Did British instigate Muslims on cow slaughter?

Saquib Salim

Rab ka shukr adaa kar bhaai

Jis ne humari gaay banaai

(O brother! Thank God
One who has made our cow)

Most of us, who have studied Urdu, at maktabs, madrasas, or homes, are well aware of this poem. The poem is part of a five-book Urdu learning course, written in the late 19th century by Ismail Merathi, still followed in the subcontinent. What it points towards is the immense respect towards cows from a Muslim scholar of the 19th century. His scholarly works including this poem have remained part of the curriculum in Muslim institutions across the subcontinent for more than a century now.

Apart from this poem, we find evidence where Muslim scholars, as well as leaders, like Khwaja Hasan Nizami, Maulana Madani and others had actively campaigned for banning cow slaughter, or for refraining from its slaughter, in India. Time and again Muslim scholars have argued that one should refrain from slaughtering an animal that creates a law and order problem, or hurts the sentiments of neighbours.

Religious seminaries like Darul Uloom, Deoband has appealed to this effect for more than a century now.

Still, there is this misconception among those less aware that cow sacrifice has been an issue of animosity between the Indian Muslims and Hindus. Politically motivated ideologies also furthered this lie among the Indians that both the communities were always at loggerheads over the issue. As a historian, there is no conclusive evidence to prove the same.

Indians are made to believe that the cow-protection movement was primarily targeted at Muslims, whose staple diet consisted of beef. There cannot be a worse kind of lie which has ever been traded in the name of ‘historical fact’. The cow-protection movement which took the shape of a mass mobilization during the late 19th century under Namdharis and Arya Samaj was aimed at reviving the nationalist zeal of 1857 rather than targeting Muslims. Almost, all the British officials of the time believed that the anti-Muslim language of the movement was a camoflague and the British were the real targets.

Queen Victoria, in a letter to the Viceroy Lansdowne in 1893, wrote about the cow-protection movement led by Arya Samaj, “Though the Muhammadan’s cow-killing is made the pretext for the agitation, it is, in fact, directed against us (the British), who kill far more cows for our army than the Muhammadans.”

The letter from the British monarch leaves no space for speculation. Her knowledge of the movement was based on intelligence reports and official communications.

After the failure of the revolt in 1857, Indians needed a smarter strategy to force the foreign colonial power out of the country. Beef was an emotive rallying ground and one of the immediate causes of the mutiny in the East India Company Army was a rumour regarding the beef greased cartridges. In an intelligence report on the movement prepared in 1893, D. F McCracken, General Superintendent, commented, “The primary danger is that the cow-protection question furnishes a common platform on which all Hindus of whatever sect, however much at variance on other questions, can and do unite.”

After the revolt of 1857, the number of European soldiers increased in India to counter another such challenge in future. The Indian Muslims, or other people who ate animal flesh, for centuries slaughtered different animals for food, for example; goats, camels, buffalo, sheep etc. and cow-slaughter rarely strained the Hindu Muslim relation in India. In fact, Muslim rulers like Babur and Akbar controlled the cow-slaughter as a sign of respect towards the Hindus. In 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar banned the sacrifice of cows in Delhi, before he was later imprisoned by the British. But, for European soldiers beef was part of their staple diet.

Barrister Pandit Bishan Narayan Dar, in his ‘Appeal to the English Public on behalf of the Hindus of N.W.P and Oudh’ (1893) after Hindus and Muslims clashed over cow-sacrifice wrote that the Hindu Muslim tensions are nothing but a part of divide and rule policy of the British. He pointed out that before the British rule Hindus and Muslims never fought over cow sacrifice. The British in order to fulfill their own need of beef for the army encouraged the Muslim butchers to slaughter cows. Muslims did not kill cows for their own purpose but the British were encouraging the poor Muslims to have beef.

The Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Europeans were clear about the real motives behind the cow-protection movement. Muslims, at least the well informed and religious scholars, were in support of the cow-protection movement. In 1893, the police in Delhi confiscated a nine pages booklet titled Gau Pukar Pushrawali (verses constituting an appeal of the cow) written by a Muslim Sufi, Saddi. In Gaya, Maulvi Kamaruddin Ahmed was one of the important leaders to establish a gaushala (cow asylum) in 1889.

Muslims were also found to be attending and pledging support to the movement in Varanasi during the 1880s and early 1890s. The newspapers edited by Muslims, or where Muslims were writing, like Farsi Akhbar, Anjuman-i-Punjab, Aftab-i-Punjab etc. campaigned actively in support of the movement. Farsi Akhbar opined that the animosity between Hindus and Muslims was being caused by the beef eating practice of the British. The butchers, though Indian Muslims, slaughtered cows on the orders of the British authorities, who wanted to create a rift between the two communities.

Throughout the 1880s and early 1890s, the British authorities were reporting on the problem in procuring beef for their troops at cantonments. In 1891, the police fired upon the cow-protection activists who were stopping butchers from taking cows for the slaughter at Dinapore cantonment. Similar incidents were reported from Belgaum, Jabalpur and Nagpur. Authorities knew that a united strong cow-protection the movement would stop the food supply to the British. That was why they started alluring butchers towards cow-slaughter. Moreover, they started propaganda where cow-slaughter was projected as a Muslim right; a right that was never there in the first place. Muslim rulers, mostly, refrained from killing cows. Both the communities lived harmoniously with each other showing mutual respect for religious practices. The propaganda that Hindus and Muslims lived at loggerheads for centuries created a rift that resulted in numerous communal riots and a partition of the country.

The cow-protection presented a threat so magnanimous that the Viceroy, in December 1893, commented that the movement was as threatening as ‘the mutiny of 1857’. He believed that the issue had found a popular expression for the nationalists as the movement provided them popular support. The political and religious were now mixed and carried a larger appeal. “In India the unrest and discontent which have found expression in the Congress movement”, Viceroy stated, “and in their political combinations, will, I am afraid, become infinitely more dangerous now that a common ground has been found upon which the educated Hindus and the ignorant masses can combine their force.”

The forecast made by the Viceroy proved to be correct. Mahatma Gandhi transformed the Congress into a mass movement riding over the back of a cow-protection movement. He started his political career in India from Bihar in 1917. In his speeches at Bettiah, Muzaffarpur and elsewhere, Gandhi stated that the British were killing more than 30,000 cows every day for their consumption. Muslims, according to him, occasionally ate beef while it was a staple diet for the British and India would regain its honour only by saving her cows.

No, wonder the language appealed to the masses. Muslim scholars supported Gandhi and his cow-protection movement. Even, in present times Muslim leaders are of the view that in a society where the cow is revered by millions cow sacrifice should not be done and in the states where cow-slaughter is banned Muslims do not indulge in the practice. Still, apologists of the colonial rule living in a hangover of the foreign rule still want us to believe that Muslims want to slaughter cows by disrespecting the religious feelings of their Hindu brothers, or sisters.

Saquib Salim is a Historian and a writer


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