In the Name of Cow: Legal–Constitutional Discourse and the Contours of Contemporary Indian Politics

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
In the Name of Cow: Legal–
Constitutional Discourse and
the Contours of Contemporary
Indian Politics
Nazima Parveen1
The issue of cow preservation is predominantly seen as a battle between communal/orthodox and
liberal/secular ideologies represented by Hindu nationalists and Congress, respectively. In this schema,
Hindu nationalists projected themselves as protectors of cow, while Congress seemed to oppose such
proposals. The question of how both regimes used cow as a significant symbol for strengthening their
politics and positions for favourable political equilibrium in the past 60 years remains under-researched.
The article argues that the dynamics of electoral politics in India should not merely be reduced to the
ideologies of different political regimes; instead, a critical understanding of successful and timely appro-
priation of popular religious sensibilities needs to be explored.
Cow, Congress, Jan Sangh, Hindutva, nationalism, nation
The protection of cow, which emerged as a contested communal issue in the late nineteenth century,
found a new political overtone in independent India. Although it did appear as an issue of administrative
competence of the new state to establish a communal equilibrium in the 1950s, the cow was re-estab-
lished as a powerful symbol in the legal–constitutional domain and electoral politics. In fact, the devel-
opments that took place in the first two decades of independence played a dominant role in shaping the
ideological contours of Indian politics. The Constituent Assembly Debates (CAD) and later parliamen-
tary debates seem to represent a clear battle between different ideologies to define meanings of nation,
nationalism and national identity. The Hindu nationalist alliance that projected the cow as a symbol of
‘Hindu unity’, while the ‘modern-progressive’ fraction led by Nehru used the body of the animal to
articulate the grand ideas of secular nation-building project. However, an in-depth study of the debates,
arguments, preservation laws and the actual electoral politics show that the issue of animal protection
was undoubtedly cow-driven in nature but not cow-centric. While the debates, claims and promises over
a unified law for the protection of the animal was kept highly ambiguous at the national level, the suc-
Studies in Indian Politics
8(2) 214–229, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020963519
1 Policy Perspectives Foundation (PPF), New Delhi, Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Nazima Parveen, Policy Perspectives Foundation (PPF) New Delhi, Delhi, India.
Parveen 215
cessful management of ‘Hindu sensibilities’ by the Congress produced new dynamics of state and local
politics in north India after the first general elections in 1952. This tactful management of animal protec-
tionism not only communalized the meat industry but also reproduced the rhetoric of ‘cow-worshiping
vegetarian Hindu’ in a binary opposition to ‘cow-killing non-vegetarian Muslim’ practices. The article
argues that the dynamics of electoral politics in India should not merely be reduced to the ideologies of
different political regimes; instead, a critical understanding of successful and timely appropriation of
popular religious sensibilities needs to be explored.
The cow politics during the period from 1950 to 1970 has not received sufficient academic attention.
Although the nationwide cow protection movement during the period from 1966 to 1967 did attract
political analysts, it remained confined to the legal–constitutional debates (Azzi et al., 1974;
Balasubhramaniam, 1994; Derrett & Duncan, 1961; Harris, 1974; Harris et al., 1997; Nair, 1979; Sathe,
1967; Simoons, 1979). A few scholarly works on Hindu nationalism that emerged in the late 1990s read-
dressed the cow politics in the wake of radical ‘Hindutva’ movement (Adcock, 2013, 2018; Chigateri,
2008; Copland, 2005; De, 2018; Gould, 2005; Jeffrelot, 1999). One of the reasons behind this academic
apathy is that the cow politics was considered as the ‘thing of the past’ (Copland, 1991; Freitag, 1980,
1989; Gould, 2004; Pandey, 1992; Parel, 1969; Robb, 1986; Yang, 1980). It was seen as a colonial legacy
and an issue of administrative competence; while its political potential to reconstitute national identity
in post-partition scenario remained under-researched. Second, the strong assumption that cow politics
was profitable only for Hindu nationalist forces like the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and
Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) has also led to scholarly indifference. One may find references to cow killing
as one of the causes of communal riots, but there is no systematic study on how this symbolism was
negotiated powerfully in electoral politics in north India (Krishna, 1985; Mehta, 1992; Pandey, 2004).
This article tries to respond to these unexplored issues. It examines the ways in which Congress managed
this political symbolism through a representative opposition from within the party and kept the electoral
significance of the issue alive.
‘Cow’ and the Making of Indian Constitution
A careful exploration of the post-1947 legislative debates—CA and the first Lok Sabha—introduces us
to a display of a clear ideological divide on cow protection. A democratic–liberal position led by Nehru
and Ambedkar emphasized on the reconstitution of agricultural economy and animal husbandry on mod-
ern and scientific lines for the improvement of cattle wealth in the country (Zachariah, 2001). Ambedkar
who was the Chairman of the Committee on the Fundamental Rights insisted that the Indian state is
based on the principles of democracy, which has political, social and economic dimensions; hence, the
protection of cow should not be seen merely with regard to political or religious beliefs of a particular
community (GOI, 1948, Vol. VI, pp. 470–472). Arguably, this position proposed regulated slaughter of
the useless cow as an important requirement for the planned growth of agrarian economy.
On the other hand, during the colonial period, the Hindu nationalist argument was put forward by a
few prominent Congress leaders like Purushottam Das Tandon, Govind Das, Thakur Das Bhargava and
Raghu Vira, who had been associated with the Arya Samaj and the cow protection movement. They
described the cow as a sacred animal, a symbol of national sentiments and a cultural factor that united
various strands of Indian society (De, 2018, pp. 123–163). Asserting the sacred status of the cow, Raghu
Vira, a member from Central Provinces and Berar region, argued that ‘the entire universe was treated
as one and the cow is the symbol of that oneness of life … Brahma hatya and go-hatya … are on a

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