Bands of Armed “Cow Protectors” demonstrate an important symbol of rift
People are being beaten, killed, and molested because they eat, carry, or slaughter cattle in India. The recent sentencing of 11 individuals to life imprisonment for killing a Muslim man who was simply carrying beef shows how far the sacredness of the cow has been hijacked by Hindu right-wing groups.
The cow is considered sacred in India to Hindus. Several states do not allow cows to be slaughtered. The state of Rajasthan even has its own cow minister. Cows are allowed to wander heavily trafficked streets with no one willing to push them out of the way.
At an individual level, several “cow protector” groups have emerged that regularly set up roadblocks, invade homes, and will harass anyone accused of eating, slaughtering, or transporting beef. Over 10 people have died in the last 3 years. Last year alone there were 38 brutal attacks reported by these groups.
Most of the people targeted are Muslims and Dalits, the lowest rung on the Hindu caste system (formerly called untouchables). Dalits transport beef and Muslims eat beef because there are many poor communities that cannot afford to eat the alternatives of fish or chicken. When these groups go to the police, the victims are charged with crimes, usually about laws outlawing beef production. This has created a tolerable atmosphere for these cow protectors to act with impunity.
Some scholars have argued that the sacredness of the cow is not a Hindu tradition, but is a modern concept that has been used as an excuse to attack Muslims. There is historical evidence that Hindus did not always treat the cow with reverence and did eat beef. Famous peace advocate and social justice warrior Mahatma Gandhi may have been the one who returned the spiritual protection of the cow back into the mainstream.
It is unclear if the violence will stop. Prime Minister Modhi has been a staunch advocate of cow protection and was even linked to cow protection groups before he became Prime Minister in 2014.