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‘Mother Cow, Mother India’ review: The sacred and the profane

Yamini Narayanan’s ‘Mother Cow, Mother India’ demolishes the notion of milk consumption being benign and non-violent

An urban dairy farm in Amritsar.(Getty Images)

By Ambika Aiyadurai

LAST PUBLISHED 27.02.2024  |  08:07 AM IST

In India, it is not rare to see the veneration of the cow on one street corner, and the same animals feeding on trash at the next. The contradictions of “sacredness" attached to cows exist comfortably with the violence against them in our society. Yamini Narayanan’s Mother Cow, Mother India asks crucial questions to help us understand this paradox.

Narayanan is well known for her research in animal studies and multispecies research, and she brings her fascinating work to bear in this book on cows, dairies and their linkages to nationalism and capitalism. This is challenging research and not an easy book to write, considering the sensitive nature of the themes embedded in issues of caste and religion in contemporary national politics. Her book is rooted in field-based research on cow protectionism and the multiple perspectives of the politics of milk production, while focusing on the lived realities of bovines and humans who are part of the dairy industry.

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Narayanan’s central claim is that the framing of the cow as a mother obscures her commodification for dairy production and simultaneously weaponises her in the bid to create a Hindu state. Through eight brilliant chapters, she unveils the complex politics of identity, religion and caste in India, the world’s largest milk producer. She asks whether it is possible to sustain dairying without slaughtering the “useless" males, and the females beyond the milk-producing age. Narayanan calls this “a blind spot" in the discourse of India’s cow protectionism. The cow, the book shows, is more than an economic resource. The animals become sacred and political, often entering the debates on competing nationalisms which link cow protection to India’s protection.

Unlike the commodification of meat, which requires the killing of animals, consuming products like milk is considered benign and non-violent because it is from living animals that produce milk naturally. She demolishes this claim with powerful ethnographic details of her visits to numerous gaushalas (shelters for old and abandoned cows) and interviews with animal activists, dairy farmers, political workers, government representatives and Dalit students in universities by sensitively acknowledging how the lives of humans and non-humans are entangled in the politics and violence of sustaining milk production. This book is the result of seven years of fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat and other sites across the country, which makes it a rare and compelling one.

Placing the Indian cow in the context of other species, such as the jersey cow and the buffalo, she conducts insightful interviews with temple managers and Brahmin priests. They reveal that the jersey cow is non-native and, therefore, cannot be accepted in temple shelters that provide shelter to only native or desi cows. Buffaloes are considered “inferior and low-caste" animals, not worthy of shelter along with the “holy" cows. This is also reflected in the narratives of political workers associated with raiding trucks carrying cattle and those who work in gaushalas: They take pride in “rescuing cows" that are “pure", but if the truck contains buffaloes or jersey cows, they don’t think twice before sending them to butchers.

Mother Cow, Mother India: A Multispecies Politics Of Dairy In India, by Yamini Narayanan, Navayana Publishing, 424 pages, 599

LIVING WITH ANIMALS

This highly readable book reveals how the cow becomes the “living material landscape" for dangerous, volatile discourses, and the lives of individual animals are lost in the larger contestations about nation-building and development. While the book is about bovine politics, she also reminds us frequently about people from marginalised communities whose lives are impacted by violent forms of cow protection. This is a profoundly self-reflexive account of a researcher sensitive to the way Dalits and Muslims are treated in a non-humanised way in dairy farms and slaughterhouses. “Can we talk about cow protection without considering the horrific violence against casteized humans?" she writes.

Most of the workers in the dairy economy are poor, landless, Dalits and Adivasi, while the privileged castes own animals, tabelas (cattle sheds) and land. She frames the lives of the animals and the workers in tabelas and slaughterhouses against the Brahminical, nationalist and commercial worlds of the dairy industry to explain how caste, religion and class hierarchies are deeply entrenched. Narayanan’s visits to various slaughterhouses, both industrialised and municipal-run, were most disturbing to read. Both humans and animals suffer—one of the butchers tells Narayanan that they have to “get blind drunk" to kill the animal.

Intertwined narratives run through the book, demonstrating how the sacredness of the cow can lead to volatile politics. Multiple forms of violence sustain the dairy industry: separating calves from the mother at the time of birth, conditioning cows to be in a constant state of lactation, and deeming cows beyond the milking years as worthless. Caring for Mother Cow obscures the violence against the Dairy Cow, she explains.

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The recent “hyper-politicization of beef" is part of public discourse, but the book highlights the silence around the casteised and racialised nature of milk production and consumption. It places dairy industries and slaughterhouses parallel to each other, claiming that both thrive in caste and religious dominance. The vulnerability of and violence against cows in the dairy business is not much of a debate in the country, unlike the controversy over beef. She asks why beef alone becomes the focus of violence and vigilantism and not the milk economy, where cows and calves are subjected to violence. Narayanan, therefore, exposes the false and dangerous propaganda that frames beef consumers as villains and solely responsible for cow slaughter. “Can a beef economy function without a milk economy? Both economies," Narayanan argues, “are a conjoined continuum."

A WORLD WITHOUT DAIRY

Towards the end of the book, she dwells on the envisioning of post-dairy futures. Narayanan offers a provocative alternative—embracing animal rights as a core and fundamental part of progressive politics. She asks if either the majority or the minority communities can provide any ethical justification for their treatment of animals. She suggests veganism as a way of living yet struggles to convince us that this is a viable alternative. By invoking collective planetary and individual responsibilities, and the Constitution, she reminds us of our fundamental duties to protect nature and have compassion for other living creatures. Her idea of veganism needs a more extensive debate: What would veganism look like if seen from the social and geographic margins of India, considering the pluralistic understanding of human-animal relations among Dalits, nomadic and Adivasi communities? This is a question that is not adequately addressed while suggesting veganism.

That said, with sharp arguments on the politics of dairy in India, Mother Cow, Mother India is guaranteed to lead us to view cows as key political subjects. Narayanan’s ability to weave in narrative, fact and lived experience across time and space makes this book highly engaging. Readers will find it difficult to see the cow as merely sacred anymore.

Ambika Aiyadurai is associate professor of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

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