A dark truth white as milk

milk (synonyms): exploit, bleed, drain, extort, extract, suck, wring, impoverish, pauperize, overcharge, steal, leech, threaten, elicit, empty, evince, exhaust, express, fleece, siphon, draw off, impose on, take advantage, coerce, ransom, swindle, deceive, embezzle, take to the cleaner’s, victimize.

On the auspicious occasion of India’s Independence Day, as the forces of Hindutva goad us to celebrate Mother India and Mother Cow, we must come to terms with some hard facts: that cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, camels, and other animals used for “dairy”—just like humans who can lactate—do not produce milk “naturally”. They have to be continuously and deliberately impregnated in order to keep them lactating. Despite all the might and muscle that the state and Hindutva’s paramilitary forces invest in cow protection, the cow is the subject of institutionalized violence in India.

At Navayana, we have over the years published and written several works which challenge the stereotypical image of India being a nation opposed to beef consumption. In the introduction to our 2020 publication, Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men: An Annotated Critical Selection from The Untouchables, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd wrote: ‘There is no bigger spiritual experience than equality, to experience equality is to be truly alive, and beef gives life.’ In a nation that treats people who deal with bovine carcasses, process its skin and eat its meat, as less than human, we are moved to assert the rights and practices that have been for so long been kept away from the mainstream.

Now comes Yamini Narayanan’s Mother Cow, Mother India: A Multispecies Politics of Dairy, a book that problematizes our all-too-easy answers. It primarily deals with the contradictory propaganda of the Hindu right, which commands people to lynch Muslims and Dalits even as it condemns them to starve to death. Through all this, the cow tirelessly churns the wheels of a ‘dairy nation’ governed by the ideology of Hindutva. It is often convenient to ignore the questions that don’t fit in well with our struggles. Where humans are themselves not granted humanity, who has the time to think of animals? The book alerts us to pay attention to the very word cattle, meaning property/ stock, and its doublet chattel, which relates to slavery and owning slaves as property. Often, when cruelty to animals becomes normalized, we extend such treatment to fellow humans whom religion and culture force us to regard as less than human.

Today, the Sangh has become the cow’s sole mouthpiece. In her image, their imaginations of a self-sacrificial, factionalized, and fictionalized nationalism burst to life. The Hindu Rashtra is her devoted progeny, and her loyal sons will pull out all stops to safeguard their mother’s honour.

A contradiction looms: the milk they claim is the blood of the mother they revere. With the cow objectified extensively in popular imagination, it is easy to disregard her as a legitimate subject in a landscape of multispecies politics. Yamini Narayanan, who teaches at Deakin University in Australia, exposes the brutal reality of the dairy industry that thrives on bovine slaughter. The deification of native cows sustains the hegemony of the racially pure, ‘upper caste’ Hindu Mother India. Narayanan shows us how the dichotomy between beef and milk as profane and pure has allowed the latter to be depoliticized, thus neutralizing the harms intrinsic to dairying. The fact that the heavily subsidized dairy sector requires the slaughter of cows, buffaloes and other animals used for milk production shows the hollowness of the ‘purity’ discourse that is bandied about. Gaushalas, far from being animal shelters, act as an integral part of the dairy economy. They separate the cow from her calf, and produce ‘pure’, ‘sacred’ milk for use in Hindu rituals. Narayanan exposes how separating calves from their mothers is at the heart of India’s entangled political economy and religious traditions.

Mother Cow, Mother India explores questions that have never been raised in previous political scholarship on cow protectionism. It also challenges many of us, who work on formulating liberatory futures, to think hard about how it is that we will treat creatures over whom we exercise enormous power. As Suraj Yengde puts it, ‘Mother Cow, Mother India … will push you to think of ideas that are often clouded by rampant deceptions of discourse.’ As the cow’s motherhood becomes a vital resource for the burgeoning Hindutva state, any anti-caste and anti-fascist politics in India must also contend with an anti-anthropocentric resistance.