Bhavdeep Virk: Cow Vigilantism Is A Tool Of Hindutva

Modern cow protectionism emerged in the 19th century as a precursor to the Hindu nationalist ideology that was formalized through the RSS

Bhavdeep Virk
June 14, 2021 | 3.5 min. read | Opinion

Mob violence is nothing new in India and comes in various forms. 

One of which is cow lynchings, referring to the extrajudicial killing of those suspected to be involved in the slaughter of cattle, often for beef. Carried out by Hindu-extremists that have self-proclaimed themselves as gau-rakshaks (cow protectors), cow vigilantes operate with impunity and act as the de facto judge, jury, and executioner under the guise of cow protectionism. 

Although, in contemporary times, there have been cow-related lynchings in modern India since the mid-1950s, there has been an uptick in cow vigilantism following the BJP’s victory in 2014. 

In 2016, a group of vigilantes killed a Muslim cattle trader and a 12-year-old boy, hanging their lifeless bodies on a nearby tree. Indian authorities did not investigate the case, pursue any suspects, nor offer any support services to the afflicted family. Sympathy was instead given to the cow protectors due to political pressure from Hindutva groups and corruption within the Indian policing system.

The cow is often framed and assessed in exclusively religious terms. This is incorrect as it reduces the issue of cow-lynchings into a singular frame that focuses on the religious sanctity of the cow and overlooks the implicit anti-minority sentiment that is deeply entrenched within India’s social and political fabric. 

The claim can be made that the cow holds cultural relevance to Hindus, however, as Radha Sarkar argues in an article on beef bans in India, “in practice beef bans endorse an excessively narrow, Brahmanical form of Hinduism—Hindutva—while simultaneously impoverishing the material, religious, and physical well-being of minority communities such as Muslims and Dalits”.

While there is a long history of cow-protectionism in Indian history, including examples in Sikh history, the modern cow protection movement as we know it finds its popular roots during the British rule over India. It was used emblematically to galvanize the Hindu community, and importantly, cross-cut social, economic, regional, and caste-related barriers amongst Hindus in order to consolidate a group identity under the common struggle against British colonialism

Because there is no unifying institution within Hinduism as found in Abrahamic faiths, for example, the cow was selected to fulfill the void of a singular, unifying belief. By asserting the cow as a connective node across all followers of Hinduism, it was able to evoke sentiments of deep nationalism, as transgressing upon the cow was in essence transgressing upon Hinduism and mother India. 

The existence of vigilantist groups that exercise extralegal status, propagandize their group ideology by way of violent force and romanticize a homogenous Hindu nationalist India is inherently problematic in what is supposed to be a pluralistic democracy. What is more alarming is the BJP’s intersection with these vigilantist groups and the overarching Hindutva attitudes present within India. 

As previously mentioned, modern cow protectionism emerged in the 19th century as a precursor to the Hindu nationalist ideology that was formalized through the RSS. It would not be a far cry to associate cow lynchings with the ascendency of the BJP, a daughter organization of the RSS and member of the larger Sangh Parivar

Statistics corroborate this claim, as there has been an exponential increase in attacks against Muslims and other marginalized populations of India in states controlled by the BJP. 97 percent of the 66 hate crimes as recorded by IndiaSpend took place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. The writing was on the wall as the linkage between BJP and cow vigilantism was overt leading up to the elections. 

With a “500 percent increase in the usage of communally divisive language in speeches by elected leaders - 90 percent of them from the BJP”, and cow protectionism being an important theme that was discussed in these speeches, it is no surprise that the BJP’s stance as a nationalist party is closely linked to the lynchings. 

With more than 340 million users in India, the emergence of WhatsApp has also given Hindutva hardliners an extremely efficient platform to circulate anti-minority hate. The Modi government has equally used the platform as a scapegoat to implicitly support the attacks. Instead of condemning vigilantism, the BJP has blamed WhatsApp for its inability to curb such explosive messages that are being shared - shooting the messenger, and not the message - tacitly giving support to vigilantes by reframing the issue to revolve around technological policy and not the looming anti-minority sentiment. 

Moving into the future, it is unlikely that these cow lynchings will see any downtick. Prime Minister Modi has done little to quell the bubbling Hindu-nationalist sentiment - in fact, his government is responsible for and energized by it. The moment to strike down such heinous acts and attitudes has passed


Bhavdeep Virk is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto. Specializing in political science and new to the realm of news reporting, majority of his contributions revolve around analyzing political and social phenomena. His particular areas of interest include the intersection between communications technology and politics. You can find him on all social media @bhavsvi. 

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