The White Revolution: Sacred Cows in India

Photo by Premasagar Rose
Photo by Premasagar Rose
In the second part of her essay on cow worship in India, Supriya Ambwani looks at the impact that the ban on cow slaughter has on Indian society and landscape.

A special water plant grows in the Dal Lake of Srinagar. After asking the locals, I learnt that the plant improves lactation in cows. Villagers who live around the lake wade into its deep waters to rip out the plant and feed it to their cattle, which, in turn, reward them with extra milk.

This plant may well contribute towards maintaining India’s position as the world’s largest milk producer. The famous “white revolution”, a rural development programme that, starting in the 1970s, doubled the amount of milk available per person in India, is touted as a massive agricultural success in school textbooks across the country. Its success is popularly attributed to the Hindu veneration of cows.

However, as Jay Mazoomdaar pointed out in the magazine Tehelka, the Indian cow is a dying breed. It is being replaced by less resilient, imported animals. Courtesy of typically ineffective and flawed government policies on cows, the Indian cow population is decreasing at an alarming rate. Greater losses and lower yield are the visible results of the unscientific approach followed by those who breed cows in India. The desi cow is suffering and may even be under threat of extinction.

Cow slaughter is banned in most states of India. Mazoomdaar writes about the fate of imported exotic crossbreed bulls. “Vulnerable to Indian weather conditions, they are useless as draught animals. Unless they are selected as breeders, these bulls are either killed immediately after birth or starved to death. Those who escape join the long, brutal march to slaughterhouses both in India and abroad as illegal consignments. The Indian beef trade is worth 6,000-10,000 crore [rupees] a year. Many believe the ineffective ban on cow slaughter has only ended up creating a revenue loss to the State and magnifying the unthinkable cruelty these animals face in transit. But even to suggest lifting the ban is anathema. India’s holy cows must be kept safe. At least on paper”.

Mazoomdaar talks about the fate of male cows in slaughterhouses. Many religious meat-lovers eschew beef from the cow, but not the bull. The Cow Mother is sacred; not her male counterpart.

A while ago, I overheard a conversation about food. One man mentioned his love for beef and his ability to eat a kilo of it in one sitting. I asked him if he knew anything about cow slaughterhouses in Delhi since I couldn’t find any information on them..Taken aback, he hastily clarified that he was referring to buffalo meat, not cow meat.  So, in India, beef can refer to anything from bull meat to buffalo meat, but rarely means cow meat.

Of course, many Hindus eat cow beef when they travel abroad. They claim that they aren’t killing the holy Indian cows when they eat beef in another country. However, India is the world’s largest exporter of beef. So, in all probability, when Indians eat beef abroad, they savour the taste of a good old Indian cow. I always wonder what would happen if, by some twist of fate, somebody ate a steak derived from the same cow she worshipped outside a temple a few days previously. Will she escape painful reincarnations because she didn’t eat the cow on Indian soil?

Due to both legal and social restrictions on cow slaughter in most parts of India, the country has an inordinately large bovine population. However, many breeds are unproductive. Their milk production is low and their bodies are too weak to carry out any physical labour. Their feeble physiques are attributed to appallingly unscientific breeding methods and unchecked hybridisation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Society is always taken by surprise at any new example of common sense”. So, even as there are calls to destroy the historically baseless veneration of cows, laws are passed to protect them.

In many Indian states, killing a cow is punishable by imprisonment; a monetary fine; and, presumably, reincarnation as a handicapped ant.

Photo by cleiph
Photo by cleiph

These laws are justified by Article 48 of the Indian Constitution which, under ‘Organisation of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry’, states: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

This is a gross violation of the Right to Freedom of Religion, which grants all the citizens of India the right to practice their religions the way they choose to. By professing that all Hindus worship cows, the law is forcing them to follow the dominant faction of their religion. People are effectively being told that all Hindus worship cows: Anybody who disagrees is not Hindu.

Unfortunately, the law fails to take into account the fact that most Hindus who eschew beef belong to upper-caste, North Indian communities. Many members of the so-called lower castes have no qualms about eating cows. In fact, because of India’s incredible diversity, it’s improbable to find similar dietary preferences in two distinct regions. However, since Indian politics is dominated by upper-caste politicians who usually subscribe to North Indian Hindu ideology, these blatantly unconstitutional laws exist.

Why are people banned from eating whatever they choose to? An atheist, a non-Hindu, or somebody who doesn’t subscribe to the narrow upper-caste definition of Hinduism? I recognize the importance of laws against cannibalism and murder. But how can one possibly justify venerating a cow without calling for a ban on all other forms of animal slaughter?

Suppose I invent a religion that forbids the consumption of potatoes. If I garner a sizeable number of followers, I should, have the right to forbid growing potatoes for human consumption? Acres of fields should not be harvested because that would damage my Potato Mother. I could demand an amendment to Article 48: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of potatoes and other tubers.”

Assuming that everybody has the financial means to support cows is elitist. If India’s malnutrition levels are anything to go by, millions of Indians are incapable of feeding themselves. If, according to the law, they are forced to provide for their livestock on pain of imprisonment or monetary loss, they will expend scarce resources on their animals.

One often hears of drought-struck areas in which starving people feed their cows instead of themselves. In his eye-opening narrative on malnutrition in India, Ash in the Belly-  India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger, Harsh Mander wrote about famished people who search for “undigested grain in the dung of cattle”.

In 1970, the Supreme Court of India said, “A total ban [on slaughtering cattle] was not permissible if, under economic conditions, keeping useless bull or bullock be a burden on the society and therefore not in the public interest.”

Keeping useless cattle is rarely in the public interest during periods of want. Should it still be illegal to put one’s needs before those of the livestock?

The excess of livestock is exerting a great strain on our forests. A lepidopterist from the Himalayas, Peter Smetacek, discovered first-hand the debilitating impact of cattle on natural vegetation. When cows from the neighbouring villages entered his previously isolated forest, he noticed a decline in certain species of insects. This was followed by the disappearance of birds that fed on those insects. He observed that the hungry cows obliterated many species of plants.

The worship of cows has led to a population explosion in the species. They must be bred to guarantee their owners a place in heaven. However, the animals have, in most places, become burdens on those who feed them. Some owners can ill-afford to maintain their cows. The exalted herbivores ravage the vegetation of the areas they live in.

Success stories in forest conservation are frequently linked with banning cattle from vulnerable areas. In the absence of introduced herbivores (cows aren’t a part of most natural ecosystems), vegetation springs back rapidly. This ensures that previously absent species of animals return.

Smetacek wrote, “In my mind’s eye, I looked over this vast land, from the high Himalayan meadows to the plains of Bengal, from the Deccan Plateau to the Coromandel Coast. Throughout the land, I saw the millions, even billions of poor farmers with their hordes of underfed, unproductive cattle. All dependent on the ‘jungle’”.

All dependent on our ignorance.

Supriya Ambwani

Supriya Ambwani

An antithiest and a Hindu... or a Hindu and an antitheist?


  1. Raghuveer says:

    A well written article. It is true that many things in India are contradictory in nature. While one feels awesome with the provided constitutional rights, at the same time there are laws which curb such rights. So it is like a loop. And yeah, the holy cow is definitely over-protected affecting several facets of human life. Maybe, we could ask for a more believable reason to protect the cow rather than historical ideologies and religious affinities.

  2. Abhishek Mittal says:

    Typical colonial mentality. Not surprising for me.She has little or no knowledge of Indian agriculture system.Her article itself is contradictory.On the one hand,she says,due to stoppage of Killings &,milk production doubled in 70’s & on the other hand,she says poor breeding programmes lead to low yields.

    There are a no.of institutions working on indigenous indian breeds for improving ox & bull variety & distributing it among villagers.A simple search will help anybody to find it out.And ,mentioning Hindus eating beef elsewhere,how does it relate to this article?I fail to understand.Refering to foreigners for quotes is not necessary when you are writing an article native to your traditions.

    Anyway,it passes off as a poor grade article with no emphasis on solutions.

    • Supriya Ambwani Supriya Ambwani says:

      Mr. Mittal,

      Thank you for taking out time to comment on my article.
      I’d like to point out a few things in response to your comment:

      1. This is not a stand-alone piece- it’s a series of essays. Had you made an effort to read the previous essay, you would have realized why I mentioned beef eating.

      2. A colonial mentality manifests itself when one tries to import, verbatim, certain ideas which are counterproductive to the society. Highlighting pertinent yet ignored issues in Indian agriculture (a sector which is faltering, if not downright failing) is not even remotely related to supporting colonialism.

      3. I did not mention that India’s milk production increased because of the ban on killing cows (because that thought is incorrect). Milk production increased because of better technology. However, this policy has backfired terribly due to poor breeding habits. There is no contradiction here. I quoted Jay Mazoomdaar because he wrote a comprehensive essay on the topic. I suggest you read it to improve your understanding of the subject:

      4. I never denied the fact that many institutions are working to improve the quality of agriculture in India. In fact, I have a good understanding of the sort of work they do. Unfortunately, they haven’t been very successful in their efforts for various reasons.

      5. Finally, when I use quotes which reflect my views, I don’t check the nationality of the author. I’m patriotic, not communalist- I believe you have confused the two.

      I advise you to work on your researching abilities before slamming somebody else’s ideas.

      Thank you,

      Supriya Ambwani
      The Author

    • Peter Smetacek says:

      Mr Mittal,
      you note that ‘Refering to foreigners for quotes is not necessary when you are writing an article native to your traditions.’ I went through Ms. Ambwani’s piece and noted only one ‘foreigner’, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Since you use the plural, are you referring to me? How can you suggest that I am a ‘foreigner’ without confirming your facts? Would you say that Norman Browne is a foreigner, too? Are you by any chance under the mistaken impression that only persons with Hindu sounding names can be familiar with native (Indian/Hindu) traditions? Or that only they have the authority to state anything quotable with reference to these traditions?
      Please note that Indian society, of which both you and I are a part, is multi-cultural. Ms Ambwani is responsible for her views concerning the cow, but kindly do not question her right to quote from my work concerning the effect of free ranging cattle on Himalayan and other forest ecosystems on the basis of me being a ‘foreigner’. You could not be more mistaken.
      Peter Smetacek

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