Saturday 27 May 2017 News Updated at 08:05 AM IST
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Is this the beginning of the end of liberal society? - Deccan Herald
Is this the beginning of the end of liberal society?
Sanjay Srivastava, New Delhi,
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Cow-fetish, even in the so-called Indian cow-belt regions was often seen as somewhat laughable as well as the mark of a simpleton. But, sadly, history is a poor guide to what people will do in the present because the conditions of the present are very different from what happened a thousand or a hundred years ago. And it is the present and its politics of the cow that needs urgent attention. DH file photo
The history of unequivocal veneration of cows among Hindus is not, as many historians have pointed out, as old as the religion itself. This relationship has waxed and waned from the Vedic period onwards and it is, perhaps, only during the Puranic era (ranging from the early Christian period to the late-medieval era) that the cow has come to be seen as so sacred as to make beef eating a religious transgression beyond all transgressions.

Even then, it was the Brahmins, more than any other group, who were enjoined to stay away from any form of cow slaughter or beef eating. The cow as a political creature - a significant focus of the mobilisation of the Hindu community against Muslims, for example - begins to take shape in the closing decades of the 19th century.

As a young boy growing up in North India, one my most vivid memories is of a Hindi doggerel which roughly translates as 'The cow is my mother, I don’t know much else’. Cow-fetish, even in the so-called Indian cow-belt regions was often seen as somewhat laughable as well as the mark of a simpleton. But, sadly, history is a poor guide to what people will do in the present because the conditions of the present are very different from what happened a thousand or a hundred years ago. And it is the present and its politics of the cow that needs urgent attention.

It is ironic that, along with the current preoccupation with the cow, the other overriding obsession has to do with an activity that also characterised the most famous cow-herds of all. The so-called anti-Romeo squads are intended to 'protect’ women from unwanted male attention in public places. The peculiar argument made by the state itself is that as it has failed in its duty to ensure public safety, this task should be handed over to private citizens. That is to say, the distinction between state responsibility - arrived at after due deliberation - is now a matter of private initiative based on arbitrary action.

The broader implications of cow-vigilantism and the random re-shaping of public morality are two-fold. Firstly, it reduces the complexities of historically observed practice - the actual ways in which people live - to simplistic black and white terms. It simultaneously invents identity politics which may not have existed in order to utilise it for the purposes of party-politics.

Diversity of practices

This, of course, is true of all political parties. When we seek to homogenise the diversity of practices - rather think of ways in which such practices might co-exist - then we undermine the actual meaning of democracy. This relates to the necessity of multiple identities exiting in a democratic polity without causing harm to each other. Our problem has been that we have too frequently interpreted the idea of 'harm’ through the notion of 'hurt sentiments’.

In the present case, Hindu sentiments are hurt because of beef-eating, notwithstanding the fact that, in general, Indians are not particularly kind to animals, including cattle. Identity politics that is invented and utilised for narrow power-politics leads to the invention of custom-made enemies. When majority communities feel that their identities are under threat, then the idea of plurality itself is threatened.

The second aspect relates to the entirely facile manner in which the Anti-Romeo squads lead us to think about gender issues in society. Vigilantism against women’s harassment in public places is based on a number of dangerous assumptions. Firstly, it begins with assuming that the only legitimate form of coupling is that relating to married couples. Secondly, it denies that a woman in male company in a public place has a made a choice of her own.

It has little to do with preventing violence against women which is linked to broader sets of social attitudes that are nurtured within families and a variety of other institutions. Harassment of women in public places should, of course, be criminalised.

However, legal procedures cannot become individualised acts of moral policing. Such forms of gate-keeping merely reproduce archaic and arbitrary notions of what is 'proper’ and that which is 'improper’. How to deal with cows and couples in public now lie at the heart of the meaning of a civilised society itself.

(The writer is professor of sociology, India-based Director, MS Merian-R, Tagore International Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University)
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