Call it the perils of striving for ideological purity. Communists learnt it the hard way in many parts of the world. It is now the turn of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath to pay the price of going into an overdrive to implement the Hindutva ideal of a complete ban on cow-slaughter.Just as Communists targeted class enemies, the Hindutvavdis have cattle traders, prompting them to slow or close down their businesses.
This chain of actions and reactions has Uttar Pradesh resemble a place out of a dystopian novel. Multiplying exponentially, herds of cattle roam from village to village grazing on crops and trampling them besides. To stave off ruination, farmers have corralled them in schools, police stations and primary health centres. Never one to accept the limitations of Hindutva imagination, Adityanath has chosen to impose a cess of 0.50 percent to raise funds for constructing cow shelters in each rural and urban local body. It is the people of Uttar Pradesh who will now finance the Hindutvavadi’s passion for the cow, which a large number of Hindus, including farmers, too venerate and worship.
Yet the Sangh’s quest for ideological purity has spawned a situation in which the cow has become the torment of its worshippers. In its exuberance, the BJP forgot that an attempt to tailor the world to an ideology must take into account the compulsion of most humans to balance spiritualism with materialism, principles with pragmatism, and altruism with egotism.
An ideological straitjacket circumscribes people from living life that is often beset with contradictions. With landholdings shrinking, small and marginal farmers took to rearing cows and buffaloes to sell their milk for augmenting their earnings from agriculture. VM Singh, convenor, RashtriyaKisanMazdoorSangathan, explained, “If I have three cows and if all of them stop giving milk, I’d rather sell than feed them for nothing. It makes economic sense for me to sell them and buy one which will give me milk.”
Farmers follow the system of rotating their livestock, which comprise cows of different ages. Assume a farmer has three heads. Once the oldest among them goes dry, incapable of calving and lactating, he sells it. The money he receives becomes his seed capital for purchasing a milch cow or buffalo. When another of his original stock of three turns dry, it too is sold and replaced by a new head. Through the method of rotation the farmer is assured of having a minimum supply of milk to consume as well as sell.
It is this system of rotation that the BJP’s quest to save the cow from the cleaver has disrupted. Apart from gau-rakshaks tormenting cattle traders out of business, Adityanath closed down illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh. With no takers for cows gone dry, instead of incurring expenditure on feeding them, farmers simply abandoned them. These cows now threaten to turn Uttar Pradesh’s agricultural fields into a veritable wasteland.
Before the BJP swept into power in Delhi in 2014 and in Lucknow in 2017, farmers always knew that cows they sold would end up in slaughterhouses. Their conscience did not prick them because they never asked traders or their agents what their motive was to purchase cows no longer capable of giving milk. “Eighty-five percent of rural families are dependent on selling milk for survival. Since they were not involved in the slaughtering of cattle, they were fine with it,” said Singh.
Call it hypocrisy or call it their compulsion to live with ambiguities. Lacking resources to splurge on cows no longer economically useful, religious guilt is a luxury they cannot afford. The BJP’s anti-cow slaughter movement has thrown into disarray the life of ambiguity that peasants, as almost all human beings, are condemned to live. The menace of stray cattle is a consequence of it.
Like black money, the slaughtering of cows had operated clandestinely despite all states and union territories, barring seven, enacting laws regulating or proscribing it. These laws served the function of ensuring that the culling of cows did not outstrip their growth rate. A fine balance was consequently maintained – people had milk to consume, and farmers, traders, butchers and retailers a source of livelihood.
Adityanath may pat himself on the back for curbing cow-slaughter, but neither he nor the BJP foresaw the flip side of ideological enthusiasm. “People are sick of stray cattle. Their anger has turned into deep resentment,” said Singh, whose principal turf of activity is Uttar Pradesh. But it is not just Uttar Pradesh’s problem, said Daljit Singh Gill, president, Progressive Dairy Farmers’ Association, Punjab. He said, “In Punjab, farmers endured the menace of stray cattle under the Akali Dal-BJP rule of 10 years (from 2007 to 2017).”
Each state has its own story of the cow menace. In Punjab and Haryana, indigenous cow breeds, also known as desi cows, have always posed a threat to farmers. Since indigenous breeds provide three-four litres of milk, they are not reared for commercial purposes, but are kept by some for personal consumption of milk. “These desi cows would move in herds and multiply because of in-breeding. Earlier, traders would come, load them into their trucks and take them away to slaughterhouses,” Gill said.
But the BJP’s patronage is said to have led to the mushrooming of bands of cow protectionists in Punjab and Haryana. They took to attacking traders as well as extorting money from them. The low margin of profit was a disincentive for cattle traders to come to Punjab. “Those who have imported breeds, for instance the Jersey or Holstein Friesians, which give 40-50 litres of milk a day, had no option but to set them free when they turned dry. So stray herds just kept growing and growing and causing havoc,” Gill said.
The ouster of the Akali Dal-BJP government in 2017 came as a relief to dairy farmers. Yet the traumatic cow politics of the past prompts Gill to make a philosophical point: “Ask any sants and they will say indigenous breeds are for worship and the imported ones can be slaughtered.” He, therefore, suggests the culling of imported breeds along with the government corralling indigenous breeds of cattle in gaushalas, and separating bulls from them to check their population.
There are cowsheds a plenty in Uttar Pradesh, said Singh, scoffing at Adityanath’s decision to impose the 0.50 percent cess for cow welfare. Farmers do not banish cows to gaushalas because it is as good as starving them to death. “Do you think the revenue raised from cess will be used to establish gaushalas and buy fodder for them? (Like all state enterprises), the cess of 0.50 percent will become yet another avenue for some to make money,” Singh predicts.
The intractable cattle problem is why peasants who negotiate the contradictions inherent to Indian reality by opting for a life of ambiguity – worshipping the cow, selling its milk for money, not asking what would happen to it when they sell it – should be marvelled. Driven by pragmatism, this ambiguity had an immense value, so palpable now with the BJP’s quest for ideological purity upsetting the delicate balance between spiritualism and materialism – and turning the gentle cow into a chimera.