Gau Sevaks Have Much to Learn About the Moral Traditions of India

In Mewat, growing cow vigilantism indicates a complete lack of contemporary and historical understanding of complex cultures.

Credit: elwillybobby/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: elwillybobby/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As Bakr Eid approached, gau seva organisations had a field day in areas with large Muslim populations, such as Mewat, where they roamed the markets checking on shops that they suspected might be selling beef biryani.

Clearly this is a low for Indian democracy. Certain groups can constitute themselves into semi-official moral police since they see in their party – the BJP –  coming to power with an absolute majority an open license to reverse policies that apparently “favour minorities”. The low is because of the utter lack of trust, absence of civic virtue and political morality this suggests. Certain cultures are being framed as essentially and purely Islamic – and this ‘violent’.

The vigilantism this augurs also indicates a complete lack of contemporary and historical understanding of complex cultures. For instance, take Mewat. I am most familiar with the region, having worked there for over a decade on two books that looked at the community from the 13th to the 20th century.

There is very little awareness on the fear and worry this politics creates within communities. I have personally witnessed Meos being hounded for cow killing since the 1980s, although 2016 signals something of a climax. Indeed, in the 1980s I knew of many Meo panchayats that had banned gau hatya (cow killing).

Memories of partition

As I have written elsewhere, for many Mewatis who have witnessed the genocidal killings of partition, this vigilantism brings echoes of the polarised politics that the region saw in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, overwriting the inter communal amity of regional peasant mobilisation. In 1947, much of the inter-community harmony in the region was destroyed. The moment of 1947 did not bring azadi or freedom to many Meos, even though large numbers had been supporters of the praja mandals and parishads that were informally allied to the Indian National Congress. Instead, for ordinary Mewatis, it meant kati (killing), bhaga-bhagi (fleeing after being evicted from their villages) and their women being abducted. They called this period ‘Hullar’, much like the Palestinians refer to their partition as ‘Al-Nakbah’.

What the purported gau sevaks do not realise is that the Meos have belonged to a much deeper and wider culture of cow protection, since they were a part of Braj. If only the gau rakshaks would go around Meo villages and speak to people who are still around to learn of their celebration of Govardhan puja, participation in the pilgrimage called Govardhan parikrama and the circumambulation of the Govardhan parbat (mountain). While I was doing my fieldwork, Meo men from Kaman in the Bharatpur district were still going on pilgrimage to the annual fair held at the Govardhan-Giriraj temple.

The Jadubanshi Meos will tell you that they are descendants of Krishna, the divine cowherd, a genealogy that their Jaga genealogists and Mirasi performer-poet-story tellers keep alive. Krishna is an autari or deity incarnate in the Meo oral tradition who enchants the gopis. Like Rama, he is associated with the destruction of evil.

The Meos themselves have combined livelihoods as peasants and cow pastoralists. Of all the women of the ‘cow belt’ region of northern India, Meo women make the most beautiful stacks of cow dung cakes that they call batevras. The Alwar state was once known for its forested lands such as at Itarana and Dautana – thousands of cattle were auctioned from here at the time of partition that the fleeing Meos had to abandon.

The contemporary discourse, however, mirrors a century-old perspective deriving from the modern European idea of religion. This idea does not allow for the possibility that there can be Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu individuals or communities, which might be hyphenated in their belief and practice and have more complex identities, institutions and practices.

The idea of democracy

Coming back to the idea of democracy, three issues need to be highlighted. First, even if the Mewatis had not been part of a larger culture of cow protection, there is no justification for a citizenship discourse based on constant suspicion.

Second, modern democratic theory is one voice on the value of the pursuit of the common good. Even Machiavelli argued that liberty could be preserved if leaders and citizens alike were prepared to advocate the common good and not self interest. Trust is an important component, then, of ensuring that citizens overcome fear and participate fully in public life.

Third, the Indian tradition of democratic theory goes back to Asoka at the very least, whose edicts preached against the hate speech of his times. My colleague, Rajeev Bhargava, has researched the Asokan edicts, pointing out that they express a higher political morality than the idea of toleration that modern European thought developed. Edict 12 is against speech that is derogatory of other pashandas or sects or that praises one’s own pashanda. Sanyama (self-restraint) and bhavasuddhi (purification of one’s own emotions) is emphasised. Alas, if only cow protection organisations were keyed into Indian traditions and cultures.

Shail Mayaram is a historian and political anthropologist whose most recent book is Israel as the gift of the Arabs: Letters from Tel Aviv