“Is gau rakshakji at home?”
“No, he is out for lynch.”
Or so the joke goes. Only, it’s not funny.
At Sabarmati ashram last week, where the Mahatma spun the revolution of India’s freedom, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat at a charkha to spin yet another pattern in India’s development story on the eve of GST. A pattern that is now being stained with the blood of innocents in the name of the animal, which Gandhi believed was most innocent of all. He wrote, “I would not kill a human being for protecting a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious.”
In Sabarmati, Modi explained this dialectic of mercy saying, “No one spoke about protecting cows more than Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Vinoba Bhave. Yes. It should be done. But killing people in the name of Gau Bhakti is not acceptable... No person in this nation has the right to take the law into his or her own hands.”
Of course, he was attacked by secular critics of being too late in speaking out against lynch mobs, just as they were accusing him of not speaking out at all. Well, you can’t win ’em all.
In 1979, I had met Vinoba Bhave at his ashram in Wardha. He was old and ailing, but his intellect had not faded. He saw himself as a Gandhian and a gau rakshak. He told me protecting the cow was synonymous with non-violence. In 1921, Gandhi wrote, “Cow protection means the protection of the weak and the helpless... It is a noble sentiment that must grow by patient toil and tapasya.”
It is ridiculous to expect noble sentiments or self-sacrifice from vigilantes who lynch at will. As with all ideologies, there are two faces of Hindutva, too—one, the BJP’s political inspiration and the other, the lumpen who kills in its name. The BJP’s aim is to forge religion as a modern force while cow vigilantes symbolise the “banality of evil”. They extort money from traders transporting cows. They inflame rural Indians in the hinterland where superstition runs deep to commit arson and murder. They take bribes to frame innocent persons as beef-eaters. They extort drunk fanatics to stab fellow passengers—all in the name of the cow.
They do all this because they can. They do not fear the law, because they think they are protected by it, simply because the BJP is ruling the state or has a significant presence. If it brings shame to the parent party, so be it.
In the ancient Indian gestalt, the cow is kamadhenu, the gentle benefactress of eternal plenty. It grants the desires of the pious and the blameless, not of killers.
However, minority politicians such as Azam Khan gives the fringe legitimacy with allegations that Muslim women in Kashmir castrate Indian soldiers, fearing rape. The Bajrang Dal has sued him. He has been booked for sedition.
Azam is known for sending out policemen to search for his missing buffalos. In April, he had returned a cow presented to him by Shankaracharya Swami Adhokshjanand Maharaj “fearing defamation as a cow killer”. Between a delusional politician like him and murderous cow vigilantes who operate in the name of Hindutva, the cow has become a helpless symbol of strife today. It is important to rescue it from the gau rakshaks to restore sanity to the Hindutva narrative.