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This is part of a series in which we share reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Shaiba Rather, Harvard College ’17

The Lotus Temple in Delhi, India

The Lotus Temple in Delhi, India

This summer, thanks to the generous grant from the South Asia Institute (SAI), I was able to pursue my thesis research at both Cambridge University and Delhi, India. My thesis project is to investigate the status of burgeoning bans on the production and consumption of beef in India. In this investigation, I would like to examine the issue contemporarily from three primary angles: campaign rhetoric, legislation, and communal violence. Specifically, I will focus on campaign rhetoric in the six months leading to the 2014 Lok Sabha General Elections, recent amendments to cow slaughter legislation in India, and notable cases of communal violence in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh and Una, Gujurat.

For example, the 2014 Lok Sabha General Election began with the lines ”Modi ko matdan, gai ko jeevadan, BJP ka sandesh, bachegi gai, bachega desh.” Only two years ago, these lines coupled with images of the Mata Gau served as some of the ruling party’s salient slogans during parliamentary elections. Some would argue that the words translated into legal ramifications. Despite spite discourse on beef legality since the Partition, Prime Minister Modi has done what no other politician before him had accomplished—banned beef production and consumption in 24 of the 29 states in India. Laws have been intensified, and in some cases, the consumption of beef went criminalized. Even communal violence that started in Western Uttar Pradesh against Muslims expanded to violence against Dalits, a low caste of Hindus often in the leather trade, in the PM’s home state of Gujurat.

Though an episodic topic of discussion since the nation’s conception in 1947, the status of beef bans is interesting today for two reasons: first, the unprecedented magnitude of bans across state lines, and second, the way in which cow slaughter has occupied central discourse in India, from heated Parliament debates to the Prime Minister begging cow vigilante groups to “shoot [him] and not [his] Dalit brothers.Why, then, are these bans taking off in India now when this debate has existed since the days of Partition? To what extent has cow vigilantism changed the debate on cow slaughter today? I will examine these central questions in my thesis research.

Shaiba pictured with the Dalai Lama as they discuss the current state of religious tolerance in India.

Shaiba pictured with the Dalai Lama as they discuss
the current state of religious tolerance in India.

SAI’s funding allowed me to split my research into two primary stages: first, in Cambridge University and then, in Delhi, India. The funds from SAI went mostly towards accommodation rentals and train transportation in India. I found that SAI in conjunction with the grant from the Harvard College Research Program were able to well accommodate my financial needs for the summer.

My time with Cambridge’s Centre for South Asian Studies allowed me to get a historical analysis of the debate in India. I used the post-partition archives, especially those of the reputed Times of India, as well as documents of the Constituent Assembly Debates. I found that the discourse in the past primarily surrounded cow protection and not beef consumption as opposed today. Rationale for the movement was presented as agro-economic, given the importance of the cow for husbandry. I learned that the cow and the pig became common ways to surely ignite communal tensions. Cow carcasses were left outside Hindu temples and pigs blood often scattered Muslim mosques. The cow was clearly an emotive issue through Indian history and following my work with Cambridge’s Center for South Asian Studies, I was extremely excited to begin my interviews in Delhi for a more contemporary perspective.

In Delhi, I interviewed 35 people, a mix of politicians, academics, and journalists to determine what kind of discourse was happening at the national level. Perspectives ranged from as far left as India’s Communist Party to the far right section of Hindutva fundamentalists. My questions originally focused on election tactics and whether or not the cow should be protected. As I proceeded with my interviews, I found that these were not the best questions to ask. The Una incident—which involved the flogging of Dalits by cow vigilantes—turned public discourse in the direction of those who take the law into their own hands. Given that Una happened only a week before my arrival in Delhi, I found that the primary debate in India was not whether or not the cow should be protected but instead how civilians were interpreting the law. Thus, my interview questions explored how certain government ideology emboldened vigilante groups and the current state to which justice delivery systems were effective in India. I found that almost all politicians recognized the importance of the cow for Indian society, but rather than present the importance in an agriculture sense they spoke in terms of respecting Hindu sentiment alone. Many politicians criticized India for not being a Constitutionally minded society and commented on how we were witnessing current lawlessness in the name of the cow because of a failure of state law and order systems and a hunt for local power. Interestingly enough, despite Indian languages having no equivalent for the word ‘secularism,’ I found that nearly all politicians had a consistent understanding of the purpose and role of secularism in the unique Indian context.

The view of India’s Parliament buildings on Independence Day

The view of India’s Parliament buildings on Independence

Though the research is specific to India, the findings will be of comparative interest to scholars studying the communal politics of food and community conflict. The research will more generally explore how government ideology and can embolden fringe elements and impact the perception of law and order in a state. In this way, the research questions are both theoretically interesting to social scientists as well as critically important to political parties who play with identity politics to mobilize the vote bank. Ultimately, this topic contributes to a larger question of how identity politics are mobilized in multicultural democracies and how legal framework of a country can be affected if those politics get out of hand.

My summer was exciting and challenging at the same time. I found that the subject of beef was very sensitive for Indians, especially in the given political climate. That being said, it was very difficult to get party members of the ruling government to speak to me. Language barriers at times were also very difficult to overcome. I encountered a number of politicians who spoke a very sanskritized, high register Hindi that was out of my heritage Urdu speaking comfort. Also very challenging was the speed at which the debate was evolving in India. From the incident in Una to the PM’s Independence Day speech, the situation on the ground required me to constantly keep up to date on current events and recent statements made by politicians. All in all, it was amazing to see Delhi in a new light, this time not just as a place of personal and cultural interest but now one of academic intrigue as well. I am very grateful to the South Asia Institute’s continued support for my project. My thesis research would not have been possible without their encouragement and financial backing.