‘Sacred cows’ fuel India’s booming beef industry

‘Sacred cows’ fuel India’s booming beef industry

India’s cow protection policies have little to do with animal rights or ethics

Most Indian states criminalise the slaughter of the cow, bull and progeny, and beef sourced from them, based on a core Hindu ethic of reverencing the cow as sacred.

The blind spot in the politics and legislation of India’s cow protectionism, however, is the inconvenient fact of the living cow. That this is a tiresome and even mischievous lens through which to approach the issue is evident in the disregard for the sacred bovines, which are transported for slaughter every night in their tens of thousands in all Indian states.

Cow protectionism has little to do with any framework of animal rights or ethics, betrayed by the fact that ‘protection’—a strategically undefined notion in the Indian Constitution and legislation—is afforded only to the cow, even though all other animals designated as ‘livestock’ suffer violence inherent in commodification.

The veneer of cow protectionism, quite simply, offers a conceptual space for subtle cooperation between right-wing Hindutva fanaticism and its invocation of the cow as a symbol of Hindu purity, and the secular state, which invokes the cow as one of the most commercially valuable livestock resources.

The twin mandates of the Indian Constitution to the Indian state—cow protection and scientific breeding for animal husbandry—are mutually exclusive. It is impossible to have both cow production and cow protection on a global and profitable scale as India does without slaughtering unproductive cattle. In the limited criminalisation of only slaughter and beef in some states, it also obscures the violence that is profuse throughout all cattle industries, especially in milk production.

Starving spent dairy cows and abandoned male cattle pick through garbage foraging for food in Jaipur. They will eventually be picked up by butchers for slaughter.

The spectacular failure of religious and legislative cow protectionism is evident in India’s booming cattle industries. India today is the world’s largest milk producer and beef exporter, and is among the top 10 leather producers—all of which can only be sustained through the mass slaughter of cattle.

The Indian government claims that the exported beef is sourced from buffalo. While there is no moral difference between a buffalo and a cow, or a goat or a chicken, evidence suggests that cow beef is also exported in substantial amounts.

In calculating the birthrate of indigenous and Jersey cattle in India over a five-year period, from 1997 to 2002, journalists Avantika Chilkoti and James Crabtree estimated a shortfall of seven crores (70 million) cattle head that could not be attributed to natural death, even allowing for an exaggerated infant mortality of up to 50 per cent.

Writing of recent beef exports, they said:

In 2010, for instance, India claimed to export 653,000 tonnes of buffalo. Curiously, global imports of the same meat came to just 169,000 tonnes. Much of the gap is assumed to be made up of contraband cow, cleverly disguised until it arrives on foreign shores.

Cow protection is, and has always been, a sectarian, casteist, and patriarchal narrative of the Hindu right-wing, which uses the cow to fight for an ideologically pure Hindu Indian nation. The insult associated with violating a cow is an excuse to marginalise Muslims and low-caste Hindus, who respectively dominate the butchering and tanning trades. In 2016 alone, two Muslim women, a Muslim couple and four Dalit men were severely beaten by self-stated cow vigilantes for allegedly possessing cow beef or hide.

The hypocrisy of both Hindutva and secular politics obscures the latent violence in dairy production entirely

The criminalising of beef is an incoherent form of cow protection when India has no broiler cattle operations, including of buffalo, to serve the beef industry. Rather, it is exclusively dairy cattle—‘spent’ cows and ‘useless’ male calves and bulls, bred in the millions every year for milk production—which are slaughtered to keep the milk industry profitable.

Verghese Kurian, the father of India’s White Revolution in the 1960s, was clear that India could not expect to produce cheap and plentiful milk without slaughtering cattle en masse. However the hypocrisy of both Hindutva and secular politics obscures the latent violence in dairy production entirely, for bovine milk is a core product in both Hindu rituals and for commercial consumption.

Cruelty of dairy

Human consumption of bovine lactation is one of the greatest unexamined oppressions. It is so prolific as to be completely institutionalised, and thus invisibilised. The Hindu community consumes bovine lactation not only as food but also uses it prolifically in rituals. Several millions of litres of animal milk ‘literally go down the drain’ in Hindu temples throughout the country every day. Hundreds, if not thousands of litres of milk and ghee are used in major temples every day for consecration and prasad.

As early as 1917, Mahatma Gandhi had noted the terrible cruelty of dairies in India from which cows have never had any ‘protection’:

Hindu society has been inflicting terrible cruelty on the cow and her progeny … I shudder when I see all this and ask myself how we can say anything to our Muslim friends so long as we do not refrain from such terrible violence. We are so intensely selfish that we feel no shame in milking the cow to the last drop. If you go to dairies in Calcutta, you will find that the calves there are forced to go without the mother’s milk and that all the milk is extracted with the help of a process known as blowing. The proprietors and managers of these dairies are none other than Hindus and most of those who consume the milk are also Hindus. So long as such dairies flourish and we consume the milk supplied by them, what right have we to argue with our Muslim brethren?

The core of violence comes from the fact that diverting the lactation of any species from the sole purpose of nourishing its infants is profuse with cruelty and violence to all members of that species, especially mother and child. The ceaseless cycle of pregnancies and relentless lactation heavily deprives the cow of calories, nutrition—and her children. The calves necessarily have to be removed from their mother to divert her lactation for humans. Male animals are slaughtered, starved to death or incarcerated in zero-grazing confinement in frozen bovine-semen farms to extract sperm to impregnate cows.


The cow-protectionism narrative becomes exceptionally problematic when such a failed, oppressive, violent discourse is unreflectively coopted by the Indian animal advocacy movement as an animal rights ethic. Unconsciously then, Indian animal activism that mobilises cow protectionism ends up supporting sectarianism, casteism—and speciesism.

Cow worship—as other forms of nature and animal veneration in Hinduism—may continue to have emotive resonance. Cow protection stands for the protection of the sum totality of the universe, making the protection of all sentient beings a moral obligation. Hinduism regards all animals as sacred or invested with souls, making it illogical to extend special protections only to the cow. In India, secularity is necessarily deeply coloured by multireligious politics. A secular intervention for animals that bases its moral position on the universal principles of empathy embedded in all religions offers a promising way forward for new relationalities with each other, with animals, and with the planet.

It is more morally logical and coherent to replace the current weak welfarist-based legislative enactments of cow protectionism with progressive, logical civil liberties that extend solid protections to all animals, including and especially those designated as livestock.

Civil liberties enable the recognition of all non-human animals as members of our moral, political and legislative communities. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 lacks teeth, and moreover, operates as welfarist legislation that offers only marginal improvement against intense suffering and cruelty.

This would make it questionable for animals to be exposed to any form of violence, including as resources, which would be a progressive step not only in animal–human relations and animal rights, but also for a responsive climate policy in India.

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