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Opinion | Mrs Gandhi and the ‘gau rakshaks’

Shortly after assuming office in 1966, Indira Gandhi ran into trouble with the 'cow protectors' of her time

Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had several rocky encounters with ‘cow protectors’ months after she was elected to office in the mid-1960s. Photo: Getty Images
Former prime minister Indira Gandhi had several rocky encounters with ‘cow protectors’ months after she was elected to office in the mid-1960s. Photo: Getty Images

In 1966, months after she was installed as prime minister, Indira Gandhi found herself locking horns with frenzied devotees of the holy cow. While that extremist passion to dismember other human beings in the name of bovine honour had not reached today’s horrific heights, the first year of Mrs Gandhi’s reign went down as a particularly trying period, Parliament itself coming under siege from defenders of the four-legged mother. Where initially the prime minister assumed a firm position, telling a newspaper that she would never “cow down to cow savers", the alarming scale of the protests that rocked Delhi on 7 November persuaded her soon enough to come to terms with the sentiment. After all, even Mahatma Gandhi, back in the day, had declared cow protection a worthy cause—“one of the most wonderful phenomena in all human evolution"—leaving little to interpretation when he added that “so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow", the religion would endure.

While the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrine a commitment to cow protection, it was an open secret that Jawaharlal Nehru had stern feelings on the subject. Nehru was against any legislation to ban cow slaughter, even as the “big tent" that was the Congress party held an abundance of leaders with a confirmed allegiance to the cow. While he was able to keep things more or less under control for years, Nehru’s death in 1964 allowed the subject to re-emerge, and in 1965 plans were afoot for large-scale protests to press the government into embracing the gau mata. Three Sankaracharyas gave the movement their blessings, bringing together the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and assorted groups to launch an agitation in the summer of 1966, featuring everything from protest marches to hunger strikes.

On 7 November 1966, a massive crowd assembled near Parliament in Delhi—The Hindu reported between 300,000 and 700,000 people, though the actual figure was in the vicinity of 100,000. The lower number was not particularly reassuring though, for as the scholar Ian Copland notes in a 2014 paper, “it was, to that point in time, the biggest political gathering Delhi had ever witnessed". Indira Gandhi was understandably rattled, and her fears were proved right when, that afternoon, violence reared its head. One speaker ignited the match—Swami Rameshwaranand, a BJS parliamentarian who had been suspended from the Lok Sabha for indecorous conduct, turned to his audience of trident-wielding sadhus and saffron-clad gau rakshaks and demanded, as The Guardian reported: “What are you doing here? They have turned me out of the House. Go in and teach them a lesson."

A large, furious mob dutifully made its way to Parliament but finding the compound sealed off by armed guards, decided to do the next best thing—they smashed glass, damaged public property, toppled 250 cars, and set the Congress patriarch K. Kamaraj’s house on fire. Curfew was imposed, and policemen appeared with tear gas and guns, till eight people were dead and under 50 seriously injured (one right-wing website has inflated this event into a “Hindu Massacre", alleging a preposterous 5,000 dead, buried in unmarked graves). It also didn’t help that the prime minister suspected the fidelity of her own home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, who was in charge of the police—he was a patron of the Bharat Sadhu Samaj, which was linked to the protests. The next day, Mrs Gandhi demanded and accepted the resignation of Nanda, once caretaker prime minister himself.

Even as hundreds were thrown into prison, the movement did not succumb. On 20 November, the Sankaracharya of Puri launched his hunger strike with due ceremony. “As the day dawned," writes Copland, “a number of cows were brought out, fed…and decorated with vegetable-dye motifs of green and vermillion…Selected sadhus then worshipped the cows by walking around them seven times, halting periodically to sprinkle water on their hooves; after which (the Sankaracharya) rounded off proceedings with a prayer in Sanskrit that contained the moving appeal, ‘let cows be all around me’." His fast—apparently even longer than the Mahatma’s longest—sustained energy for the movement and by early 1967, not less than 1,000-odd people had to be put behind bars.

These numbers convinced Mrs Gandhi, then, to urgently arrive at something resembling a compromise with the cow-protectors. She formally reminded state governments of the directive principles and banned cow slaughter in the Union territories. A committee was appointed to look into an all-India ban, on to which she successfully invited prominent leaders of the right such as M.S. Golwalkar, the Puri Sankaracharya (who had by now broken his fast), and various experts and officials. While on the face of it the committee was a peace offering, it was essentially designed to do nothing—within a year, a number of cow-worshipping members resigned in bitterness. And though the committee carried on listlessly for years, sources differ on whether even a report was submitted. If it was, however, it is clear that it was done quietly and “without much fanfare".

The cow-protectors retreated for the time being but extracted dividends for their backers. The BJS, which as early as 1954 defined the cow as “our point of honour", more than doubled its seats in Parliament, from 14 in 1962 to 35 in the 1967 election—an election it fought promising to “amend the Constitution and impose a legal ban on the slaughter of the cow". Contrarian views also were asserted. The All India Vaishnava Mahasamiti, for example, announced a beef festival, at Kaladi, the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, no less—then, as today, Kerala revelled in its penchant for provocative comebacks. In the end, though, the issue was not settled, and political calculations (or timidity) allowed the problem of the cow to bubble dangerously, mutating into a handle for wanton bloodshed and the murder of innocents in our own day—52 years after Indira Gandhi first grappled with devastation unleashed in the name of the sacred cow.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets @UnamPillai

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