Cow vigilantism isn’t a project of Hindu elites, they wouldn’t attack others for eating/handling beef

cow2By V Santhakumar*

Who attacks people for eating/handling beef in India?

A popular answer to this question is the supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and associated organisations. In my view, this is not a robust or well-grounded answer. Like any other political party, its interest is to be in power at the central government and in different states of India. Hence the leaders of BJP may take a different position in Goa, Kerala and North-Eastern states where the beef is consumed widely. This can go to the extent of making an electoral promise of providing good-quality beef, as in the case of a recently-held parliament by-election in Kerala. Yes, there are BJP leaders who take a sympathetic or collusive approach towards `cow vigilantes’ in certain states. There is a section of society or a constituency which is interested in imposing a ban on beef and these leaders do not want to dishearten them. There could be others in the BJP who think that such a vigilantism is costly to its image of a pro-development or pro-growth party.

I do find fault with `Brahminism’ for a number of ills in Indian society such as the persistence of caste system or the neglect of mass-education in post-independent India. However it cannot be faulted for the `cow vigilantism’, for a simple reason. Brahmins have lived with or enjoyed a situation where their eating practices are different from those of others. They were not interested in imposing their culinary culture on the majority. I wish to go a little ahead with this argument: Cow vigilantism is not a project of Hindu elites (though there may be elements among them benefitting from the polarisation created by this phenomenon). There are millions of Indians who do not eat beef (and based on an estimate of my colleagues Suraj Jacob and Balmurli Natrajan [1], about 85 percent of the Indian population may not consume it) and many among them are unlikely to attack other people for eating/handling beef.

How do we explain this tendency to attack those who consume/handle beef then? My focus is on three not-so-desirable features that prevail in the country (and none of these is unique to India).

Continuation of the illegal enforcement of community norms

It is not uncommon to see people enforcing, on their own, the so- called ‘community norms’ in parts of India. Attacking or killing a girl (and/or boy) who marries outside the caste is a common example. There are two aspects here: First, there is a loyalty to what they reckon or imagine as the `community’ and its norms; Secondly these people enforce the norm directly without seeking the help of the legal authority. There is a direct attack on those who are seen violating such norms. The attack on beef consumers is part of this practice.

We would expect this practice to change as part of a process of `individuation’ – by which each individual becomes distinct and get out of community loyalties. It may encourage the individual to accept the formal `law and order’ and not to be part of an informal law-enforcement. Unfortunately, many parts of India are yet to see such a social change.

There are intellectuals and social scientists (of all ideological persuasions) who valorise or romanticise community linkages and decry what they call `individualism’. This can be understood if we take this individualism as `narrow selfishness’ but there is a virtue in the `individuation’ that we mention here. It is achieved through human development and urbanisation and these processes are slower in different regions of the country.

Political mobilisation on the basis of religious identity

The Indian National Congress (INC) had dominated the politics in many states of independent India for a number of decades. Such an early and dominant political formation could be controlled by social and economic elites. The dominance of one such party cannot go on and this is the case even if INC has made efforts to reform itself. There would be a mobilisation of non-elites or common people and that may lead gradually to a competitive politics [2]. However, the social situation and the political entrepreneurship in the country have not enabled the mobilisation of non-elites based on their economic position or `class’ in most parts of India.

Hence the limited mobilisation of non-elites that has happened in Indian states (barring Kerala and West Bengal) is on the basis of one or other social identity. Caste has become the anchor for mobilisation in certain regions. There are social contexts where a combination of an imagined Hinduism and Indian values/culture may encourage the political mobilisation of non-elites.

We may think that such a politics in India is invented by the BJP but in my view, the enabling conditions for this form of identity politics have been present in the country for a fairly long time. The situation is also an outcome of the failure of the so-called secular parties to mobilise non-elites on the basis of class or economic issues.

The mobilization of non-elites on the basis religion is not unique to India. Iran is a classic example where a religious (sect) identity has been used somewhat successfully to mobilise people to get out of an elite and dictatorial rule. In such a mobilisation, there could be an imagination or re-imagination of, and a higher level of readiness to protect, religious values. Cow vigilantism in India is part of this re-imagination. If Hinduism (if at all, it can be called a religion) is not known for punishing the `sinners’ in this world but this may change as part of the re-imagination. This tendency is not unique to the Hindus. Though there are millions of Muslims who practice fasting graciously during the Ramadan month, there could be a few pockets where the fasting is imposed on others.

Persistence of a mafia culture in politics and society

Let me use a personal narrative to elaborate this point. In the village in South Kerala where I was born and brought up, local political and social leaders could ask their followers to go and physically attack the adversaries. There were people who followed these diktats. The leaders could influence the `law and order’ machinery to save their loyalists. Some of them might end up in police custody or jail but that was not seen as a `big deal’ and had not discouraged these loyal followers. This is the nature of mafia politics or social action that I take up here.

The interesting part is that there is hardly anyone who accept such diktats of political or social leaders in my village currently. Two developments have created such a situation: Most people do not want to end up in police custody or jail. One can see this as a reflection of education and development and the wider set of opportunities available to them. There is also an improvement in the `law and order’ and hence leaders may not be able to protect their loyal followers from law enforcement. A few of my radical (leftist) friends may call this a manifestation of `de-politicization’. However such a change is needed if we want the law and order to prevail (and the politicization can go on or be strengthened in the domain of debates/ideas).

Unfortunately such a change has not happened in many parts of India. Mafia politics continue to prevail there. (This is true for certain areas of Kerala too especially in its northern part.) BJP is not the only party which is involved in such a politics. Attacks on those who consume/handle beef or the ineffectiveness of law and order machinery to control this behaviour are aided by this mafia-politics.

How do we change this situation?

There is an easier way to answer this question. The majority of the readers of this essay are not those who enforce community norms (say, that against the inter-caste marriage), vote for a person by looking at his/her religion, and go out and attack a person based on the diktat of one or other leader. Even when they don’t eat beef and believe that eating beef is not a good habit, they are `liberal’ in terms of others’ consumption. They may hold the view that whether to eat beef or not is the personal discretion of an individual.

What makes most of us different from those who attack people for eating/handling beef? A little reflection is adequate to answer this question. We have undergone a process of change which has both material and subjective elements (like the change in attitudes). This is what is expected to occur through education and development. Such a change is not very difficult to achieve or its does not require any substantial transformation of human conditions/existence.

One can see social scientists and other observers getting bewildered at certain social issues, and concluding quickly that nothing can be done about these or thinking that development or social change itself is the problem. However the change, that is required to make individuals to realise that one should not attack others for different eating habits, is not that complex. That kind of basic transformation is possible but the sad reality of India is that there are significant sections which are yet to undergo such a `minimal’ change.

This is not the fault of the BJP alone. All governments in post-independent India, all political parties including those which stand for secularism and religious and cultural inclusion, and liberal intellectuals have to share the blame for this state of affairs in the country.


[1]. Their focus is on the share of people eating beef and they report that this can be around 15% – a figure much higher than that is perceived generally: Natarajan, B. and Jacob, S. (Unpublished Manuscript), Provincializing Vegetarianism: Putting Indian Food Habits in Their Place, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

[2]. This transformation is discussed in detail in Santhakumar, V. (2014) The Roots of ill-governance and Corruption, Sage Publishers, New Delhi.

*Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangaluru. Source:


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