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Cow Protection Movement was anti British agitation by Hindus and Muslims

Saquib Salim

“Though the Muhammadan’s cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact, directed against us (the British), who kill far more cows for our army than the Muhammadans.”

Queen Victoria wrote the above lines in a letter to the Viceroy Lansdowne in 1893, about the cow-protection movement led by Arya Samaj.

Do you believe that the cow protection movements started in the 19th century were against the Muslims, who slaughtered cows?

If you do then you have believed one of the most heinous lies spread by the British to keep Indians divided.

The fact is that Muslims never indulged in cow slaughter in regions where Hindus lived. I need to reiterate how many Muslim rulers had banned cow slaughter.

The above mentioned letter from the Queen is undeniable evidence of the anti colonial nature of the cow protection movements.

The letter was the result of an intelligence report which noted, “The primary danger is that the cow-protection question furnishes a common platform on which all Hindus of whatever sect, however much at variance on other questions, can and do unite.”

In fact, the defeat of the revolutionaries in 1857 and later debacles faced by Wahabis of Patna and Balwant Phadke of Maharashtra forced the Indian leaders to devise a mass movement which could bring Indians together.

Hindus worshipped cows and for Europeans they were a staple diet. Soon, a campaign was launched to stop cow slaughter in India.

The British tried to divert the movement towards Muslims on the pretext that butchers at their cantonments were Muslims. The Hindu leadership understood these evil plans. Barrister Pandit Bishan Narayan Dar, in his ‘Appeal to the English Public on behalf of the Hindus of N.W.P and Oudh’ (1893) wrote that the Hindu Muslim tensions over cow slaughter were a part of divide and rule policy of the British.

He pointed out that before colonial rule Hindus and Muslims never fought over cow sacrifice. The British in order to fulfil their own need for beef for the army encouraged the Muslim butchers to slaughter cows.

Muslims did not kill cows for their own purpose but the British were encouraging the poor Muslims to have beef. The educated and anti colonial nationalist Muslims were also part of this movement.

In 1893, the police in Delhi confiscated a nine pages booklet titled Gau Pukar Pushrawali (verses constituting an appeal of the cow) written by a Muslim Sufi, Saddi.

In Gaya, Maulvi Kamaruddin Ahmed was one of the important leaders to establish a gaushala (cow asylum) in 1889. Muslims were also found to be attending and pledging support to the movement in Varanasi during the 1880s and early 1890s. The newspapers edited by Muslims, or where Muslims were writing, like Farsi Akhbar, Anjuman-i-Punjab, Aftab-i-Punjab etc. campaigned actively in support of the movement.

Farsi Akhbar opined that the animosity between Hindus and Muslims was being caused by the beef eating practice of the British.

The butchers, though Indian Muslims, slaughtered cows on the orders of the British authorities, who wanted to create a rift between the two communities. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs who were loyal to the British tried to make it a Hindu Muslim issue and claimed that Muslims had the right to slaughter cows.

Interestingly almost all Ulema preached against the cow slaughter in India. It was English educated loyalists who talked about freedom of having food of choice.

Throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, the British authorities were reporting on the problem in procuring beef for their troops at cantonments. In 1891, the police fired upon the cow-protection activists who were stopping butchers from taking cows for the slaughter at Dinapore cantonment.

Similar incidents were reported from Belgaum, Jabalpur and Nagpur. Authorities knew that a united strong cow-protection movement would stop food supply to the British.

That was why they started alluring butchers towards cow-slaughter. The cow-protection presented a threat so magnanimous that the Viceroy, in December, 1893, commented that the movement was as threatening as ‘the mutiny of 1857’.

He believed that the issue had found a popular expression for the nationalists as the movement provided them popular support. The political and religious were now mixed and carried a larger appeal.

“In India the unrest and discontent which have found expression in the Congress movement”, Viceroy stated, “and in their political combinations, will, I am afraid, become infinitely more dangerous now that a common ground has been found upon which the educated Hindus and the ignorant masses can combine their force.”

The viceroy wasn’t wrong. By the end of the First World War in 1919, Mahatma Gandhi had ensured that the cow protection movement became a mass movement. Gandhi claimed that the British were killing more than 30,000 cows daily for their consumption.

Muslims like Ulema of Deoband and other nationalists also supported the cow protection movement.

When the British faced the challenge of the cow protection movement in the late 19th century they sowed seeds of Hindu Muslim enmity in form of formation of Muslim League and division of Bengal.

This time in the 1920s they channelised small communal groups for communal riots. The situation was really arduous for the British Empire in India.

In 1920, the British agent to the central India wrote to the Viceroy, “British soldiers must have beef and if there are difficulties in getting it locally presumably the only thing to do is to make arrangements to obtain by import from a distance”, after owing to the public opinion the local Indian rulers asked the British cantonments in their jurisdiction not to slaughter cows.

The army also asked the government to arrange for import of beef through railways. In a report submitted in February 1921, the army noted, “as is well known, the staple diet of all European nations especially British and Americans is beef. The remedy in this case is to bring slaughter cattle by rail.”

The army was worried that people would stop any import of cows through road transport. The British soldiers were starving for beef in most of Rajputana and other states. In March 1921, another army report noted, “there is a general concerted movement on foot to prohibit the slaughter of cattle in India, and especially the cattle required for feeding British troops. A movement of this sort, which appeals at once to the religious susceptibilities of the Hindu, requires careful watching lest it may grow into a burning political question.”

The British agent wrote that local rulers, under the pressure of common people, were increasing restrictions on cow slaughter. At several places cattle brought from outside the states for slaughter were stopped by the activists.

Muslim rulers like Bhopal had also put the similar restrictions in place. It is no coincidence that British loyalist Muslims started a campaign to slaughter cows on Eid ul-Azha (Bakrid) around the same time.

They started a campaign, much against the views of Ulema, that cow slaughter was an indispensable part of Eid thus shifting the focus of the movement towards Hindu Muslim riots.

Cow slaughter has been the reason for several communal riots in India since then. Ulema have always maintained that hurting the religious sentiments of others is not permissible and Muslims should sacrifice other animals.

People who insist on cow slaughter are nothing but carrying on the legacy of colonial loyalists who want to harm the unity of India.

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