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Yamini Narayanan’s Mother Cow, Mother India, published in 2023 by the Stanford University Press, and recently published in India by Navayana Publications, interrogates the politics of milk and dairying in India, the critical space it occupies as a sacred commodity in the religious imagination of Hinduism, and how the latter’s framing of cow as mother is human domination where bovine motherhood is at once capitalised, commodified and exploited for milk production and simultaneously weaponised by right-wing Hindu nationalists to violently oppress Muslims and Dalits, towards creating a Hindu State.

A simplistic framing of cow politics as a Hindutva versus Secular politics has allowed for the depoliticisation of milk as a product that in the words of the author ‘contributes to the violence to animals, a gendered, racist, anthropocentric, neutralization of harms intrinsic in dairying’. Through research in sites of cow production and protection, she sets out to politicise milk over the unfolding 305 pages, which she asserts will force us as humans to ‘consider the living lactating animals vulnerability as a dairy resource, as well as those of racialized humans entrapped in specific segments of India’s milk production. Whilst flagging the necessity of the Hindu State to constantly create internal enemies, which translates into racial, casteist and fascist violence against Dalits and Muslims, marked and othered for ostensibly being ‘anti-cow’, because they eat beef, she describes how parallelly violence is unleashed against bovines in animal agriculture. She unpacks and explores cow protectionism by framing cows and buffaloes as political subjects and not objects of political analysis.  Herein she stresses on the political nature of human-animal hierarchies and relations, and introduces anthropocentrism to the political analysis on cow protection. Narayanan argues that her ‘politicised multispecies ethnography is also an anti-caste methodology, and a plea to all caste groups to engage seriously with the decommodification of animals to undo the violence of anthropocentrism, as a necessary precursor to dismantle caste.’

Narayanan, in her first chapter, outlines the continuum between India’s milk and beef economies, and how beef and other post-slaughter products are byproducts of dairying. She denounces the resounding silence across Indian politics, dairy and beef sectors about the veal industry, which is the flesh of discarded male calves separated from their dairy mothers at birth. She discusses the centrality of the cow to all forms of Indian nationalism – Hindutva, Congress or Development Nationalism, facilitated by the internal contradiction of Article 48 of the directive principles of state policy, which guided states to promote scientific breeding of bovines whilst prohibiting their slaughter. This reflected the impossible endeavour of a newly independent India to mediate secular democratic and Hindutva nationalism, with false promises of a ‘slaughter free’ dairy industry. It also was an early victory of the Hindutva right to use the symbol of the self-sacrificing mother cow, and the anti-slaughter clause therein, to advance their vision of restoring a supposed ‘pre-Islamic’ pure Hindu State.

The cow was no less significant for Congress nationalism, with the latter equating cow protection to the defence of India, and associating cow milk with the purity of the nation. She concludes the chapter discussing the importance of dairying in the project of post-colonial nation building, for which Article 48’s scientific breeding clause became critical, via which the bodies of cows and buffaloes experienced the most extractive forms of commodification. She traces how scientific breeding technologies to promote high-yielding Jersey and Holstein Friesan dairy breeds, have been central India’s White Revolution, which simultaneously unleashed huge violence upon animals, particularly the unwanted, unproductive and dry ‘foreign cows’ and their male calves, hugely vulnerable to illegal trafficking and slaughter. Through subsequent chapters she vividly discusses the cow/buffalo subsidisation of milk production and the making of Secular/Hindu India, within the contested context of the ‘utilization of the cow as an economic resource for Secular India which demands her slaughter, against the instrumentalization of the cow as a political resource for a Hindu India which demands the maintenance of her life, through the enforced labour of their bodies and disruption of their family bonds’.

Yamini Narayanan
Mother Cow, Mother India
Nayavana, 2023

In chapter 2, the author describes the extreme violence, suffering and distress experienced by bulls milked for their semen which is frozen, and used to artificially inseminate dairy cows, a core activity in the scientific breeding of cows. She draws heavily from similar research of dairy industries located in the global north, to demonstrate how scientific breeding is replete with ‘gendered commodification’ and ‘sexualized violence’. There is a caste system across bovines, where the sacrality of the Brahmin humped Indian cattle breeds, and the ‘disgust, loathing, and stigmatization of buffaloes’, is akin to the practice of ‘untouchability’ in humans. These are historically related to power struggles between groups: the buffalo was regarded as sacred by the peoples of the Indus Valley civilisation, and the settler pastoralists and their cows eventually became the ‘upper castes’, with the sacrality of the cow gradually and firmly being established in Brahminical doctrine.

She flags how scientific breeding has contributed to intensification of casteised speciesism very evident in the sites of cow protection: cow worshippers and vigilantes, worship the traditional purebred humped Indian cow breeds as the sacred mother goddess. Crossbred Jerseys and Holsteins are mere ‘animals’, shunned as ‘unholy’ by Hindus, and the buffalo, which is ironically India’s most commercially valuable animal, treated with utter contempt. This casteist perception of animals is used to justify violent factory farming dairy practices such as separation of calves from their mothers at birth and forbidding them to suckle. New breeding technologies such as semen sexing, to completely erase the population of ‘unwanted male calves’, advocated by animal welfare activists as a win-win situation for humans and animals, is mere ‘humane-washing’.

‘Milking’, the title of chapter 3, dwells on the violence and cruelty associated with birthing and the separation of mother and calf which is intrinsic to industrial dairying, the resultant emotional trauma of mother cows and buffaloes, the starvation and slow painful death of calves if male, the tortuous milking by milk machines and the susceptibility of high-yielding dairy breeds to chronic mastitis, exacerbated by disallowing calves to suckle their mothers. Increasing incidence of mastitis and reproductive diseases in dairy animals translates to a stream of discarded bovines let out onto the streets, subjected to cruelty and finally slaughtered. The viciousness continues in the ‘illegal’ peri-urban dairies where animals are intensively confined in completely unliveable conditions, the illegal dairy use of oxytocin to milk every last ounce of milk, the cruelty of forcing out non-productive cows onto the street, and the violence against these abandoned ‘strays’, where they survive consuming toxic plastics from urban garbage heaps, resulting in painful deaths. Narayanan brilliantly discusses how Hindu culture and its myths of Kamadhenu – the mythological cow with her exhaustless udder and streams of pure, heavenly milk, worshipped and revered as mother, seamlessly masks the reality of the living dairy cow’s motherhood – with her starving calf straining to reach her full udder.

Narayanan moves to the sites of protection where in chapter 4 she unpacks how gaushalas are actually sanctuaries for the cow-mother-nation, where the body of the dairy cow which invariably in gaushalas, is the indigenous cow breed (as gaushalas reject Jerseys and Holstein cows), is above all a Hindu State. A piercing example she describes is the cruelty of intensive dairy production being  protected and supported in the name of devotion via Hindu rituals and belief systems where dairy farmers, most of them small scale, donate their discarded male calves to temples. The act of this being an offering to god, allows them to assuage their conscience of separating calves from their mothers, and the inevitability of slaughter that awaits the calf, as they can leave the fate or karma of the calf ‘ to god’. She describes how the top brass of temples and gaushalas, as also Hindu milk consumer-devotees, who are in complete denial about the dairy-bovine slaughter continuum, can excuse themselves from having anything to do with violence against bovines, and can target the slaughter end of milk production as the ‘cruel act’ of Muslims and Dalits.

Chapter 5 probes gaurakshaks and cow vigilante groups, revealing how their total belief in acts of violence to protect cows is rooted in their unwavering belief that cow is mother for Hindus. Narayanan is spot on when she writes how ‘The objectification of female and feminized Hindu bodies as mothering bodies, whether human, cows, or the physical / metaphorical landscape of Mother India, is a crux upon which Hindutva is founded. The erasure of bodily autonomy endured by Human female humans, becomes mapped onto the ‘dairy’ cows and onto the concept of Mother India.’ Hindutva is driven by the idea that this feminised multispecies landscape of Hindu ‘mothers, sisters, daughters and cows’ must be protected by Hindu men, from ‘the Muslim’ who is a potential ‘rapist’ and cow slaughterer.


Photo: Lyndsay Abel/Unsplash

Hindutva employs the same gendered entity to racialise Muslims as beef eaters and rapists who violate Hindu cows and Hindu women, and are thus treated as the primary threat to ‘Hindu men’s’ property, where the trauma of violation to women and cows, is less than the trauma that this violation presents to the men’s sense of honour. This perceived Hindutva ‘dishonour’ to a Hindu male justifies for the Hindu right the violence they perpetrate against marginalised Muslims and Dalits, employed in the slaughter end of dairy production, as slaughter is framed as a moral offence to the milk-consuming and cow-loving Hindu and cow worshipping Hindu State.

Financial security is another reason that lures young men to become gaurakshaks, and genuine love for animals is a reason for some. The right wing governments’ use of science and technology to test and detect cow beef via mobile forensic labs has fuelled the lynching of Dalits and Muslims. Recognising the rise of beef festivals celebrated by Dalit student bodies and Muslim communities as a retaliation against Hindutva beef politicisation and Hinduism’s politics of discrimination against Dalits, she argues for human rights and animal rights groups to ‘acknowledge human and animal vulnerabilities as morally relevant, and work together respectively’ for animal and subaltern human liberation.

The challenges faced by animal rights activists in under-resourced countries, their attempts to rescue and shelter animals, and the choices they have to make between overcrowded shelters, turning animals away or using them as milk or traction animals, is analysed herein. She flags how the movement in not having a unified politics for all animals, accompanied by inconsistent messaging often focusing only on cows, are indistinguishable from Hindu right-wing forces.

Chapters 6 details the brutality and suffocation during transportation, illegal trafficking and the butcher-vigilante-police informer networks that serve both cow transporters and cow vigilantes. Chapter 7 describes the horror chambers of animal slaughter, as animals await their death in industrial, municipal and backyard underground/illegal slaughter spaces. In these chapters she also vividly describes the brutalising impact this has on the humans who people the process, the majority of whom belong to Dalit, Muslim and oppressed OBC communities.

She concludes her book offering veganism and a vegan food economy as the alternative to animal-based food regimes, arguing this will at once (i) end all forms of violence and exploitation of animals, (ii) completely halt the environmental degradation resulting from animal-agriculture, (iii) contribute to climate resilience as it does away with methane from animals, (iv) ensure sustainable vegan food production as farmer livelihoods and (v) counter Brahminism and caste.

As a veterinary scientist and food sovereignty activist, who has spent the last 37 years of my professional life living and working with Adivasi, Dalit, Vimukta jati and other OBC and Muslim landless, small and marginal food producers whose livelihoods vitally include and depend on animals, in rural and indigenous territories in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, and who has consistently critiqued the growth of capitalist animal-agriculture as also called out Brahminism and Hindu right-wing politics for their animal slaughter politics which ignore the logical continuum of dairying and beef, I commend Narayanan for her important exposé of the cruelty entrenched within industrialised capitalist Indian dairy animal-agriculture system and how it is advanced and supported by Hindutva bovine politics and the hypocrisy of Brahminism.

Where I differ deeply with her analysis is her uncritical and academically non-rigorous (or is it privileged bias) and crude lumping together of all forms of animal-agriculture as being essentially exploitative and based on a violent, cruel and dominating relationship between humans and animals. By tracing and locating the history of animal rearing to either its Vedic interpretations or the World Bank-shaped Operation flood Dairy Development Indian experience, she has completely undermined, dismissed and excluded the subaltern histories and powerful agency of non-industrialised, non-capitalist, non-extractivist and non-brahminical, animal rearing worldviews, livelihoods, food cultures and practices of caste oppressed Dalit-Bahujan-Muslim and Adivasi communities, and yes the loving relationships they have nurtured with their animals. These have evolved over generations, of careful selection, breeding (not the breeding she sees in modern day dairy farms), feeding, healing and caring of their animals and associated environments, to live well in specific ecologies, and for definite usages/purposes – a term Narayanan would undoubtedly interpret as embodied violence; and yet even up until as late as the early 1990s which heralded the onset of liberalisation and outright capitalist growth in India, nearly 70% of Indian milk markets were outside the realm of the organised and industrialising frontiers of dairying, and up until the early 1980s, 75% of energy in Indian farming came from draught animals.

Within these systems of animal rearing livelihoods, calves are not separated from their mothers; cows, buffaloes, pigs, goats, sheep, poultry, yak, camels are not subjected to the cruelty witnessed and discussed in factory farmed animals. Male animals breed naturally with females, and are not ‘milked’ for semen. Male calves are not starved and discarded as worthless, because they historically were the basis of food farming and transportation, and yes  – adult males, and females which finally stopped calving, were also and always consumed as food. Meat was never consumed every day, but on special occasions.

Industrialising, capitalising and brahminising livestock policies in India beginning from the 1970s onwards, and fast-tracked since the past 30 years, have proactively and aggressively facilitated the ‘specialisation’ of production (dairying in bovines and meat in goats and sheep, for instance), displacing the holistic multifunctional ‘non-mother cow’ role of animals in people’s livelihoods. What Narayanan overlooks is how the aggressive spurt in industrialisation and capitalisation of dairying post liberalisation displaced over five million small and marginal farmers from dairying between 2000 and 2016. As dairying specialised, industrialised and has got ‘organised’, the small farmers mostly Dalit-Bhaujan and Muslim, have been replaced by larger and larger specialised dairy farmers who are ‘higher up’ in the hierarchy of caste, and projections are that farm sizes will only increase with increased intensification. Unfortunately, animal rights activists, including Narayanan, will find any kind of utilitarian role of domesticated animals – even in their non-industrialised multifunctional forms – as providers of energy, draught, transportation, milk, meat, dung, urine, leather, grazers to control forest fires, and disperse seeds, as an act of anthropocentric violence.

Photo: Shruti Singh/Unsplash

In striving hard to make the case of a world free of animal agriculture being core to fighting caste and fascism, she attempts to downplay the importance of beef in Dalit cultures, attributing the assertions of beef as a mere response to Hindutva politics and to counter the wider landscape of discrimination. However, in doing so, she masks the reality of the rich, joyous and flavourful existence of beef as an intrinsic and proud presence in Dalit cultures, so powerfully and vividly captured for example in Yendluri Sudhakar’s collection of tales Speaking Sandals , recently published in the English from its original Telugu.

Her proposal on veganism is full of rhetoric, and demonstrates complete ignorance of environmental, climatic and ecological realities – such as there are vast geographies of grasslands in India, which are most sustainably utilised for animal grazing, and have been subjected to huge environmental havoc and damage by attempts to raise ‘trees’ or farm these grasslands. Recent research has also revealed the significant role of animal grazing in climate mitigation. The energy role of domestic animals in farming and transportation will be critical in a world which is soon nearing peak oil. Her proposals of promoting cashew trees to make non-dairy ‘cashew milk’ is equally disturbing – as she is oblivious, for instance, to the violent destruction of forest shifting cultivation practices, caused by cashew plantations forcibly promoted on Adivasi territories, which brought food insecurity to Adivasi homes, and deprived their animals of grazing resources. Whilst she highlights how intensive dairying drains scarce water resources, she ignores a similar drain on water resources in drought prone California, which is milking water to grow almonds to produce vegan almond milk. She also then avoids completely the question of the centrality of meat and halal in Islamic cultures, and how this will be addressed by veganism.

10,000 years ago, wild sheep were domesticated by humans to meet human needs, and this history of domestication resulted in the creation of diverse domestic animals and intrinsic relationships between humans and animals. Several animal breeds across species have already disappeared in India with the emergence of exclusive product specialidation-based animal farming whether for only dairying or ‘meat’, pushed by industrial capitalist and brahminic animal agriculture policies. Veganism would mean the death of all domesticated animal species, as people would have no reason to rear animals any longer. The forces of industrialisation and capitalism, and in the case of India, Brahminism, have chosen not to pursue and invest in science and technology to develop ways in which animals can be slaughtered without them having to experience trauma, fear, stress and pain. Decriminalising slaughter is core to dismantling caste and challenge Brahminism; accompanied by de-growth and de-industrialising animal rearing policies, which nurture a return to multifunctional, decentralised and localised animal livelihoods, are together crucial to stop this violence against animals.

The Wire Sep 15th 2023 by Sagari R. Ramdas is a veterinary scientist associated with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India. She can be reached at [email protected].

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