal politics shaped in the period.

There have been historical arguments contesting the sacredness of the cow as an integral part of ancient Indian way of life and suggesting that dietary practices of some sections of the population in ancient India did include consumption of cows. Historians like Professor D N Jha 1 have made such arguments.

The debate on it is far from settled. The difficulty in studying the history of heterogeneous practices in what’s generally called Hindu society doesn’t help either coupled with the challenges of defining constituents of mainstream Hinduism. Besides religious beliefs, its importance as an economic resource for farming communities, and especially for dairy production-dependent social groups, has a long history.

In a cultural sense, the idea of the sacredness of cows hasn’t been sudden—it had evolved through centuries and regions. There has been a tradition in some regions of the country to portray cow as kamadhenu (wish-fulfilling goddess) and associate her with Lakshmi (a deity symbolising wealth and fortune). It’s disputable whether such regions could be described by what historian Eric Hobsbawm termed as “the invention of tradition.”

Professor AL Basham, best known for his influential study of India’s cultural history, talked about the centrality of cattle in the mixed agricultural and pastoral economy that Aryans built for themselves. However, on the question of the sanctity of cows in Hindu religious order, Indologist Professor William Norman Brown argued in the 1960s that the exalted religious status of the cow could be observed by the advent of the fourth century AD, the period of composition of Puranas.

It is clear that as a social and political movement, the career of cow protection in modern India can be traced to 150 years ago. For the purpose of a brief historical survey, we can begin with the late 19th century.


In colonial India, one of the first major responses against cow slaughter, and a violent outburst for the cause of cow protection didn’t come from a Hindu group. Instead, it came from a Sikh sect practising vegetarianism, the Namdhari Sikhs (also known as the Kukas). Traced back to the 1870s, it was a response that was as much a confrontation with Muslims as it was a backlash against the British government’s intervention in what Namdharis valued as their community’s way of life.

In 1871, Namdharis were outraged as the deputy commissioner of Amritsar gave permission for the opening of a slaughterhouse in the city. The Kukas led the protest against the decision, amid worsening relations with the Muslim community in the city.

Working on a plan to rescue the cows from the slaughterhouse, a radical section of protesting Namdharis raided the slaughterhouse. In the ensuing violence, butchers were killed. Acting swiftly, on September 15, 1871, the British government hanged four Namdharis who were accused of killing the butchers.

What followed in Malerkotla (Punjab) in January 1872 was more violent, and resulted in 66 Namdharis being blown apart by cannon fire ordered by authorities. It even became a forerunner of the cult of martyrdom that was seen in the later stage of anti-colonial struggle in India.

A newspaper report published as late as 2005 recalled the chain of events of 1872 for a different reason. It started with an altercation between the Muslims and Namdharis who were protesting against cow slaughter. What followed is recounted in the report:

“The Muslim judge at Malerkotla ordered that an ox be butchered before the eyes of a protesting Namdhari named Gurmukh Singh. Following this, a batch of about 200 Namdharis proceeded towards Kotla to avenge the wrong. On the morning of January 15 (1872), there was a bloody skirmish between the Namdharis and the officials of the Malerkotla state that left eight men from Kotla and seven Namdharis dead. Later, they were arrested by the Patiala State, and the Deputy Commissioner ordered that they should be blown apart.”3

Following the order, 66 Namdharis (including two women) were blown apart and accounts state that they raised the slogan of Sat Sri Akal while facing the cannon. In Malerkotla, there is a 66-foot memorial with 66 holes, commemorating the event. This was in the news in 2005—133 years later— because a tenacious researcher was able to dig out from the records the names of all Namdharis blown apart by cannon fire.

Though these events in the 1870s could be seen as a violent and intense stir against cow slaughter, they did not possess the organisational structure of a social or political movement for cow protection. It was a decade later that the first such organised effort appeared as an extension of what was seen by some as Hindu reform, and by others as a revivalist movement.


In 1882, Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Arya Samaj, established the first cow protection group, called the Gau Rakshini Sabha. Its formation wasn’t necessarily against Muslims but was a reflection of a common trend in movements that Hindu groups were advocating in the period.

In some ways, the Arya Samaj had a reformist agenda as it opposed the caste system, child marriage, idol worship, widow celibacy, and so on. At the same time, like other movements of the period, the Arya Samaj sought to standardise a wide range of Hindu rituals and practices, to consolidate an idea of a single community among followers of amorphous Hinduism. Seen in this context, the Arya Samaj’s active advocacy for cow protection was an effort to make Hindus conscious of belonging to one identifiable community.

Gau Rakshini Sabhas spread to different parts of the country, and hundreds of gaushalas were constructed. Along with them, other cow protection organisations spawned, especially in north India. The printing press—through pamphlets and posters—spread the message of protecting cows. In fact, the 1890s was the decade when newspapers named after themes of cow protection began to be published—Gausevak (published from Banaras, now called Varanasi) and the monthly Gaudharm Prakash (published from Farrukhabad).

These campaigns also saw the visual portrayal of the cow as a mother-figure. In her study4 of the projection of cows as symbols of maternal divinity and a metaphor for nationalism during 1890-1920, Charu Gupta reflected on various forms this process took. In an earlier study, Christopher Pinney argued how visuals—produced locally on a large scale, portraying cows in divine forms—also promoted the cause of cow protection.  As an extension, cow slaughter was equated with the sin of matricide.

However, the movement wasn’t always about invoking divinity or using aggressive language for the cause of protecting cows. For instance, Gupta cites the use of soft poems and bhajans stressing on compassion for ‘tear-shedding’ and ‘grief-stricken’ mother figures embodied by cows. One such poem had these lines: Aansoon baha rahi hain, dukhia ho hai gaiya. Sansar palti hain, bharat ki hain ye maiya (The cows are shedding tears in sadness. They nourish the world, they are the mothers of India)”.

Scholars have also suggested that the first two decades of the 20th century saw the cow protection movement spread to rural areas in the north and west India, and some parts of east India, too.5

Citing an interesting case study of rural Bengal, geographer Reece Jones argues that the cow protection movement there involved establishing “zones of tradition in areas where they had not existed before”6.

That implied that cow protection committees sought to enlist the support of zamindars—the big landowners recognised by the government’s permanent settlement—to ban cow slaughter on their land and plantations.

Before the movement, there were areas where cow slaughter was practised, and also areas where such practices weren’t seen7. The movement made people identify themselves as supporters or opponents of cow slaughter, which to a large extent was on communal lines. Zamindars, mostly Hindus, now saw it as their religious duty to ban cow slaughter on their estates.

The British government had followed the customary law on the issue, implying that areas which had a history of cow slaughter could continue with it, while areas, where there was no such history, couldn’t start it. To add to that, there were areas with mixed practices and here, cow protection movement workers were keen on establishing precedents by banning cow slaughter.

Whatever be the objectives, nature and methods of the movement, it led to violent confrontations with Muslims. In 1893, there were communal riots in different parts of the country that were triggered by the issue of cow slaughter in Azamgarh district of United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) and soon spread as far as Bombay Presidency (now Maharashtra and Gujarat). Along with the violent turn it intermittently took, Peter van der Veer8 studied the nature of nationalist appeal of cow protection movement in the 19th century, particularly in north India. He adopted an interdisciplinary approach to studying the role of religious rituals and symbols in the construction of Indian nationalism. Later this was aided by the use of printed material and visuals for the purpose. By the late nineteenth century, cow as mother-figure had become an appealing instrument in this process.

However, it’s relevant here to briefly look at how contemporary Muslim leaders and their movements approached the cow question in the late 19th century.

The last three decades of the 19th century witnessed the reformist ferment within the Muslim community. This stream was led by the Aligarh movement. It had its origins in the establishment of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (MAO) by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan at Aligarh in 1875, the precursor to the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) which was set up in 1920.

As the Aligarh movement evolved through phases, it swung from being accommodative to alarmist, and from being reformist to being insular. In the course of time, it became the wellspring for the Pakistan movement and the two-nation theory. These evolutionary strands in the Aligarh movement were also reflected in its leadership’s position on the cow.

To begin with, Syed Ahmad Khan’s accommodative approach was evident. He was keen on admitting Hindu students as day scholars in the college while retaining the Muslim character of the institution. To allay the apprehensions of Hindus, he banned the slaughter of cows on the MAO campus.9

However, in the 1890s, Sir Syed approved the formation of the Mohammedan Defence Association (MDA)—a body which had MAO principal Theodore Beck as its secretary. The communal riots of 1893 had triggered the establishment of this new body, and reactions to cow slaughter had its impact on the decision.

In his study of Muslims in modern India, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram writes, “Muslims who refused to abide by the Hindu sentiment in favour of the cow were subjected to a severe economic boycott”.10 Ikram further argues that this reaction could be a key factor behind Sir Syed’s decision to support the formation of the MDA.

As secretary of the MDA, Theodore Beck attacked the cow protection movement. In his study of Sir Syed published in 1969, Shan Muhammad quotes Beck as dubbing the cow protection campaign as an “anti-cow killing movement.” 11 More significant, however, was the reconciliatory tone of what Shan Muhammad quotes Sir Syed as saying in 1897, a year before his death. Sir Syed said, “If by abandoning cow-slaughter more Hindu and Muslim cooperation is achieved, it is a thousand times better than sticking to the practice.’’

As events turned out, in the 1930s-40s, the Muhammad Ali Jinnah-led Muslim League (founded in 1906) was more inclined to take the MDA line rather.


The first half of the 20th century saw the intensification of struggle against the British rule. In this period, though sporadic violent incidents—triggered by issues of cow slaughter and protection—continued to be reported, Hindu groups weren’t very aggressive in their pursuit of the cow protection agenda as a political project. It still did remain one of their key objectives.

An important development in the early 20th century was the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1914. It was set up at Amritsar and had its headquarters at Haridwar. It identified itself as a body for the promotion of Hindu interests and distanced itself from the mainstream of the Congress-led freedom struggle.

Eleven years later, in 1925, a Hindu Mahasabha member, Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, established the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at Nagpur. An avowedly cultural organisation, it positioned itself as a volunteer force advocating cultural nationalism. It extended its support to cow protection as an apolitical campaign only.

Interestingly, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the key leader of Hindu Mahasabha from the 1920s onward, and an exponent of Hindutva didn’t endorse cow worship at all. Instead, he emphasised the need for cow care.

His correspondence with an editor of a Marathi journal Bhala in the mid-1930s is often cited as an example of his aversion to any idea of cow deification. While replying to the editor, Savarkar wrote, “If the cow’s a mother to anybody at all, it’s the bullock. Not the Hindus. Hindutva, if it has to sustain itself on a cow’s legs, will come crashing down at the slightest sign of a crisis.”12

While slamming any such idea as irrational, he asked people to value the cow for its utility and to use scientific animal husbandry practices for cow-rearing.

So it can be said that in the first half of the 20th century, Hindu organisations adopted an approach that made cow protection a significant subtext of their activities, but not its key driver.


The discourse on cow protection became important in some sections of the Congress-led national movement for Independence. In mainstreaming the significance of cow protection, Mahatma Gandhi’s writings and voice became important. However, what was also crucial is that he evolved his position on cow protection to accommodate the cultural practices of different communities.

Gandhi made his reverence for cows evident in his writings. He venerated cows as an embodiment of compassion, as well as an abode of divinity. He articulated the importance of cow protection and considered the cow to be a mother-figure. His writings in his weekly journals, Young India and Harijan, reflect his deep belief in the sanctity of cows, and the need for cow protection.

Gandhi regarded the cow as “Karuna Ki Kavita”, or a poem of pity, and as the purest representative of “entire sub-human life”. He included cow protection as one of the most important duties of Hindus. On October 6, 1921, he wrote in Young India 13, “Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow… Hindus will be judged not by their tilaks, not by the correct chanting of mantras, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but by their ability to protect the cow.”

This was followed by a paragraph on the importance of non-violence and communal harmony while pursuing the goal of cow protection. He also hoped to appeal to the compassion of communities averse to cow protection. Gandhi wrote:

“It will now be understood why I consider myself a sanatani Hindu. I yield to none in my regard for the cow. I have made the Khilafat cause my own, because I see that through its preservation full protection can be secured for the cow. I do not ask my Mussalman friends to save the cow in consideration of my service. My prayer ascends daily to God Almighty, that my service of a cause I hold to be just may appear so pleasing to Him, that He may change the hearts of the Mussulmans, and fill them with pity for their Hindu neighbours and make them save the animal the latter hold dear as life itself.”

The 1919-22 phase of the Khilafat movement, which Gandhi referred to, was a stir of Indian Muslims led by two brothers—Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali—against the dismemberment of the Ottoman Caliphate. Amid criticism of endorsing an essentially regressive movement, Gandhi extended support to the movement with the objective of cementing Hindu-Muslim unity in the struggle against British rule. It was also seen as an effort to counter the Muslim League, which was claiming the representative role of Indian Muslims.

Gandhi continued to write in his journals about how kindness, consideration and real efforts are needed for the cause of cow protection apart from any piece of legislation (Young India, July 7, 1927). In later years, he emphasised the need to develop methods for taking compassionate care of even unproductive cattle as part of gau-seva (Harijan February 17, 1946, and August 31, 1947).

Gandhi was aware of the expectations from the constituent assembly, set up in December 1946 and mandated by indirect elections of November 1946 to frame an Indian constitution. A vocal section of citizens, as well as some members of the newly elected assembly, wanted a ban on cow slaughter to be part of the constitution. Dr Rajendra Prasad, the president of the constituent assembly, had told Gandhi that he had received “50,000 postcards, between 25,000 and 30,000 letters and many thousands of telegrams demanding a ban on cow-slaughter.”

Gandhi’s response in 1947 was consistent with what he had written in 1921. Addressing a prayer meeting on July 25, 1947 ( 20 days before India attained Independence), he expressed his aversion to any constitutional measure to ban cow slaughter. He reasoned that such a step would violate the rights of people following different religions in the country.

While accepting the importance of cows for Hindus, Gandhi argued, “I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow, but how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus … How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed?”14

As subsequent developments in the Constituent Assembly showed, the constitution didn’t ban cow slaughter but carried the imprint of Mahatma Gandhi’s concern for cow protection and proper animal husbandry practices for the care of cattle. It was incorporated as one of the policy guidelines, a provision under the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP).

However, the incorporation and drafting of Article 48 had its own share of contentions in the Constituent Assembly. Gandhi’s writings and prayer discourse didn’t stop demands for elevating the ban on cow slaughter to the status of a fundamental right.

In part two of the piece, the author looks at the role of the Sangh Parivar in the evolution of cow protection as a political force.


  1. Jha D, 2002, The Myth of the Holy Cow, Verso
  2. Hobsbawm, E and Ranger T eds., 1992 The Invention of Tradition Cambridge University Press
  4. Gupta C, November 10, 2001, The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India, The Economic and Political Weekly
  5. Freitag, S , 1980, Religious Rites and Riots: From Community Identity to Communalism in North India, 1870-1940, University of California
  6. Jones, R , 2007, Sacred cows and thumping drums: claiming territory as ‘zones of tradition’ in British India,  Royal Geographical Society
  7. Ahmed, R, 1981, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: a quest for identity, Oxford University Press
  8. van der Veer P, 1994, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, Berkeley
  9. Gandhi, R, 1987, Understanding the Muslim Mind , Penguin Books
  10. Ikram, S, Modern Muslim India and the Birth of Pakistan, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore
  11. Muhammad, S, 1969, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Meenakshi,1969
  14. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi – Vol. 88 (May 25, 1947 – July 31, 1947), Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting , Government of India