The road to power in Delhi, say political pundits, passes through Uttar Pradesh. Considering the state sends 80 members to Parliament, the observation is not out of place. It might not have held true all the time though, particularly when the seats get divided among several parties. The state is of particular significance to the BJP, which secured a stupendous 71 seats in the general elections of 2014. Its quest for a repeat national mandate in 2019 would depend heavily on its performance in this Hindi heartland state. A sharp dip in seats here would mean end of the dream of a clear majority at the centre.
So how is the party planning to retain the seats? By riding the cow; not literally, but metaphorically. Under the helmsmanship of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the humble cow has become the unlikely symbol of resurgent Hindutva. Explained in the simple language of electoral politics, it has become an instrument of communal polarisation for the purpose of votes. In 2014, it was a combination of the appeal of Narendra Modi, talk of development and aspiration of the youth, and polarisation on the ground that ensured BJP’s success; this time the party, without much to show in terms of development in the state, appears to have decided to bank solely on Hindu polarisation. The holy cow has come handy.
Led by Yogi himself, the talk of protection of gau mata has reached the fever pitch, drowning out all other issues. He talks incessantly about banning illegal beef trade, imposing cess on alcohol for the benefit of the cow and setting up gaushalas for unattended cattle. As if this were some signal for mobs of cow protectors at large, they have gone on the rampage, threatening, assaulting and even killing people involved in cattle trade. Their impact is felt not only among Muslims, the intended target, but Hindus too.
It appears at this point that cow politics may have been overdone. It is upsetting not only those traditionally dependent on cow for livelihood in several ways, it is making farmers angry too. Now that cattle are all over the place in the absence of enough shelters, raiding cropped land and trampling everything beneath, they are confused about the way to handle them. In desperation, farmers are herding them into schools, hospitals and police stations. They have to be on night vigil to keep hordes of cattle off their fields. All of a sudden, farmers, who worshipped their cattle, want them no more.
To understand why Hindu farmers are angry, we need to get into the subject deeper. The approach of Hindus to cow has always been a case of double standards. They treat it as holy mother figure but have no moral qualm about treating it as a market commodity once its productivity is over. However, this double standards helped an entire economy with many stakeholders across communities thrive.
Cattle-rearers and farmers sold cows and male cattle past their utility to traders. It helped the beef business, which largely involved members of the Muslim community, flourish. It helped the leather industry too. The leather industry supported communities low in the Hindu caste hierarchy. Upper castes were involved in leather export too. It was a neat arrangement that brought financial benefit to all involved, and nobody complained.
The cow protection frenzy threatens to destroy the whole arrangement. The farmers are left with cattle they can do nothing about. Here are few facts borrowed from a Facebook post on the subject.
i) Farmers can no more sell male calf or unproductive cows (milk production from a cow shrinks after eight to nine years and maintaining it for the rest of its life becomes a big financial burden. It is when they sell it off)
ii) A male calf or an aged cow fetched the farmer around Rs 5,000. It helped him procure fresh stock. It is a cycle that helped him sustain his own finances.
iii) A good quality milch cow would fetch a farmer upward of Rs 25,000. With cow protectors keeping a hawk eye on all movement of cattle, asking aggressive questions and harassing them, it is no more possible for farmers to sell or find a buyer, even if the purpose is not slaughter. The former have overt or covert backing of the police and the state.
iv) The risk involved in transaction has brought down the price of cattle in general, and cows in particular.
v) So keeping cattle at home is a loss-loss deal for the farmer. Gaushalas (shelters for cows) can accommodate only a limited number of cattle. They are overcrowded in any case. The farmer has thus no option left but to abandon them to their fate.
The most troubling development, however, is people are shifting to buffaloes from cows. This helps them from escaping being in the cross-hairs of the state and the cow protection gangs. It also helps continue the old pragmatic arrangement without hurting the delicate sensibilities of cow lovers. Where does it leave the cow then? Well, on the streets and everywhere, attacking farmland and standing crops. The problem, however, may not be limited to Uttar Pradesh only. All Hindi heartland states where cow protection is a big political issue may have to face it too.
Since the problem began with politics, all this, cannot be without political consequences. The BJP may have to pay for it heavily in 2019.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Odisha Bytes.