To hug or not to hug the cow: The misplaced agenda of religious nationalists

As such these groups are part of an oppressive, sectarian politics, which abhors the free choice of youngsters in particular. Real reasons for this intolerant behavior have to be looked for in their overall agenda to curtail liberalism, and pluralism, and to constrain the democratic ethos of the country.

Dr Ram Puniyani Feb 19, 2023
Hug the cow. (Photo: Twitter)

Indian culture is diverse and plural. It has been enriching itself by accepting diversity irrespective of religion or geographical boundaries. This gets reflected in all aspects of our life, be it food habits, clothes, art, architecture, social occasions, customs and religious traditions. This is the natural grain of any open and thriving society. With the rise of sectarianism, the effort is to restrict and constrict our culture in particular. We are witnessing the other-ing of religious communities and there are attempts to distinguish between diverse aspects of our society into ‘our’ versus ‘from outside’. To sustain this, sectarian outfits are very proactive on occasion. And symbols are being promoted to associate with ‘nationalism in the name of religion’.

The call given by Animal Welfare Board India (AWBI) was an example of this type of campaign. AWBI, in a strange circular, gave a call that 14th February, instead of the usual Valentine's day, should be celebrated as ‘Cow Hug Day’. It stated, “Hugging cows will bring emotional richness and increase individual and collective happiness”.

India's Rural Development Minister Giriraj Singh endorsed the idea (February 9, 2023) by saying that everybody should love cows. This had twin goals. On one hand, it was to promote the symbolism around cows and on the other, it aimed to bypass Valentine's day. The symbolism around cows is a strong emotive aspect of Hindu nationalism and Valentine's Day is looked at as alien and immoral by this stream.

Promoting symbolism around cows has picked up in the last few years. Many Hindus do regard Cow as Holy, now the state has jumped into the fray and restrictions on cow slaughter were aggressively brought forward in different states. This led on one hand to the phenomenon of lynching mainly of Muslims and some Dalits. This also led to the brutal flogging of four Dalits in Una in Gujarat. The central Government is doing ‘research funding’ into Panchgavya, a mixture of cow milk, curd, ghee, cow dung and cow urine). Incidentally Veterinary and biochemical sciences have already done most of the basic study and research into various animal products.

Cultural ignorance  

In 2021 Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (National Cow Board) under the rural development ministry planned the ‘Kamdhenu Gau Vigyan Prachar Prasar Exam’ (National Exam on Cow science propagation). This was later called off after a public uproar. This Board was later disbanded. As the call was given for Cow Hug Day, many social media posts ridiculed the idea. One video of a BJP leader trying to caress the cow and her trying to hit back surfaced. The very notion of hugging cows was not taken lightly by many, as it is fraught with the possibility of accidents due to the bovine trying to hit back as not being so accustomed to strangers. 

This was a weird idea to promote love for cows, as India is also peaking as the leading exporter of beef in the world. Incidentally, ruling BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur also dispensed her gratuitous advice by asserting that caressing the cow in the direction of her skin hairs reduces blood pressure, and surely with this government plans may be afoot to undertake research in this direction!

As such the groups associated with Hindu nationalism have been violently opposing gifting and expressing one’s love on Valentine's Day. Groups like Pramod Mutalik’s Shriram Sene and Bajrang Dal in particular have been beating couples moving together on this day. Anti-Valentine's Day squads moved around, who not only harassed the couples but also tried to ransack the shops dealing in gifts for the day. Most of these groups do enjoy a sort of impunity.

It has been claimed that public expression of love is against ‘our culture’ and Hindu values. These ignorant foot soldiers and motivated leaders may be unaware of Vatsyana’s Kama Sutra or the temples of Khajuraho and Konark with open expression of not only emotional love but also erotica. One remembers the very successful ‘Pink Chaddi’ campaign initiated by social groups. This was in response to Pramod Mutalik’s, an ex-RSS 'pracharak' (propagator), group beating up girls coming out from a Mangalore pub. Pink underclothes were sent to Mutalik in large numbers. Sectarian outfits are not lonely in the world. Groups similar to Shri Ram Sene also came up in Saudi Arabia in particular at a point in time.

Origins of Valentine's Day

As such these groups are part of an oppressive, sectarian politics, which abhors the free choice of youngsters in particular. Real reasons for this intolerant behavior have to be looked for in their overall agenda to curtail liberalism, and pluralism and to constrain the democratic ethos of the country. One recalls that Asaram Bapu, now cooling his heels in jail as a rape convict had mooted the idea of bypassing Valentine's day by celebrating 14th February as Matru-Pitru Pujan Divas(Mother-Father worship day). That was endorsed by the religious nationalists, but it also failed to take off.

Valentine's Day, the day of expression of love, is globally very popular. It is not restricted to romantic, sexual love alone. The tradition of celebrating Valentine's Day goes back to the early second century CE. There are many legends about St. Valentine and two of them have some definitive history.  It seems that the early Christian church had at least two saints bearing this name. As per one story Roman emperor Claudius II forbade young men to marry in the year 200's A.D., as he had strong military ambition and he thought that single men made better soldiers. A priest by the name of Valentine disobeyed the orders of the king by solemnizing the marriage of a young couple.

 According to another legend, Valentine was an early Christian saint who was very affectionate to young children. He refused to worship Roman gods and on that count and was imprisoned. Children missed his affection and love and tossed the notes containing love messages across the prison bars. According to many stories, he was executed on 14th February. This day in due course came to be celebrated in his memory as a tribute to his courage in defying the inhuman orders of the ruling kings; people started sending greetings and messages of love to their loved ones. The origin of the customs is slightly shrouded due to its being very ancient. Also, these customs started taking a local hue in different countries wherever this day began to be celebrated.

In a world shrinking to be a global village, one cannot fool around by bypassing the aspirations of society. It is good that facing rampant criticism and ridicule the AWBI withdrew the call of 'Cow Hug Day'!

 (The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman,  Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.) 

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