How Mahatma Gandhi 'lived' cow protection more than preaching it

Last Updated: Sat, Jul 01, 2017 08:35 hrs
Mahatma Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malaviya with a cow. Image: Indian Council of Agricultural Research

The year was 1909. Kastur Gandhi, the wife of Mohandas Gandhi, was so ill that the doctor fearing that she wouldn't wake up if chloroform was given operated while she was awake (medical science was still raw back then). But after the operation when her condition did not improve too much, the doctor suggested giving her beef tea, which back then was considered medicinal.

Gandhi - a devout Hindu - went to his wife and told her this. She said she'd prefer to die in his arms than take beef tea. The incensed doctor said he would not be responsible if something happened to her. Mohandas took Kastur home, to his Phoenix farm (in South Africa) and nursed her day and night himself. Kastur recovered.

It is the same Mohandas, as Mahatma Gandhi, who - decrying cow vigilantism - would tweet: "I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious." Well, he did not tweet this 128-character message (twitter's loss) but if twitter-happy Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who used the Mahatma's name on Thursday to say violence in the name of cow should not go on, was serious about his message, he could have tweeted it.

What the PM instead tweeted was interesting and full of double innuendoes - according to 'sickular libtards' (no more secular liberals in India). "No one spoke about protecting cows more than Mahatma Gandhi and Acharya Viinoba Bhave. Yes. It should be done. PM." What was he trying to do – condemn or condone – a lot of people asked after this tweet?

If the PM were truly serious about curbing violence in the name of cows, he would actually have talked about the rule of law and that anyone breaking the law would be dealt with harshly as per the law.

But since the PM talked about Mahatma Gandhi, it is interesting to look at what the Mahatma said and did with regards to the cow and its protection.

Mohandas loved cow's milk. But when he considered the inhuman way in which cows were kept so that they could be milked for human consumption, he vowed never to drink it again (one wonders what he would have thought of farms of cows today kept alive with the sole purpose of milk, drunk gaily by cow-protectors).

This caused a serious problem in January 1919 when he was operated for boils and the doctor told him that he had no chance of recovery unless he took milk. Gandhi was scared, and remembered that his father too had died of boils. His wife Kastur found an ingenious way out. She reminded him that when he had taken the vow, he had cows in mind and surely he couldn't mind taking goat's milk if the goat was also taken care of properly.

After thinking for a day, he finally agreed and the intake of goat's milk helped him recover rapidly. He would hold Kastur highly for thus saving his life. Yet, like all things Gandhi, he was full of contradictions. In 1921 he said, "Cow protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow... Hindus will be judged not by their TILAKS, not by the correct chanting of MANTRAS, not by their pilgrimages, not by their most punctilious observances of caste rules, but their ability to protect the cow." And this despite having said just a few months earlier the tweet worthy, "I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow, as I will not kill a cow for saving a human life, be it ever so precious."

In 1925, he would also say another tweet worthy quip, "Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all lives that is helpless and weak in the world."

Contrast this again to when he said that "Christians and Muslims living in India including the British have one day to give up beef." But this, he said, could happen only if Hindus improved their treatment of the cow. Talking about violence in the name of cow protection, Gandhi said he was committed to showing "the folly, the stupidity and inhumanity of the crime of killing a fellow human being for the sake of saving a fellow animal."

Perhaps that is why both bigoted and liberal folks use Gandhi to defend themselves and their ideology and the reason why the PM uses him to suit his needs.

This is also the reason why the Left in India accuses Gandhi of starting this whole mess of cow protection without realising that Mahatma Gandhi did not start it. Hindu lawmaker Manu did in his Manusmriti, which along with cow protection, gave Hindu society two more ills – misogyny and caste-violence. What Gandhi perhaps did was usurp the same tenets to show how the same cow protection can be taken up in a humane and logical way.

However, the Mahatma also maintained that he was not consistent and that he evolved with time. By this logic, what he said at the end of his life should supersede what he said before. And this presents another very interesting quandary, because at the end of his life, while he remained firm on cow protection as ever, he would change his ideas on the means one could use to achieve it.

In 1946 he would say, "Cow slaughter can never be stopped by law. Knowledge, education, and the spirit of kindliness towards her alone can put an end to it. It will not be possible to save those animals that are a burden on the land or, perhaps, even man if he is a burden."

Again after independence, he would give one of the most telling quotes on cow protection. "The Hindu religion prohibits cow slaughter for the Hindus, not for the world. The religious prohibition comes from within. Any imposition from without means compulsion. Such compulsion is repugnant to religion. India is the land not only of the Hindus but also of the Musalmans, the Sikhs, the Parsis, the Christians and the Jews and all who claim to be Indian and are loyal to the Indian Union. If they can prohibit cow slaughter in India on the religious grounds, why cannot the Pakistan Government prohibit, say, idol worship in Pakistan on similar grounds? I am not a temple-goer, but if I were prohibited from going to a temple in Pakistan, I would make it a point to go there even at the risk of losing my head. Just as the Shariat cannot be imposed on the non-Muslims, the Hindu law cannot be imposed on non-Hindus."

This last quote, the PM - though he cannot tweet - should remember, and make the basis of his policy when it comes to dealing with cow-vigilantes.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

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