Muslims in north India have taken the lead in banning the slaughter of cows for food
A radical change seems to be sweeping the northern cow belt, serving to erode somewhat Muslims' isolation on the contentious issue of cow slaughter. Two parallel developments, in Haryana's Kheri Kalan and Uttar Pradesh's Mathura, testify to the minority community's growing receptiveness to the long-standing demand to thwart cattle trafficking and illegal slaughter. Mathura's Muslims resolved last month that they would not let cows be killed. An anti-cow slaughter convention was organised at Islamia Inter College, with rustling and butchering of cows being blamed on outsiders. This reflects a wider trend among Muslims to support a deeply emotive Hindu cause.
They are not alone in their sympathies. Some eunuchs at Kosi Kalan in Mathura district have pooled their resources, time and efforts to run a gaushala that harbours hundreds of cattle including buffaloes. The chief eunuch Sakhibai, a robust 80-year-old animal lover, set up the shelter about seven years ago. She is assisted by 15-20 eunuchs, kinnar, in raising funds. They tend the cattle, a few dogs, cats and exotic birds with love and care, having found a worthwhile purpose in life. The rewarding work of goseva has relieved the tedium of existence, hitherto restricted to extorting money from shopkeepers, traders and locals. The parched wasteland inhabited by people of their ilk is now sprinkled by the waters of devotion. They have graduated into Lord Krishna's sakhis, companions. A few Muslims also participate sincerely in this mission of cow protection.
Association with cattle, Brajbhumi's most beloved animals, thus sanctifies these lives. The Muslims involved in tending cows condemn incidents of cattle trafficking and slaughter. It is a repugnant prospect. The process of Hinduisation is evident in their disclaimers about eating any kind of non-vegetarian food. The kinnar too recoil from the thought. They are happy to subsist on cow milk, ghee and vegetables. It is the soil of Brajbhumi clearly that has inculcated such attitudes. Sakhibai, the kinnar leader, sells cow milk to augment income. There is none of the criminalisation that in the popular view has sullied kinnars' image.
Cutting across to Kheri Kalan in Faridabad mandal, the edifying spectacle of a large number of Muslims helping run a goshala vindicates the founder's vision. Managing trustee NP Thareja, Human Care Charitable Trust, took the remarkable initiative to try and stop cattle smuggling in an area, notorious for the illicit trade in stolen cattle. Nearby Mewat is a hub of such smuggling. Mooting a plan to reverse old attitudes and opening up an income avenue for wretchedly poor Muslims, whom politicians remember only before elections, he raised funds to build a concrete abode for a large joint family on their plot of land; constructed a goshala, whose milk is sold; and showered further largesse by adding a free primary school for over 500 village children.
The work that the local authorities should have undertaken was accomplished through individual initiative. A people, long accustomed to eking out a frugal living through hard manual labour, now found themselves tending cattle and new-born calves, and learning the nitty-gritty of running a goshala. They sold surplus milk and started preparing ghee. Their nascent regard for bovine bred animosity towards the phenomenon of cattle smuggling.
Though the predominantly Muslim butchers' lobby has bolstered the impression that rampant cattle smuggling and illicit slaughter is the handiwork of this community, Muslims are not invariably hostile to Hindu concerns. The Arab Mohammad bin Qasim in the 8th century AD issued an edict that banned cow slaughter in Sindh and Multan. The Mughals, even the zealot Aurangzeb, made some efforts to ban cow slaughter. In his Indian History, Part II, Wheeler quoted the late 13th century Venetian Marco Polo's Testimony, “In the entire country spreading from Cape Camorin to the Koromandal coast in the east...and from there the entire area up to the Bay of Bengal...no one except the Parihars (pariahs) ate beef or meat. All these people worship cows and bullocks. They do not slaughter any animal. Hence, if any traveller wishes to eat flesh of goats, he has to carry with him as servant a Syrian for doing the job of a butcher.”
The British began butchering of cattle for beef, bones and leather on a large scale. Livestock began to be diverted from farming and domestic purposes to slaughter houses. Robert Clive was instrumental in setting up the first abattoir in Calcutta in 1760. Wanton disregard for prevalent taboos triggered the sepoy rebellion in May 1857, with Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the Company's forces rising up against their superiors for compelling them to bite cartridges, rumoured to be greased with pig and cow fat. The cow belt in the north was the principal scene of the violent reprisal against White traders.
It is the cow belt again that seems to be heralding a change among Muslims, in their attitude to bovine, considered sacred by Hindus.