When Sacred Cows Become Tools of the State

Soft lit cow in a dark room

Rumors caused the death of Mohammad Akhlaq and the severe beating of his son in 2015. As members of Bisara village spread rumors of the family eating and storing beef, a mob formed and stormed Akhlaq’s house. Akhlaq’s daughter, Sajida, described the night her father was killed: “They accused us of keeping cow meat, broke down our doors and started beating my father and brother. My father was dragged outside the house and beaten with bricks. We came to know later that an announcement had been made from the temple about us eating beef,” she told reporters.

India’s ordinance to protect cows due to their political and commercial worth bans beef consumption, making it illegal to eat beef and warranting a fine or prison sentence. Following heightened Hindu nationalism, the beef ban in India targets people who are suspected of consuming meat due to their proximity to cows, primarily targeting Muslims and Dalits. Sajida explained that her insistence that there was “mutton in the fridge,” not beef, failed to dispel rumors of her family consuming cow meat, and over a hundred people marched from the temple to her family’s house on the night of the attack. Akhlaq’s murder is not an isolated case. The 2015 ordinance banning the slaughter and consumption of beef turned a long-standing upper-caste Hindu taboo into law and sparked a rise in violence against people who do not—or are rumored to not—comply.

The ban has unleashed violence towards individuals suspected of carrying beef.

The police responded to the murder of Akhlaq and beating of his son by sampling meat from Akhlaq’s fridge for forensic testing to determine if it was indeed beef. This might seem like a strange response; what does it matter, now that a man is dead? Beef-testing kits are, however, one of the many new technologies that India’s Hindu nationalist government has proposed in an effort to enforce the beef ban, monitor cows, and stem vigilante violence directed mainly against Muslims and Dalits.

But will these technologies actually reduce vigilante violence? And is safety really even the goal? We argue that increased surveillance of certain bodies—both human and bovine—actually creates further vulnerability across the human and non-human spectrum. The authors have analyzed trends and commonalities found in over 700 media articles about the beef ban; we have found that the government’s use of technology, such as beef antibody detection kits, to monitor and ostensibly protect cows has in fact legitimated existing biases and worked hand-in-hand with the rise of bodily violence against marginal groups.

Cow protectionism

In India, an upper-caste Hindu taboo against beef has translated into a policy banning cow slaughter in numerous states. Historically, a beef taboo among upper-caste Hindus arose in around the first century C.E. The cow continues to be viewed as sacred within Hinduism and beef consumption is taboo for caste Hindus. Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister in 2014 and his involvement in the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) beliefs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported a rise in Hindu nationalism in India. The 2015 ordinance passed during Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister draws on the Indian constitution’s recommendation to protect cows based on their political value and commercial worth by making cow slaughter and consumption illegal in various states.

Map that shows the Indian states that have banned beef
Map indicating Indian states that have implemented some form of ban on cow slaughter as of July, 2018. Map prepared by authors. Click image to enlarge.

The law specifically targets Muslim and Dalit groups who, forming a disproportionate share of leatherworkers and butchers, are associated with cow ownership and consumption. The ban has unleashed violence towards individuals suspected of carrying beef. Between May 2015 and December 2018, 100 people were injured of whom fifty percent were Muslim, ten percent Dalit, nine percent caste Hindus and three percent various tribal groups. Forty-four Indians had been killed as of December 2018, of whom thirty-six were Muslims. A significant proportion of these and other hate crimes were initiated by rumors spread through social media platforms. Technologies developed to monitor cow slaughter, cow meat sales, and beef consumption also target Muslim and Dalit people. Technological surveillance of cows and cow bodies does little to protect Dalit and Muslim people from rumors and hate crimes, and in fact heightens the surveillance and policing of people whose livelihoods are often tied to the cows.

In our recent qualitative study, we analyzed over 700 news articles written about the beef ban between early 2015 and mid-2016. We found a consistent use of ‘science’ to justify the ban. These technologies placed groups deemed ‘suspicious,’ predominantly Muslim and Dalit individuals, under heightened surveillance, pressuring them to discipline themselves to avoid violence, and contributing to their sense of fear and exclusion from the nation. Self-discipline has resulted in some meat shop owners trying to obtain ELISA kits to use themselves in case they are ever accused of selling or consuming beef, not wanting to risk having their meat confiscated, and to deter vigilante violence. Mohammad Akhlaq’s murder was traced to potential beef consumption, where the “solution” proposed was for police to carry beef detection kits to test meat samples within a quick timeframe and to (purportedly) stem violence. Focusing on cow meat and the cow’s body as the object in dispute increases scrutiny of the cow while masking the true target of Hindu nationalist violence, Muslim and Dalit people in India. Akhlaq’s murder was described by reporters as being due to “rumors” of beef consumption, instead of locating his murder as a crime against him and his family for being Muslim in India.

Is it beef or not?

Under Hindutva-driven cow protectionism, technologies like antibody tests, digital data collection, and social media platforms have come together to govern human and animal populations. Several intervention methods have been proposed by the Indian government to monitor the beef ban and, in some cases, to curb vigilante activity emerging in response to it. These efforts include the speedy ELISA beef and water buffalo meat detection kit, placing cameras in slaughterhouses, assigning unique-identification numbers to cattle, and geotagging livestock farmers’ houses.

With his team at Hyderabad-based Amar Immunodiagnostics Private Limited, the scientist Dr. Bhanushali developed a beef detection kit (BDK) and water buffalo detection kit. Bhanushali claimed the kit was his response “…as a scientist to the social problem arising from the misconceptions about beef,” which he described as a ‘menace.’ The test customized existing enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) tests, which are commonly used in scientific laboratories as an antigen antibody test for things such as HIV, among others. The ELISA beef detection kit consists of two kits that simultaneously test small samples of meat to determine whether it is beef or not. The process takes thirty minutes overall and can be administered outside the lab.

Map that shows the Indian states that have beef testing kits
Map of India showing the states that have expressed an interest in or requested beef detection kits as of July, 2018. Map prepared by the authors. Click image to enlarge.

Taken up by the Indian government, Bhanushali’s BDK boasts portability, speed, and relative cheapness for efficient dispersal. Officials from Maharashtra, a state in western India, have purchased over a hundred ELISA kits that were passed out to all forty-five of its mobile Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) vans, with the hope that quick BDK tests will cut down on meat samples being sent to FSL buildings, which usually receive 100-200 meat samples for testing each month. Kits will be kept in FSL vans stationed in every Maharashtrian district for police to test meat from people suspected of selling or consuming cow meat. As such, police will have the opportunity to accurately verify or debunk ‘suspicions’ of beef consumption and challenge or reinforce vigilante activity. Other state governments, including Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have also expressed an interest in purchasing kits.

The hope is that BDKs will diffuse tensions and decrease violence. However, their expected effectiveness in curtailing vigilante violence is questionable. Our analysis of media articles reporting on government distribution of beef detection kits indicates that BDKs work as a surveillance apparatus, where citizens self-discipline and police others—often via the spread of rumors like those that led to the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq. Given that over half of vigilante attacks are inspired by rumors it is unrealistic to hope that beef testing kits will stop a murderous mob. If hearsay is sufficient incitement for people to kill a fellow human being, it is unlikely that they would be willing to pause for half an hour to consider the merits of a scientific test result before proceeding to carry out their mission or give up the hunt, as the case may be. Further, if after thirty minutes the meat tests positive for beef, violence might ensue because of kit results. In questioning and testing whether a sample of meat is beef or not, beef detection kits legitimize the beef ban, motivated by Hindu nationalism. Beef detection kits locate the tension of the beef ban as an issue of scientific measurement, further embedding and obscuring the political nature of the beef ban as an attack on Muslim and Dalit people in India.

Will technologies like beef detection kits actually reduce vigilante violence? And is safety really even the goal?

As such, governmental use and distribution of the scientific beef detection kit must be understood within the Indian context of the beef ban. Beef detection kits are explained as improving efficiency, curbing vigilante violence, and reducing sales, consumption, and smuggling of beef. This technology is presented as scientifically objective. However, science is neither apolitical nor unbiased, evident even in Bhanushali’s stated motive for creating a beef detection kit. Scientific knowledge and expertise grant objectivity through technologies such as beef detection kits, which allows the government to discipline and marginalize some populations. In response to the death of Mohammad Akhlaq and his son, the police stated, “We have been told that a group of people entered the temple and used a microphone to make the announcement [that Akhlaq’s family was storing and consuming beef]. However, investigations are still underway. We do not know if any of the accused are associated with the temple. We have collected meat samples from Akhlaq’s house and sent it to the forensics department for examination.” By using this ‘objective’ scientific tool to investigate the source of the meat before the murder, the police effectively trivialized the cause of violence done to Akhlaq and his son and to many other Indians who have experienced violence due to the beef ban. 

Cow vulnerability

The emphasis on the scientific origins of beef detection kits obscure the political, social, and discriminatory basis of the ban on beef and its effects on animal populations it seeks to “protect.” While the stated intent aims to counter cow vigilantism, the development of these new technologies instead normalizes the banning of beef in India, and extends the government’s ability to monitor certain groups, including the very cows whom it aims to protect. By providing tools whose potential “success” relies upon an increased policing of Muslims and Dalits and the digital objectification of cows, political technologies can increase the vulnerability of parties across the human-nonhuman spectrum. 

By deeming the protection and management of cattle a public affair, the state is able to extensively police and monitor cows, serving—by extension—as a way to surveil and police their owners, managers and users, who are often Muslim and Dalits. Despite seeming at odds, marginal human groups (Muslims and Dalits) share with non-human groups (cows, other bovines, non-bovines) a vulnerability to bodily violence through objectification, surveillance, and dispensability.

Shading indicates Indian states that that have implemented cow unique identification numbers (UID) to supervise cows and their owners. Map prepared by the authors, 2018. Click image to enlarge.

Surveillance technologies work to regulate and surveil cows. These technologies include the use of cattle unique-identification (UID) numbers, purportedly to increase dairy productivity through greater supervision of those who own cows. The registration number of these cows is linked to their owners’ Aadhar number, India’s recently enacted social security scheme. Further, the state has widely discussed cow UID benefits in curbing cow smuggling and thereby increasing safety. The linkage between cow surveillance and safety was made clear during an early tagging instance of Muslim-owned cattle under the pretext of national security. Farmers are deemed responsible for tagging and often documenting cattle, wherein the prevalence of untagged cows can reflect on their owners’ non-compliance, who can then be fined. Furthermore, the unique data collected for each cow and recorded in a governmental database linked to the cow’s UID prioritizes the cow’s reproductive potential and economic contributions. Information collected includes identifiable markings, age, weight, and also lactation capacity, insemination record, and number of births.

Missing from the collected information are the animal’s conditions outside of their reproductive and economic capability, or what means were taken to increase or heighten their (re)productive potential that might actually increase bodily violence. Deeming cows as being mishandled, out of line, or calling their meat illegal then calls into scrutiny the public status of Muslims and Dalits, and discredits their private actions of cow sales and ownership. Individuals belonging to these groups share vulnerability with the cow, and are similarly deemed out of line, unacceptable, and illegal.

Political technologies have increased vulnerability across the human-nonhuman spectrum.

The sacrality of the cow causes it to lose its animal status. The cow instead works as a symbol of the nation—an object to be controlled and regulated. By extension, cow meat no longer represents a bovine animal; cow meat becomes instead evidence of human law-breaking. When tested, non-cow meat is discarded and labeled less worthy of protection. The seizure and testing of meat enacts violence on cows and non-cow animals, reinforcing a bovine/non-bovine hierarchy. This shared vulnerability between marginal human and non-human groups reveals power structure and provides a starting point to challenge the status quo.

Human and non-human shared vulnerabilities are increased through technologies such as beef detection kits, where cows are considered as belonging by virtue of sacredness and dairy productivity, and Muslims and Dalits are only contingently included through immense self-disciplining. The precarity in such belonging implies the disposability these groups experience, as witnessed in the violence done to Akhlaq’s family based on rumors, the inadequate police response to such violence, and of the confinement and disposal of all meat after it has been surveilled and tested. In recognizing the instability of such belonging, shared vulnerability could help to counter a cow protectionist approach that continues to objectify and surveil Indian subjects, instead allowing for engagements that recognize more fully the sense of being of humans and non-humans.

Featured Image: Close-up of a cow in India. Photo by Audun Bie, @audun.bie, December, 2016.

A. Parikh is a Lecturer in the Department of Geography at Dartmouth College. She uses an intersectional gendered lens to look at questions of urban environmental belonging in globalizing South Asian cities facing the twin pressures of global capitalism and nationalist patriarchy. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Clara Miller has a B.S. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from The Pennsylvania State University. Contact.