The violence perpetrated by Hindu organisations in the name of cow protection impelled Gandhi to shun the term in his later years. He consciously chose terms like ‘goseva’ (in service of the cow) or ‘pashu-sudhaar’ (improvement of livestock).
Mahatma Gandhi’s first encounter with superstitions related to cow worship was in 1915, during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. He wrote about this experience in his autobiography: “Here I saw a cow with five feet! I was astonished, but knowing men soon disillusioned me. The poor five-footed cow was a sacrifice to the greed of the wicked. I learnt that the fifth foot was nothing else but a foot cut off from a live calf and grafted upon the shoulder of the cow! The result of this double cruelty was exploited to fleece the ignorant of their money. There was no Hindu but would be attracted by a five-footed cow, and no Hindu but would lavish his charity on such a miraculous cow.”
Gandhi’s interest in the cow developed during his years in South Africa. When he returned to India, he explored at length the idea of the cow’s sacredness in terms of its valued role in an agrarian economy. He put forth his own view of the centrality of cow protection in sanatana dharma, but in a way that ruffled the feathers of the orthodoxy. And, when he embarked on his mission of forging Hindu-Muslim unity, seeing it as the only effective way to confront the might of the colonial power, he found himself faced with the issue of cow protection militantly espoused by Hindu organisations that initially blamed the British but went on to be overwhelmingly influenced by anti-Muslim sentiments, often sparking riots.
On December 8, 1920, during a speech at a ‘goshala’ in Bettiah (Champaran), which he had established in 1917 at the time of the Champaran satyagraha, Gandhi expressed his early thoughts on the issue. It was a time when the Ali brothers (Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali) had launched the Khilafat movement against the British and joined hands with the Congress to participate in the non-cooperation movement.
Gandhi began by saying that “what is really needed for protecting the cow is that the Hindus themselves should care for her since they, too, kill her” – be it by extracting the very lost drop of milk or working oxen to death. Then, emphasising that cow slaughter was not a religious duty for Muslims and that “[w]e have made it one by our attitude to them”, he said, “Whereas Muslims slaughter cows only occasionally for beef, the English cannot do without it for a single day. But we submit to them as slaves…I cherished the hope that they would do us some good. Now the hope is gone and hence I have declared non-cooperation against them. At such a time if we care for cow protection, we should unconditionally help the Muslims. I am with Shaukat Ali day and night but I do not say to him a word about cow protection, for at present our duty is only to help the Muslims…We cannot protect the cow while remaining enamoured of the government. But by non-co-operating with it, you may even succeed in melting the hearts of Muslims.”
Towards the end of his speech, Gandhi admitted that his words came from emotion, “What I have said has come of itself. Never before have I spoken so earnestly about cow protection. Protect mother cow, and mother cow will protect you.”
There was a world of difference between his idea of cow protection, which was based on the idea of caring for the cow, and the strident narrative of cow protection espoused by supporters of the ‘goraksha’ movement. Addressing a large crowd of sadhus of the Swaminarayan sect in Vadtal, a village in Gujarat’s Kheda District on January 19, 1921, he said, “You cannot save the cow by killing Muslims or Englishmen; you can save her only by offering your own dear neck. If you offer your neck in saving the cow, Yamaraj (the god of death) will not call you to account for doing so but will offer you a seat on his own throne. If, on the other hand, you kill another person for saving a cow, he will positively ask you to justify your action, for you are a man and so was the other one [whom you killed]. We are not God so that we may kill another person in order to save a cow. Hinduism, however, imposes an obligation on me to offer my neck for the sake of the cow. How many Hindus have acted thus? How many of them have offered their lives unconditionally for the sake of Muslims? The cow cannot be protected with the calculating virtues of a vanik (trader).”
But Hindu organisations sought to offer their support for a price, namely on the condition that Muslims agreed to put an end to cow slaughter. Addressing a group of businessmen in Calcutta on January 26, 1921, Gandhi warned against such bargaining tactics. “If you wish to save cows, then save Khilafat. Millionaires speak of stopping cow-killing but cooperate with the English…It is said against the Mussulmans that they kill cows. But I say that what is slaughtered in Bandra in five years cannot be done in 25 years by seven crores of Mussulmans…If you truly wish to save cows, then go to the help of Khilafat. The Mussulmans are not ungrateful but you should not ask them to save cows first before you can help their Khilafat. Don’t do so – this is no matter for bargain,” he said.
Meanwhile, incidents of violence in the name of cow protection kept rising. Some instances in Bihar came to light where Gandhi’s name was misused while committing violence in the name of cow protection. Responding to those incidents in an article published in Young India (May 18, 1921), Gandhi wrote, “I was told by all responsible leaders – both Hindu and Mohammedan – who are not given to be panicky, that it was taxing their resources to the utmost to avoid a Hindu-Mussulman disturbance. They informed that certain Hindus, by name Gangaram Sharma, Bhutanath and Vidyanand, for instance, had told the people that I had prohibited the use of meat to any Hindus or Mussulmans and that meat and fish were even forcibly taken away from people by over-zealous vegetarians. I know that unlawful use is being made of my name in many places, but this is the most novel method of misusing it…”
Making his stand absolutely clear, Gandhi added, “Needless to say I have authorised no one to preach vegetarianism as part of non-cooperation. I do not know the persons named above. I am sure that our purpose will be defeated if propaganda of any kind is accompanied by violence. Hindus may not compel Mussulmans to abstain from meat or even beef-eating. Vegetarian Hindus may not compel other Hindus to abstain from fish, flesh or fowl. I would not make India sober at the point of the sword…I have heard that, at big fairs, if a Mussulman is found in possession of cows or even goats, he is at time forcibly dispossessed. Those, who, claiming to be Hindus, thus resort to violence are enemies of the cow and of Hinduism.” Reinforcing this, he also said that “…To attempt cow protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism”.
On their part, nationalist Muslims like Shaukat, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Mian Haji Ahmed Khatri, Mian Chhotani and Maulana Abdul Bari who took active part in the Khilafat movement urged followers to refrain from cow slaughter.
Gandhi had made frequent references to cow protection as being central to Hinduism. The cow protectionists who were indulging in violence were also seeking legitimacy in the name of sanatana Hinduism. In an article titled ‘Hinduism’ in Young India (October 6, 1921), he spelt out his understanding of sanatana Hinduism:
“…I have asserted my claim to being a sanatani Hindu with greater emphasis than hitherto, and yet there are things which are commonly done in the name of Hinduism, which I disregard. I have no desire to be called a sanatani Hindu or any other if I am not such. And I have certainly no desire to steal in a reform or an abuse under cover of a great faith..I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular.”
Adding that the way to protect the cow was to die for her, that it was a denial of Hinduism and ahimsa to kill a human being to protect a cow, Gandhi rued the fact that “present-day cow protection has degenerated into a perpetual feud with the Mussulmans, whereas cow protection means conquering Mussulmans by our love.” As always, he mentioned the treatment meted out to cows by Hindus – over-milking, depriving calves of milk and starving cows – to say that “[b]y every act of cruelty to our cattle we disown God and Hinduism”.
On another occasion, in a note titled ‘Impatient Cow-Protectors’ published in Young India (March 16, 1921), he wrote: “During my wanderings I have come across many instances of Hindus being in a hurry to protect the cow. …In several municipalities, Lahore for instance, they have been trying to pass a bye-law prohibiting slaughter of calves and milch cattle. … Hindus cannot ‘have the cake and eat it’ too. Either we are non-cooperators or we are not. If we are we cannot seek the assistance of the govt even to protect the cow. We must recognise that the Muslims are everywhere doing most handsomely in the matter. They are trying their utmost to respect Hindu susceptibilities.”
Gandhi had but one suggestion. “Impatient Hindus will actually injure their own cause by forcing the pace. Either we rely upon Muslim nobility or upon the force of arms or law. Having chosen the former we dare not resort to the latter. Let it be remembered that forces are still at world to destroy the growing friendliness between Hindus and Muslims. Mischief-makers are straining every nerve to break the tie that binds the two. They are already exploiting the Lahore incident. We must not play into the hands of ‘the enemy’.”
A divisive narrative
Soon Gandhi realised the vast gulf that existed between the narrative of the cow’s sacredness espoused by Hindu revivalist organisations and his own idea of the same. For the former, the cow was proving a potent symbol of mobilisation of the Hindu community against the ‘other’. Gandhi, who defined the sacredness of the cow in terms of its sheer usefulness to the agrarian economy, was more interested in improving conditions for cows and enhancing their economic value.
This realisation compelled him to shun the use of words like goraksha or cow protection in his later years. Instead, he consciously chose the term ‘goseva’ or in service of the cow. In fact, Gandhi, along with Jamnalal Bajaj, Bajaj’s his wife Janaki Devi and Vinoba Bhave, took great interest in the work of the All-India Goseva Sangh. In his speech at the All-India Goseva Sangh Conference at Wardha on February 1, 1942, Gandhi described the kind of cow worship seen on the streets of Bombay, “We catch her by the tail and sanctify our eyes with its sacred touch. We regard even her urine as sacred and full of medicinal value and drink it. Alas, the poor cow is innocent of all this worship, and so our worship is lost on her. It even scares her. When it scares her she answers our attentions with a kick; when she is not scared she suffers us. …All this is too true and those who claim to protect the cow betray a criminal ignorance of the real method of protecting her and her progeny. Those who claim to worship the cow cruelly ill-treat the bullocks.”
In 1946, Jivanji Desai, manager of the Navajivan Trust, wrote to Gandhi requesting him to add a chapter on cow protection to the well-known 60-page booklet Constructive Programme that he had written for the volunteers of Indian National Congress in 1941. On January 16, 1946, Gandhi responded to his letter by saying, “‘Service to the cow’ (goseva) should be included as one more item in the Constructive Programme. I would phrase it as ‘improvement of cattle’.”
He continued to talk about goseva in this vein. During a prayer discourse in Delhi on July 19, 1947, he said, “Unfortunately those who ought to be saviours of the cow have become devourers of the cow. People send me wires expecting me to persuade Jawaharlal and the Sardar to enact laws to protect the cow. But I will not do so. I will ask these devotees of the cow not to waste their money on telegrams. Let them spend that money on the cow. If they cannot themselves do so let them send the money to me. I must say that it is we who are responsible for cow-slaughter. We give the cows so little to eat and make the bullocks carry such heavy loads that they become like skeletons…What right have such people to demand that cow slaughter be stopped. After all most cows are owned by Hindus. Why do they sell them to slaughter houses?… I have never seen anywhere in the world such enfeebled cattle as in India. In the name of dharma we are practising adharma. No law that Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar can enact will stop cow-slaughter.”
He reiterated this view in his strongly-worded letter to Swami Karapatri on July 24, 1947: “I think I know the five demands of the Dharma Sangh. I must say that I do not agree with the current interpretation of Sanatana Dharma. I have called cow protection goseva, i. e., in service of the cow. Legislation hardly serves the cow, much less protects it.”
Seventy years later, we are no closer to Gandhi’s idea of goseva. On the contrary, the kind of cow protection that he repeatedly warned against is writ large on the political landscape today, the frenzy of cow protectors masquerading as righteousness and looked upon benignly by governments, no less.
Avyakta is an independent consultant and also a contributing columnist for several online magazines. His twitter handle is @vishwamanushah.