CultureFood What’s Unholy About The ‘Holy Cow’ Discourse?: Reclaiming ‘Animal Welfare’ From The Far Right

What’s Unholy About The ‘Holy Cow’ Discourse?: Reclaiming ‘Animal Welfare’ From The Far Right

» Editors Note: #MoodOfTheMonth for July 2024 is Food And Gender. We invite submissions on this theme throughout the month. If you would like to contribute, kindly refer to our submission guidelines and email your articles to

There is a common thread connecting the lives of Rafiq Tamboli, Afan Abdul Ansari and Misirkhan Baloch. All three of them hailed from poverty-ridden Muslim families who had to earn their livelihood by transporting cattle. The lives of their family members have been shattered since all of them came under attack by gaurakshaks, self-styled vigilante groups backed by Hindutva organisations like Bajrang Dal who have dominated the political discourse on food choices in India through effectively planned and well-coordinated lynchings of Muslims accused of smuggling cattle.

Rafiq remains missing since his vehicle was intercepted by the gaurakshaks on the highway near the village of Ravangaon in Daund in the Pune district of Maharashtra while Afan and Misirkhan are dead.  The apparent objective of the gaurakshaks is to protect the Gau Mata, the idealised cow mother considered holy by upper-caste Hindus. The New Delhi-based The Documentation Of The Oppressed (DOTO) updated until August 2022 found 206 such instances involving more than 850 people a huge majority of them being Muslims. “In 2019 Human Rights Watch found that between May 2015 and December 2018, more than 100 beef-related attacks took place in India in which 280 people were injured and 44 died- an overwhelming majority of them Muslims,” reports Al Jazeera.

Every rhetoric produced by Fascism is blatant lies and the idea of cow protectionism is no exception. It is motivated more by using the cow as a political metaphor to dehumanise Muslims and Dalits while the cow as a sentient being with feelings of pain, sorrow and other emotions characteristic of any organism is absent from their rhetoric. This absence accounts for the severe harm caused to the animal itself and to marginalised communities.

The silent butchery of cows in the gaushalas and dairy industry

Hindutva nationalism is a reactionary patriarchal and Fascist ideology that is based on creating institutions of control and violence on the ‘other,’– Muslims, Dalits, women, Adivasis and most notably the cow. The Hindu right has effectively developed a politico-religious façade to mask the extent of violence Hindu rituals perpetrate over cows and to scapegoat Muslims and Dalits exclusively for the so-called crime of cow slaughter.

Source: Reuters

Milk and milk-based products like butter and ghee form an integral component of every Hindu ritual from marriages to simple blessings. During the festive season in the Shiva and Krishna temples of north India, 45000 litres of milk are poured on the deities weekly. The gaushalas, and shelter homes ( the term itself is an oxymoron provided the living conditions of cows therein) happen to be major suppliers of this festive milk. The extraction of this milk takes place through repeated impregnation of cows with methods of artificial impregnation which involves forcible sexual invasion of the cow’s vaginas.

The Gaushalas function as centres of the appropriation of cow’s milk from its calves. Calves are allowed only a few minutes to consume milk from their mothers after which they are forcibly separated from them and fed with unhealthy mixtures of milled grains, chemicals and dirty water which accounts for the widespread prevalence of diarrhoea among the calves and they are kept in extremely unhygienic shanty buildings. The calves themselves are subjected to this severe violence with insemination needles when they are a few days old.

The separation is essential to keep the supply of milk for humans intact. Calves however need to suck their mother’s breasts every two to three hours which is deprived under the institutional organisation of the gaushalas leading to widespread prevalence of mastitis or the inflammation of the breast. Both mastitis and its treatment are extremely painful for the animal. The cows and their calves suffer from “maternal malnourishment, infant malnourishment and death from lactation deprivation, mastitis and the emotional traumas of repeated disruption of the mother–child bond to both mothers and infants,” writes Yamini Narayanan in the research titled Cow Is a Mother, Mothers Can Do Anything for Their Children!” Gaushalas as Landscapes of Anthropatriarchy and Hindu Patriarchy.

Zoo psychosis i.e. “involuntary repetitive movements” that are “symptoms of the trauma of being kidnapped, displaced, incarcerated, alienated, bored to death” is a common occurrence among cows and calves. The gaushalas are inextricably linked to the dairy industry. Gaushalas were institutionalised as milk-producing centres during the Five Year Plans(FYPs) and the results have been enormous.

A fully functioning dairy industry in India requires cows whose bodies cannot be exploited to be sent to slaughterhouses so that the additional cost of maintaining these cows is nullified.

In 2013-14 the National Dairy Development Board estimated India’s national milk production at 137.6 tones. There is however a bloody aspect of the gaushala dairy joint venture that right-wing fundamentalist Hindus don’t want us to know. Once the milk-producing capacity of the cows is exhausted they are loaded into overcrowded trucks and sent to slaughterhouses along with diseased and male calves by the gaushalas themselves. A fully functioning dairy industry in India requires cows whose bodies cannot be exploited to be sent to slaughterhouses so that the additional cost of maintaining these cows is nullified.

Image shows cow and calf
Source: The Indian Express

Gaushalas function as centres based on violent human control over the reproductive and sexual systems of animals and speciesism i.e. discrimination based on species membership because forced sexual intercourse would amount to rape and deprivation of mother-child bonding are considered serious crimes when associated with humans. The fact that the Hindutva right uses the idea of the Holy Cow to desensitise these acts of violence by associating divinity with the cow is a manifestation of speciesism in the most brutal form because it presumes the cow is a not sentient creature not having feelings and emotions thereby incapable of consent.

The veneration of the cow is a projection of human values onto the animal, which gives the Hindutva movement the right to sacralise the animal and make it an object, removing any agency it may have had. This erases and legitimises the trauma of the animal and its calves. Gaushalas perform the institutional role of constructing the cow as a totem of the Hindu Rashtra and reinforcing the  Islamophobic and casteist narrative of protecting them from the so-called predatory gaze of Muslims. The reproduction of caste takes place by denying buffalos shelter that overcrowd the slaughterhouses for their supposed lower caste.

Any debate on food choices and political discourse in India must begin with a stringent critique of Brahminic rituals and food choices that perpetrate immense sexual violence on the animals and keep the gaushalas functioning. Cow vigilante violence over poor and marginalised Dalits and Muslims use the ‘holy cow,’ as a political metaphor to legitimise the lynching, rape and murder of vulnerable masses.

The politics of total liberation

The vegetarian food choices of the upper-caste Hindus perpetuate a vicious cycle of casteism and speciesism. The Dalits and lowered caste Muslims perform the most unhealthy and hazardous jobs in the dairy industry, removing the faeces of the cows, removing carcasses and providing manual labour in slaughterhouses. These communities are extremely underpaid, suffer caste-based discrimination, and verbal and sexual abuse in the hands of male-dominant caste bosses, exposed to infections such as Typhoid, Malaria, Dengue Fever, Amoebiasis, Murine Typhus, Leishmaniasis and psychological conditions like psychoticism, somatization, anger hostility, anxiety. The enormous profits are appropriated by high-caste Hindus while the marginalised workers continue to suffer.

Image shows cows in guashala with CM of UP
Source: HT

Rafiq, Asan and many other Dalits and Muslims have been lynched just for being transporters of beef thus performing an essential task of maintaining the dairy industry. That was their sole means of earning livelihoods and sustaining their families. The political praxis of the annihilation of caste needs to stringently critique the inherent violence of the food choices and practices of the upper caste Hindus and call for better wages, working conditions, health benefits and far more legal protection of manual workers in the dairy industry, fair compensation to the families of workers injured in slaughterhouses and finally the abolition of the dairy industry in its entirety.

The abolition of the dairy industry through sustained agitations for state investment in more sustainable worker friendly and environment-friendly industries becomes far more essential for the annihilation of caste because “The division of labour brought about by the Caste System is not a division based on choice. Individual sentiment, individual preference, has no place in it. It is based on the dogma of predestination” as rightly pointed by Dr. B. R Ambedkar in his seminal work “Annihilation Of Caste.” The prevalence of the dairy industry would mean that Dalits despite their educational qualification will be compelled to take up these professions thus maintaining the hereditary hierarchies of the caste system.

Ethically and morally, the anti-caste movement has to engage in a thorough conversation with the animal liberation movement for an anti-fascist cause of intersectional liberation. The caste system has been deeply speciesist. It classifies humans and animals into jatis placed hierarchically in the order of purity and pollution; the cow being the purest, equal to a Brahmin and pigs, buffaloes crows equal to erstwhile untouchables.

If a Brahmin dog is fed by an erstwhile untouchable it is excommunicated. Thus the vocabulary of otherisation in the caste system is similar to Dalits and animals. Animalising any creature legitimises the practice of controlling, torturing and finally killing it with impunity. The similarity in the lived experience of Muslims, Dalits and animals in India under Hindutva Fascism is a testament to this fact. This prospective alliance aims to dismantle any system of thought, cultural mores, or social institutions that degrade the status of human beings and animals into objects with no consciousness. Thus animal liberation, anti-caste and anti-Hindutva politics are close allies.

Practically this alliance must be based on mutual compromise in which both movements give up aspects of their ideas for a successful cooperation. The animal liberation movement needs to debunk the myths around veganism a central discourse of their movement as total chasteness from animal-based products by pointing out that veganism calls for the minimisation of animal-based products “as far as it is possible and practicable.” It needs to adopt a more sensitive attitude towards marginalised people whose income levels are insufficient for a total shift to plant-based foods. It needs to do away with every caste-ridden language. Not doing so will lead to the Hindutva movement co-opting it.

The Dalit movement also needs to surpass the speciesist paradigms of adopting beef consumption as a tool of resistance because doing so is being trapped in the terms of debate defined by the oppressor.

A political movement for the total abolition of linked hierarchies demands this alliance. 


  1. Narayanan-2019_Final-Hypatia20190531-75423-r7srym-libre.pdf (
  2. Criminalising Beef, Not Dairy – The Hindu Centre
  3. Exploring Possibilities for Critical Alliances Between Animal Rights and Bahujan Politics: Krishnanunni Hari | KAFILA – COLLECTIVE EXPLORATIONS SINCE 2006
  4. ‘It was his birthday’: Muslim lynched over beef in western India | Islamophobia News | Al Jazeera
  5. ‘Mother Cow, Mother India’ reveals the blindness towards the lived experience of the cow

Leave a Reply

Related Posts

Skip to content