09/08/2016 2:33 PM IST | Updated 11/08/2016 5:52 PM IST

How The British Gave A Fillip To Cow Vigilantism In Colonial India


The lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, on 28 September, 2015, by Hindu mobs, on suspicions of eating beef on Eid-ul-Adha, did not inspire condemnation from Prime Minister's Narendra Modi. The recent Dalit backlash at Una, in Gujarat certainly did.

"Cow vigilantism" in India has allowed the prime time voices of the nation to redeem their political ideologies. It has also allowed for a retrospect of India's communalism under colonial rule.

According to orders issued by the Board of Administration of for the Punjab in 1849, the sale of beef was banned in Multan. In the early 1880s, the same festival which marked the killing of Akhlaq led to communal riots in Punjab, which later spread to the United Provinces (Benares) and Bihar (Patna). The cow-vigilantism of the1880s was its first recorded instance in modern India.

[C]ow protection was never a national idea -- at least to begin with. It had nothing to do with animal husbandry, as some claim today.

Hindu agitations for cow protection proceeded with establishing support from existing traditionalist anti-colonial groups and demonstrating the allegedly "nationwide" opposition to beef-consumption through several petitions to the government. A key leader of the 1880s' cow-vigilantism was Swami Dayanand Saraswati, whose pamphlet Goukarunanidhih ("Ocean of Mercy for the Cow") was a widely distributed text that was drafted in support of the movement.

Riots related to cows first happened in April, 1881, when a Muslim butcher bringing in an uncovered basket of raw beef into Multan was fined, followed by an order issued on 23 April that all beef being brought into the city could be permitted only through a specific gate. As Muslims rose in protest, riots broke out in Punjab. These were quelled by a special police force deputed through taxes levied on the inhabitants of Multan.

In 1883, during Bakr-Id, due to Hindu pressure the local magistrate in Multan issued an order on a maulvi, restraining the sacrifice of a cow which he had purchased from a Brahmin. The order was lifted in the Lahore High Court, and the maulvi succeeded in having the cow slaughtered.

This encouraged the Muslims. In the following year, the number of cows sacrificed in Delhi during Id rose from about 30 to 170. By 1886, the number had escalated to 450. In Ludhiana that year, riots broke out during Bakr-Id. Hindus seized beef claiming it had been slaughtered inside the town in contravention of the government's statutory ruling of 1849. In Ambala, a local Hindu festival coincided with the Id celebrations, initiating further tension. The tensions were aggravated in the following month, in October, when Muharram partially coincided with Dussehra. Riots broke out in Delhi, Hoshiarpur, Faridpur, Alapur, Etawa and Ambala.

Ironically, just eight years before the beef-related riots first broke out, the Journal of the East India Association (1873) reported upcoming research suggesting that the sacred Vedas and the writings of Manu clearly suggested that even the most devout Hindus sometimes consumed beef. An important text written by Bulloram Mullick --Essays on the Hindu Family in Bengal (1882) -- claimed beef eating to be common practice for the heterodox theistic Bengalis. Under the influence of the enlightenment brought about by the Brahmo Samaj, such a claim is absolutely credible.

Arguably, the notion that the cow is sacred in India is an interpretation of the British administration buckling under the pressure of Hindus mobs.

Nonetheless, after a hiatus of about 20 years, when beef-riots broke out again it was in Calcutta, in 1909. In January that year, Muslims sacrificed a cow in public. The Hindu mob-rebellion was so severe that a joint fire by the police and military was called into action to dispel the rioters.

In 1912, violent riots ensued in Fyzabad and Ayodhya. The Fyzabad incident began when a Muslim, walking behind an English regiment with a cow that was not required for sacrifice in Ayodhya, started taunting the Hindu crowds. That Muslim man was let go, but the Hindus killed a maulvi instead, inaugurating a three-year-long dispute which was only somewhat suppressed by an emergency order issued in 1915, under section 144 of the Criminal Code, forbidding sacrifice of cows in Ayodhya during Id.

Patna and Muzzaffarpur and Gaya, in Bihar, witnessed widespread clashes between 1911 and 1917. On 30 September, 1917, a mob of 25,000 Hindus attacked a Muslim village in Ibrahimpur. When the riots happened in Delhi -- especially during 1924, the worst year -- Hindus as well as Muslims took turns at murdering innocents and desecrating temples and mosques. Katra Nil, Ballimaran, Sadar Bazaar, Lahori Gate and Bagh Diwar were the bloodiest areas of the city.

Under colonial rule, the sanctity of the body of the sacred animal was never as contested as during the 45 years between 1880 and 1925. What today seems like a spontaneous demand for cow protection was actually shaped under the inadvertent aegis of the British Empire. So, when questions are raised on what the nation wants to know about cow vigilantism, it must be remembered that cow protection was never a national idea -- at least to begin with. It had nothing to do with animal husbandry, as some claim today. When India was formed, prohibition of cow-slaughter became a constitutional provision -- under article 48 –that was ambiguously reproduced from the rulings of 1849 and 1915, both colonial measures adopted to quell mutual and rabid intolerances between the communities on grounds of food. Arguably, the notion that the cow is sacred in India is an interpretation of the British administration buckling under the pressure of Hindus mobs.

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