The following is an excerpt from a biography of Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, currently in preparation by Chandana Chakrabarti, and from a biography of Verghese Kurien. Bhargava passed away on August 1, 2017. He was 89 years old. The excerpts have been lightly edited for style.
The year 1966 witnessed a mass agitation against cow slaughter organised by the [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)]. The demand was for a complete ban on cow slaughter in the country. It culminated in a huge demonstration lead by sadhus who tried to storm the Parliament house in Delhi. While the Shankaracharya of Puri went on a fast for the cause, the frenzied mob went on a rampage. A 48-hour curfew had to be imposed to control the situation.
It was against this background that the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Temper held a public discussion at the Regional Research Laboratory in Hyderabad in 1967, on the relevance of a ban on cow slaughter, with Dr Pushpa Bhargava (PMB) chairing it. At this meeting, one of the speakers, Dr P. Ramchander, a well-known physician, said, “If we don’t eat the cows, the cows will eat us.” This caught the headlines of newspapers the following day. The statement offended those who were asking for the ban and PMB promptly started receiving verbal threats. Questions were asked as to how could PMB organise such a meeting in a government laboratory.
Subsequently, the Government of India set up a high power committee headed by Justice Sarkar, a former Chief Justice of India, to look into the issue. Guru Golwalkar, the head of RSS, Shankaracharya of Puri, Verghese Kurien (the ‘Milk Man of India’), and H.A.B. Parpia, the director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute, were members of the committee. PMB was summoned to Delhi to give evidence before the committee.
When PMB arrived at Krishi Bhavan to appear before the committee, a man sitting in the waiting room immediately started quizzing him about cow slaughter. His questions were unending: was PMB a Brahmin since Bhargavas are supposed to be Brahmins?; did PMB eat meat?; if he does eat meat he surely does not eat cow’s meat?; how does the body make meat?; and so on. PMB ended up giving the man a crash course in elementary biochemistry, saying that we eat food which has proteins. Those proteins are broken down in our [gastrointestinal] tract into amino acids, which are absorbed into the blood stream, and they go to various organs, where they get reconverted to proteins. But how is milk made, the man asked. Milk is made exactly in the same way as meat, PMB replied. Then why don’t you drink milk instead of eating meat, the man asked. Why don’t you eat meat like you drink milk, because both are made the same way, PMB replied. To PMB’s surprise, this little encounter proved to be a curtain-raiser to what unfolded when he appeared before the committee.
Inside the meeting room, Guru Golwalkar asked PMB exactly the same questions. And when PMB replied to Golwalkar’s question, as to why he did not drink milk instead of eating meat, with another question – that is, why by the same logic did Golwalkar not eat meat instead of drinking milk – Golwalkar went into a fit of rage. It took quite a while for the chairman and Sankaracharya to calm him down. Shankaracharya pleaded with Golwalkar that he was spoiling their case. After PMB came out, he got a slip from Justice Sarkar asking to meet him before he left. Justice Sarkar cheerfully told PMB that he was fantastic and added that the only person who did better than PMB was a professor of Sanskrit who appeared before the committee and quoted from ancient Indian literature on the advantages of eating beef.
As it turns out several years later, while collecting material for a joint paper on biology in India from ancient times to 1900, PMB and I stumbled across the following statement made in the Charaka Samhita:
“The flesh of the cow is beneficial for those suffering from the loss of flesh due to disorders caused by an excess of vayu, rhinitis, irregular fever, dry cough, fatigue, and also in cases of excessive appetite resulting from hard manual work.”
Three decades later, PMB went to see Kurien in Anand, Gujarat, along with a friend. When PMB reminded Kurien about the incident, Kurien told him that over the years when he and Golwalkar became close friends, the latter admitted to him that the cow protection agitation was only a political agitation which he started to actually embarrass the government. Kurien would later describe this episode in his biography, which was titled I Too Had a Dream.
One day after one of our meetings when he had argued passionately for banning cow slaughter, he came to me and asked, “Kurien, shall I tell you why I’m making an issue of this cow slaughter business ?”
I said to him, “Yes, please explain to me because otherwise you are a very intelligent man. Why are you doing this ?”
“I started a petition to ban cow slaughter actually to embarrass the government,” he began explaining to me in private. “I decided to collect a million signatures, for this work I traveled across the country to see how the campaign was progressing. My travels once took me to a village in Uttar Pradesh. There, I saw in one house a woman who, having fed and sent off her husband to work and her two children to school, took this petition and went from house to house to collect signatures in that blazing summer sun. I wondered to myself why this woman should take such pains. She was not crazy to be doing this. This is when I realised that the woman was actually doing it for her cow, which was her bread and butter, and I realised how much potential the cow has.
“Look at what our country has become. What is good is foreign; what is bad is Indian. Who is a good Indian? It’s the fellow who wears a suit and a tie and puts on a hat. Who is a bad Indian? The fellow who wears a dhoti. If this nation does not take pride in what it is and merely imitates other nations, how can it amount to anything ? Then I saw that the cow has potential to unify the country – she symbolises the culture of Bharat. So I tell you what, Kurien, you agree with me to ban cow slaughter on this committee and I promise you, five years from that date, I will have united the country. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m not a fool, I’m not a fanatic. I’m just cold-blooded about this. I want to use the cow to bring out our Indianness. So please cooperate with me on this.”
Chandana Chakrabarti is a biologist, consultant and joint secretary of the P.M. Bhargava Foundation, Hyderabad.