Right next to my school in Chennai, there used to be a hole-in-the-wall eatery that served as a rite of passage for most of us who’d hit high school. It resembled more a shotgun shack rather than a respectable dining establishment, the kitchen walls seemed covered in soot, so that you could hardly see what was going on in there. The only sensory stimuli was aural, provided by a furious wok and a spatula. The menu was limited, and everybody more or less ordered the same thing, a plate of beef fry along with a beef fried rice.
In retrospect, I don’t think it constituted a fine culinary experience, but there certainly was some subversive relish in the whole activity, and while beef isn’t as ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu as it is in Kerala, it wasn’t all that hard to come by in Chennai. By the time a few years had passed, I had been benumbed of the novelty of these clandestine beef runs and was wholly converted, eating the bovine ilk at any given opportunity.
It was at this juncture that I found myself in Delhi, hankering for beef in a city that offered few such oases. I was directed to a Malayali mess in Hauz Khas, one where the beef fry was the only item on the menu written in Malayalam. I proceeded to place my order in what I felt was an acceptable amplitude for a mess, only to be met with a circumspect stare from the waiter, who trotted off to the kitchen hastily and returned to drop it on my table with the gravitas of a Cold War era dead drop.
In 2010, when I was a university student in Bangalore, the Karnataka government threatened to pass a new law, enacted in “The Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill 2010”, but this was eventually rejected by the former governor of the state HR Bhardwaj, who felt the Bill “adversely affects lakhs of people’s lives and lacks legislative competence.” It was around this time that I first heard the historian and academic DN Jha’s name in passing for the first time.

History, not hate

Jha’s Myth Of The Holy Cow was never intended to be provocative. It was merely an academic inquiry into the historical beef-eating dietary habits on the Subcontinent, one that was buttressed with ample evidence from ancient texts and sources. However, many publishers refused to take on the heat of brining it out, and after it was finally published in 2001 by Matrix Books, it was received with the usual symphony of death threats and brickbats from the fundamentalist Hindutva right.
The book promptly faced a court injunction, and would eventually resurface only in 2009, published this time by Navayana with a pop art cover whose appealing shelf presence would probably betray the sober, academic content of the book itself. Jha’s central premise is that the practice of eating beef is hardly a foreign concept brought to India by Islamic and Christian influences, and that people from the Vedic era not only ritually sacrificed the cow, but also relished its meat.
Jha meticulously brings this out by drawing our attention to various ancient texts – the Vedas, epics like the Ramayana, and Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Jha also charts out society’s transformation from a pastoralist, nomadic group to settled agriculturalists, where the the status of the cow was elevated to that a beast of burden.
However, the cow hadn’t yet become holy, with neither the Laws of Manu (which prohibit eating cows but condones their slaughter by Brahmins) nor the concept of ahimsa in Buddhist and Jain thought elevating the animal to a hallowed status. Beef-eating eventually became taboo in the medieval period among upper caste Hindus, but the cow was yet to be canonised, as this happened much later in the 19th century, when various cow protection groups galvanised themselves on this nebulous notion of a shared identity.
As Jha puts it “The holiness of the cow is elusive. For there has never been a cow goddess, nor any temple in her honour. Nevertheless the veneration of this animal has come to be viewed as a characteristic trait of modern day non-existent monolithic ‘Hinduism’ bandied about by the Hindutva forces.”

Unholy nexus

In the past couple of years, we have seen a Muslim man murdered on suspicion of storing beef in UP, two Muslim cattle herders lynched in public in Jharkhand, and Dalits flogged for carrying cow carcasses in Gujarat. To understand the morbid paranoia that has taken over the Hindu right, we must look to the words of one of its seers, a Chitpavan Brahmin and former sarsanghchalak of the RSS, MS Golwalkar: “The expression ‘communalism of the majority’ is totally wrong and misconceived. In a democracy the opinion of the majority has to hold sway in the day-to-day life of the people. As such it will be but proper to consider the practical conduct of the life of the majority as the actual life of the national entity.”
We’ve never come closer to reaching Golwalkar’s perverse ideal in the history of the Indian republic than now, but the seeds of this hysteria have always been around. To cite a small instance in the realm of art, take Girish Karnad’s masterful Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, a film adaptation of SL Bhyrappa’s novel of the same name. Here we see an irate mob of villagers gathering around the feudal mansion of Kalinga Gowda, whose American wife Hilda orders the slaughter of the household cow and eventually eats it, which results in their being outcast by the community.
In direct opposition to Golwalkar’s parochial idea of the republic stands BR Ambedkar, whose insightful and highly readable essay, Untouchability and the Dead Cow, finds it way to the Navayana edition of Jha’s book. As the chief framer of the Indian Constitution, he managed to slip in the crucial Article 29 and 30 to counter such unsophisticated partisan instincts. It reads: “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
Ambedkar further elucidated this deliberate inclusion by saying, “It is also used to cover minorities which are not minorities in the technical sense, but which are nonetheless minorities in the cultural and linguistic sense…if there is a cultural minority which wants to preserve its language, its script and its culture, the State shall not by law impose upon it any other culture which may be either local or otherwise.”. Ultimately, the Malayali heading to the Kerala mess for a beef fry in Delhi is far more in line with the Constitution than the man stoking the tinderbox of cow protection in his community over what his neighbour is allegedly storing in the freezer.