How to Milk a Cow in India: Reclaiming Gau-Seva from Gau-Rakshaks

Material economies that involve cattle – dairy, beef or leather – have always involved service, labour, love and violence.

In 2011, I had a conversation with Raju Arya, which got me thinking about what it means to love a cow – or any livestock animal – and how that bond is formed. Raju da was a Dalit man who lived in a village not far from Nainital, which I was visiting for my fieldwork on people’s relationships with animals in Uttarakhand’s mountain villages.

As we pored over the day’s newspaper in his courtyard, I spotted a report about the police intercepting three gau-taskars (cow smugglers) with the aid of a few young men who had tipped them off and prevented a riot. Uttarakhand was an early adopter of legal cow-protection, having passed a law in 2007 that forbade the slaughter of cattle, the consumption or possession of beef and the transportation of cattle across state lines. Long before contemporary cow-protection came to occupy the national imagination, the news in Uttarakhand was rife with reports that Hindu youth were committing themselves to the task of protecting the gaumata at any cost.

Raju da, however, was unimpressed by the description of how these young men – who were members of a Sangh parivar organisation – had orchestrated the rescue.

“These laundas have too much empty time on their hands,” he grumbled. “I had an altercation with one of them once.”

“What happened?”

“We sold our Jersey to a man from the Bhabhar. And then suddenly this boy comes out of nowhere and starts shouting at us, saying that we are shameless because we sold Bindu to a taskar (smuggler).”

Raju da’s eyes flashed as he recalled being berated by an upper-caste man half his age. The proto-gau-rakshak had accused Raju da not just of breaking the law, but also of flouting his dharam, his religious and moral code. “He said that those who serve the cow don’t sell her body. But what does he know about seva?” Raju da asked. “We served Bindu well for seven years. My wife neglected her own health as she raised our cows. All day was spent in cutting oak, cutting grass, removing gobar. We cared for these animals like our own children, and woh bhi hame accha maante the (they liked us too).”

Raju da raises a difficult but important question: who decides what it means to serve and love a cow? The stakes of addressing this question cannot be overstated, at a time when accusations of inflicting harm upon cows – no matter how flimsy – can lead, at best, to flogging and arrest, or at worst, to murder. Recent commentaries on what some are calling gauntankwad (cow terrorism) have paid little attention to how gau-rakshaks are narrowing popular understandings of what acts of caring for, serving and loving cows should look like.

In public pronouncements, gau-rakshaks declare that one cannot both care for a cow and treat her as a material asset who can be sold for meat and leather once she has stopped giving milk. The historian Tanuja Kothiyal pointed out that contemporary gau-rakshaks have no stakes in the cattle-rearing economy, and produce an artificial separation between the sacred and economic. Gau-seva or cow-ethics are thus incompatible with cow-economics in the gau-rakshak’s worldview. For them, to protect and serve a cow is to reject the cow market.

The majoritarian violence at the heart of contemporary cow-protection increasingly relies upon a discourse of animal rights and nature conservation to legitimise itself in the public sphere. The recent celebration on social media of Yogi Adityanath’s vegetarianism and his proclaimed love of animals – ranging from tigers to dogs – is an apt example of the success (and dangers) of such projects of legitimisation. The recent case in Delhi in which a group of men claiming to be animal-rights activists beat up three Muslim youth for transporting buffaloes – the animal-rights organisation disowned any connection with them, saying they were “volunteers” – also reveals the complicated connections between Hindu nationalist cow-protection and global discourses of animal ethics. Reclaiming everyday acts of care and love for cows from the suffocating embrace of the Hindu Right is an urgent task if the ongoing violence in the name of gau-mata is to be challenged.

In my forthcoming book, I explain how the connections between labour, care and love for animals are at the heart of ongoing battles between gau-rakshaks and villagers in Uttarakhand. In the summer of 2016, I had a telephone conversation with Pratap Pant (pseudonym), who worked for the Uttarakhand branch of a national cow-protection organisation which is currently agitating for a national death penalty in criminal cases involving cattle slaughter. When I asked Pant why the organisation favoured such severe punishment, he responded that love for animals, especially the cow, was enshrined in Hinduism. “Our Vedas tell us that serving a cow is an act of the greatest merit,” he said passionately. “Gau-seva is an act of greater merit than serving your own parents. Serving the cow is serving the nation.”

The organisation’s target, Pant went on to tell me, was people who did not love and care for cows – “those who sell her to butchers, those who cut and kill her, those who trade in her flesh and meat”. As far as Pant was concerned, Muslims, Dalits, and even upper-castes who traded in the cow, were incapable of caring for or loving the cow because they viewed her as an object of material gain.

Such claims were resisted by villagers who were often at the receiving end of violence by gau-rakshaks. The people I spoke with insisted that the labour they performed in caring for animals, and the labour these animals did in turn by providing milk and gobar, created ties that were powerful precisely because they emerged in the crucible of value. Raju da and his wife Kamla bhabhi (pseudonym), for instance, said their decision to sell Bindu had not been easy, especially because she had nourished their family for so many years. Kamla mentioned repeatedly that she had devoted more time to her cows than her children, and that the cows were like her children because of the strength of her bonds with them. The deep affection they felt for Bindu was unmistakable. Caring for Bindu had clearly been a labour of love for this family.

Importantly, this love, which was rooted in a seva as devoted and careful as that of any gau-rakshak (if not more), could only emerge in the daily context of a material economy in which the cow was a key asset for poor rural families. For people like Raju da, Kamla bhabhi, and many others, love, service and economics were inextricably bound up with one another. People’s experiences from other parts of India bear out this connection. In the wake of Pehlu Khan’s murder in Rajasthan, Muslim dairy farmers from the region are protesting the claims of gau-rakshaks that Muslims can only relate to the cow as smugglers and butchers. On the contrary, as a journalist recently reported, these farmers serve the cow better than most gaushalas precisely because she is such an important part of their sustenance.

The separation between ethics and economics is at the heart of two narratives of purity offered by the Hindu right. The first is that cow milk is a pure, uncommodified substance – given unconditionally by cows – that forms the basis of Hindu kinship with gau-mata, who is represented as akin to the human mother nourishing her children without expecting anything in return. The second, related narrative, is that a pure Hindu nation, united by its service and reverence for the cow as a mother, is one that excludes Muslims and Dalits.

These public narratives conceal the real tension between the gau-rakshaks’ valorisation of the cow as kamadhenu (giver) – as well as the associated push by the government for a White Revolution through dairy development – and their rejection of the beef and leather economies that, in large part, derive from the dairy industry in India. Gau-rakshaks pay little attention to the ethical and environmental critiques of dairy development that are forming across the world, and insist that dairy is an ethical industry while beef and leather are not. Indeed, the irony is that gau-rakshaks idealise the figure of the dairy farmer who in practice breeds cows repeatedly, often through unnatural means (artificial insemination), in order to ensure a steady stream of milk to sell to dairies. Despite these contradictions, gau-rakshaks frame their violence as an act of ethical intervention on behalf of cows.

At a time when the narrow framing of gauseva legitimises majoritarian violence across the country, reclaiming the right to define animal ethics from gau-rakshaks is ever more urgent. Material economies that involve cattle – whether dairy, beef, or leather – have always been characterised by service, labor, love and violence. The false boundary gau-rakshaks construct between the material and the ethical is transgressed in the course of everyday relationships between people and the livestock animals they care for.

Radhika Govindrajan is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her forthcoming book Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas (2018) was awarded the Edward Cameron Dimock Prize in the Indian Humanities by the American Institute of Indian Studies.