Updated: February 27, 2019 04:10 AM GMT
Orthodox Hindus in India consider cows a sacred animal. (Photo by unsplash.com)
Hinduism's revered cows are set to become increasingly politicized in the lead-up to Indian national elections.
Paying respect to and protecting cows has long been a political tool used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.
And heightened exploitation of the issue threatens to further embolden pro-Hindu groups who target religious minorities in their cause of cow protection, including by instigating mob violence such as lynchings.
On Feb. 11, Modi — ahead of the election in May — yet again publicly stressed the importance of protecting cows as part of the nation's tradition and culture.
The BJP came to power nationally in 2014, riding on a Hindu-nationalistic wave, promising to protect Gau Matha (Cow Mother) with a national law against cow slaughter.
But the BJP was not successful in pushing the necessary legislation through parliament.
And now other parties are hopping onto the bandwagon to champion sacred cows in an attempt to win the favor of the nation's Hindu majority.
The BJP's rival Congress Party is leading the pack in this regard.
Early this month, the Congress-led government in Madhya Pradesh state invoked the National Security Act (NSA) to arrest three Muslim men accused of cow slaughter.
However, the Communist Party of India, with a small electoral base, believes communal sensitivities over the treatment of cattle (not including buffaloes) particularly over non-Hindus eating their meat, is being exploited for base political motives.
"This stringent legislation was meant to be used against anti-national terrorists," the party's polit bureau said. "Instead, its invocation over such allegations displays an effort to appease communal elements."
In 18 out of 29 Indian states, cow slaughter is banned. But of these, in nine states bulls and bullocks can be slaughtered for meat. In the rest of the 11 states with large or majority non-Hindu populations, 10 in the northeast as well as southern Kerala state, no restrictions exist and beef, including cow meat, is available.
Cow protection is strongly advocated by BJP leaders such as Yogi Aditynath, a Hindu acetic-turned-politician, who leads the government in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.
Uttar Pradesh on Feb. 8 allocated 6,740 million rupees (US$96 million) for maintaining cow shelters during the next financial year.
It comes at a time when more than 2.1 million educated young people are without jobs in the state, officials statistics show.
In January, the Congress Party chief minister in Rajasthan state, Ashok Gehlot, announced that anyone who takes care of a stray cow will be financially rewarded by the government on Independence Day and Republic Day.
However, Ritu Dhaman, a youth activist based in New Delhi, objected to the measure.
"People are asked to adopt stray cows in a country where more than 2 million people sleep on roads, and where every hour three farmers commit suicide because of being unable to repay loans to the banks," he said.
Representatives of various small parties have been accused of inciting communal strife over the issue, including violence through false claims against non-Hindus.
Former Chief Minister of northern Jammu and Kashmir state, Mehbooba Mufti, said the "dreadful trend" to disparage people who do not regard cows as sacrosanct was frightening religious minorities, not least Christians and Muslims, who are generally regarded as being beef-eaters.
Father Jaison Vadassery, of Indian Bishops' Labour Commission, said it is unfortunate that the politics in India is shifting towards an emphasis on communalism rather than on economic development.
"The poor are being ignored and emotive issues have taken central stage," father Vadassery said.
"This will take the country nowhere."
Vikas Rawal, economics professor at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, maintains that any national ban on cow slaughter would cost India dearly.
Unlike in developed nations, most of India's 216 million milch animals, including buffalos and cows, are reared by small scale village farmers using traditional methods. They sell off their unproductive animals for slaughter.
Rawal has estimated that India produces 34 million male calves from cattle every year and in ten years the country would have 340 million more bulls and bullocks.
But mechanization means less bullocks are needed for farm work, adding to the burden of unproductive animals.
Expenses to build cattle shelters for them alone would require 202,350 hectares of land and a capital expenditure of some US$142.8 billion. The annual cost of fodder and veterinary care would be an additional US$77.1 billion.
"This is about 1.5 times India's total defence budget and about 35 times what the central and all state governments together spend on animal husbandry and dairy at present," Rawal said.
These animals would need millions of tonnes of fodder and more drinking water than what is now available to all Indians, he added.
Unproductive cattle have long traditionally been sold and transported to those states where there is no beef ban to be slaughtered for meat.
However, many of those transporting cows and their progeny have been attacked, even killed, by cow vigilante groups, effectively imposing an unofficial ban on the business.
A national law banning cow slaughter would be even more disastrous, Rawal said in a published paper.
If a family has to keep all its unproductive cattle, villagers would cease to engage in this form of animal husbandry, devastating what is the highest level of milk production in the world at 155 million liters a day.
The country already has some 62 million stunted children because of a lack of protein in their diets. Reduced availability of milk and meat would worsen malnourishment.
Fakir Kumar Bhagat, a Dalit activist from New Delhi, said putting cows before humans psychologically re-enforced cow protection militants in their self-justification of attacks on others.
He said some state governments have given authority to police to barge into the homes of Muslims and Christians to check if they are eating beef.
Hindus form 966 million or 80 percent of India's population of 1.3 billion. Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent while Christians comprise 29 million or 2.3 percent.