Monday, April 24, 2017

The Not-so-Holy Buffalo

The lunatic fringe in India now has a new avatar - "Gau Rakshaks" - the self-appointed cow-protectors who patrol our roads and highways like the thugee of yore, seeking out the weak and the meek to bully, intimidate, and kill.

Yesterday night they set upon a Gujjar family in Jammu, pulled down a police picket in which they had taken shelter and beat them up for plying their trade. Last week another mob attacked a truck suspected of transporting cows to slaughterhouses, and after beating up the driver, found out that their cargo was not cows but buffaloes.  A clear case of mistaken identity but how does one explain that to a mob targeting muslims?

What explains this sudden touchiness for the well being of cows? In the North Indian Gangetic belt, life has evolved around a pastoral economy. Wealth was measured by the number of cows you owned; Gods were created from iconic cowherds and much loved stories woven around their adventures with the "Gopikas" on the banks of the Yamuna; communities and intra-caste divisions were based on "Gotras"...and yet, even when the cows were pivotal to life in ancient India, our scriptures (eg. Taitriya Brahmana) say that beef was a special treat reserved for honored guests.

The problem with inconvenient truth's is that they lack the emotional appeal, and the political power that can be squeezed out of it. Consider this screenshot of recent tweet. Cows qualify as "harmless, giving animals", but, not other farm animals!

The mobs - and their puppeteers - choose to ignore the face that times have changed. Cows are being rapidly replaced by buffaloes on Indian farms. Compared to cows, buffaloes are a lot more valuable now the north Indian farmer for the simple reason that they provide a higher RoI. The water buffaloes do not carry the cultural baggage of "holiness" associated with cows in North India. So they are treated like the usual farm animals - valuable when they are lactating or pulling carts but easily sold off to the nearest abattoir the moment they cease to be useful on the farm.

So it comes as no surprise that buffaloes provide more than 55 per cent of the milk that Indians consume. They are also the backbone of India's thriving meat export industry. One single company - The Allana Group, processes no less than 7000 buffaloes a day. Last year, we exported about 1.2 million tons of "carabeef" worth INR 23,646 Cr (USD 3.6 billion)!

Despite being one of the original homes of the water buffalo, why is it that in India this animal considered less holy, less worthy of any of the sentiments associated with the cow?

Mythology provides some pointers and clues.  One of the many villains in Indian mythology is "Mahisasura", that unseemly combination of a demon and a water-buffalo who is ultimately slain by Durga, the celebrated Mother Goddess. In many temples there is nothing irregular about offering animal sacrifice, and the buffalo tops the list of blood offerings. At the famous Kalibari temple in Kolkata I remember being taken aback by the sudden sight of severed buffalo heads in the sanctum. Ditto for temples in the Kathmandu valley and the Kamakshi temple at near Gauhati, Assam.

Perhaps the only place where I have seen buffaloes raised to an iconic status is at the Achaleshwar Mahadev Temple in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.

On the banks of the temple pond, stand three stately buffaloes, overlooking a herd of their real-life brethren cooling off in the muddy waters. As with most historical places in India, there are no plaques telling you who took the trouble of putting up the statues, and for what reason. The tourist-guides, will, as usual, tell you some cock-and-bull story that fits the contemporary bias against buffaloes.

It is a sad sign of out times that political revival of the 'Hindu Identity' is being built on regressive, shallow symbolism.

If the celebrated Polish artist, Pawel Kuczynski,  turned his attention to contemporary India, he might have replaced the cat in this painting with a cow, and added a few people (bearded, skull-capped) into the barn! :/


* ENS (2017): Where Indian Meat Exports Go --

* Damodaran, Harish (2012): Cow Belt or Buffalo Nation?
More than 55 per cent of the milk that Indians consume now flows from the udders of buffaloes, which are neither born holy nor have holiness thrust upon them.buffaloes constituted 34.6 per cent of the country's total bovine animal population (male plus female) as per the latest 2007 Livestock CensusAn average Murrah buffalo produces 2,000-odd litres over a 300-day lactation period, which is more or less what comparable elite indigenous cattle breeds such as Sahiwal yield. But buffalo milk also fetches higher price, as it contains 7-7.5 per cent fat – almost twice that from cows.In 2010-11, 7.1 lakh tonnes of buffalo meat, worth Rs. 8,413 crore, was officially shipped out from India.
* Bovidae Family -
* Devdatt Pattnak: In Defense of the Buffalo -

* Allana Group -
57% of total buffalo population of the world, India is considered as the home track of some of the finest breeds of buffaloes

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