Why Gandhi opposed legislative ban on cow slaughter

This article has been co-authored by Saswati Sarkar, Shanmukh and Dikgaj.

 |  Breaking views  |   Long-form |   08-08-2016
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The debate on cow slaughter has repeatedly emerged in the public domain over the last few years. Inevitably, every time the debate emerges, Mohandas Gandhi is selectively quoted by both the proponents and opponents of the ban on cow slaughter.

We seek to set the record straight here by reproducing a large range of quotes by Gandhi on specific topics pertaining to cow slaughter. We choose the topic of legislative prohibition on cow slaughter first.

Succinctly put, Gandhi opposed any legislative ban on cow slaughter, unless the majority of the populace (read Muslims) who would be adversely affected by such a ban consented to it.

In effect, the above means that Gandhi opposed legislative ban on cow slaughter as Muslims were unlikely to consent to a large-scale (nationwide) ban on the practice. It is worthwhile to note that Gandhi maintained his position even after independence, that is, as late as November 1947.

We would like to emphasise that the goal of this article is to faithfully represent Gandhi's views, not to endorse or oppose the views per se.

A case can be made for enacting or otherwise, a ban on cow slaughter in India, based on the historical baggage associated with cow slaughter and the freedom of choice associated with diet, respectively; neither case is being attempted here.

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First, Gandhi was quite clear that he did not want to compel the Muslims to give up cow slaughter, and he could only plead with them to do so. In his Hind Swaraj, where he expounded the Gandhian vision for the country and the people, he clearly says (the editor is Gandhi himself):

"Reader: Now I would like to know your views about cow protection. Editor: I myself respect the cow, that is, I look upon her with affectionate reverence. The cow is the protector of India because, being an agricultural country, she is dependent on the cow. The cow is a most useful animal in hundreds of ways. Our Mahomedan brethren will admit this. But, just as I respect the cow, so do I respect my fellow men. A man is just as useful as a cow no matter whether he be a Mahomedan or a Hindu. Am I, then, to fight with or kill a Mahomedan in order to save a cow? In doing so, I would become an enemy of the Mahomedan as well as of the cow. Therefore, the only method I know of protecting the cow is that I should approach my Mahomedan brother and urge him for the sake of the country to join me in protecting her. If he would not listen to me I should let the cow go for the simple reason that the matter is beyond my ability. If I were overfull of pity for the cow, I should sacrifice my life to save her but not take my brother's. This, I hold, is the law of our religion.

"When men become obstinate, it is a difficult thing. If I pull one way, my Moslem brother will pull another. If I put on superior airs, he will return the compliment. If I bow to him gently, he will do it much more so; and if he does not, I shall not be considered to have done wrong in having bowed. When the Hindus became insistent, the killing of cows increased. In my opinion, cow protection societies may be considered cow killing societies. It is a disgrace to us that we should need such societies. When we forgot how to protect cows, I suppose we needed such societies.

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"What am I to do when a blood-brother is on the point of killing a cow? Am I to kill him, or to fall down at his feet and implore him? If you admit that I should adopt the latter course, I must do the same to my Moslem brother.

gandhiji_080816045146.jpg Gandhi was quite clear that he did not want to compel the Muslims to give up cow slaughter. 

Who protects the cow from destruction by Hindus when they cruelly ill-treat her? Whoever reasons with the Hindus when they mercilessly belabour the progeny of the cow with their sticks? But this has not prevented us from remaining one nation.

"Lastly, if it be true that the Hindus believe in the doctrine of non-killing and the Mahomedans do not, what, pray, is the duty of the former? It is not written that a follower of the religion of ahimsa (non-killing) may kill a fellow man. For him the way is straight. In order to save one being, he may not kill another. He can only plead - therein lies his sole duty.

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"But does every Hindu believe in ahimsa? Going to the root of the matter, not one man really practises such a religion because we do destroy life. We are said to follow that religion because we want to obtain freedom from liability to kill any kind of life. Generally speaking, we may observe that many Hindus partake of meat and are not, therefore, followers of ahimsa. It is, therefore, preposterous to suggest that the two cannot live together amicably because the Hindus believe in ahimsa and the Mahomedans do not." pp. 271-272, [1] (11-12-1909).

In other words, Hindus could only supplicate and plead with the Muslims to stop cow slaughter, but not compel it in any way.

Given this disposition of Gandhi, he would naturally not want any laws banning cow slaughter (without the consent of the Muslims).

He clarifies it, multiple times, throughout his career. Indeed, it was not restricted to a time and place.

We chronologically document his views on the topic starting from March 1921 up to November 1947, which was the fag end of his life. To avoid misrepresentations due to selective quoting, we provide the quotes in full, but highlight the relevant parts.

1. "During my wanderings I have come across many instances of Hindus being in a hurry to protect the cow. I would respectfully remind them of the homely proverb, 'Haste is waste'. In several municipalities, Lahore for instance, they have been trying to pass a bye-law prohibiting slaughter of calves and milch cattle. The object is laudable and unexceptionable. But these things cannot be brought about by majorities. It is entirely for the Muslims to take the initiative. Hindus cannot force the pace. And Muslims cannot be expected to take legal steps till we have attained swaraj. Hindus cannot 'have the cake and eat it' too. Either we are non-co-operators or we are not. If we are, we cannot seek the assistance of the government even to protect the cow. I hope, therefore, that Hindu non-co-operators in Lahore as elsewhere will dissociate themselves entirely from any movement to secure legislative protection for the cow. We must recognise that the Muslims are everywhere doing most handsomely in the matter. They are trying their utmost to respect Hindu susceptibilities. No man could have done more than Miyan Chhotani and Mian Haji Ahmed Khatri at the time of the last Bakr-i-Id. Impatient Hindus will actually injure their own cause by forcing the pace. Either we rely upon Muslim nobility or upon the force of arms or law. Having chosen the former we dare not resort to the latter. Let it be remembered that forces are still at world to destroy the growing friendliness between Hindus and Muslims. Mischief-makers are straining every nerve to break the tie that binds the two. They are already exploiting the Lahore incident. We must not play into the hands of 'the enemy'." pp. 417, [2] (16-3-1921).

In this case, Gandhi is apparently using the excuse of the non-cooperation/Khilafat movement to pressurise Hindus not to make cow protection a condition for collaboration, but the same attitude continued throughout his life, as we shall see below.

2. "So also, you see, I dote on that little girl, Gulnar. "Why does this man dote upon her?" you may ask. "With a reason," say I. This girl when she grows will think of one Gandhi who though a sanatani Hindu that would not share meat with her, would not touch beef himself, used to let others eat it if they liked, although he himself worshipped the cow. I am trying to unite myself with the Mussalmans by this means. She thinks that her Koran makes it lawful for her to kill the cow, while my religion enjoins upon me not to kill the cow. Who am I under the circumstances to prevent her from killing the cow? I would be denying my religion if I did so. But I wish to conquer her by preaching love. I will tell her, 'The Koran does not pledge you to kill the cow or eat beef; my religion not only does not permit it, my Koran compels me to worship the cow. You may eliminate the worship of the cow but you may tolerate my abstention from beef, you may tolerate my worship of the cow. Out of friendly regard for me you can abstain from killing the cow." That is the secret of my love for the little girl, Gulnar. That is why I allow myself to be carried in the pocket of Maulana Shaukat Ali." pp. 487, [3], (26-12-1924).

3. "Once, while in Champaran, I was asked to expound my views regarding cow protection. I told my Champaran friends then that if anybody was really anxious to save the cow, he ought once for all to disabuse his mind of the notion that he had to make the Christians and Mussalmans to desist from cow killing. Unfortunately today we seem to believe that the problem of cow protection consists merely in preventing non-Hindus, especially Mussalmans from beef eating and cow killing. That seems to me to be absurd. Let no one, however, conclude from this that I am indifferent when a non-Hindu kills a cow or that I can bear the practice of cow killing. On the contrary, no one probably experiences a greater agony of the soul when a cow is killed. But what am I to do? Mussalmans claim that Islam permits them to kill the cow. To make a Mussalman, therefore, to abstain from cow killing under compulsion would amount in my opinion to converting him to Hinduism by force. Even in India under swaraj, in my opinion, it would be for a Hindu majority unwise and improper to coerce by legislation a Mussalman minority into submission to statutory prohibition of cow slaughter." pp. 20-22, [4] (28-12-1924)

Both the above quotes made after the non-cooperation movement make it clear that Gandhi puts the onus for cow protection squarely on the Hindus and that he will not be willing to bring in any pressure on the Muslims to abstain from cow slaughter.

4. "I have received letters from cow protection societies in Mysore, protesting against my letter to the Mysore Cow Protection Committee appointed by the state. My letter was in answer to a questionnaire issued by that committee.

Extracts from that letter published in the Madras Press led the cow protection societies in question to think that I was totally against legal prohibition of cow slaughter under any circumstances whatsoever. I was surprised to receive these letters, and I wondered whether, in a moment of inadvertence, I had ever said that there should never be any legislation against cow slaughter. I therefore asked for a copy of my letter from the cow protection committee, which they have kindly sent me. As the letter represents my considered opinion, and as it has been given some importance by the committee and has caused misunderstanding among the public of Mysore interested in this every important question, I reproduce the whole of it below: Neither the discussion with the members of the several cow protection societies, nor the correspondence before me warrants any alteration of the opinion expressed in this letter. The reader will observe that I have nowhere said that there should never be any legislation against cow slaughter.

"Therefore, the Mysore state will be perfectly justified, and, indeed, bound to undertake legislation prohibiting cow slaughter, if it has the consent of the intelligent majority of its Mussalman population. The members of the cow protection societies that met me assured me that the relations between Hindus and Mussalmans in Mysore were cordial, and that a majority of Mussalmans in Mysore were as much in favour of legislative prohibition as Hindus, and I was glad to be assured by them that many Europeans, especially missionaries, were in favour of such prohibition. So far, therefore, as the question of legislation in Mysore is concerned, if the statements made to me are correct, the way is clear for legislative prohibition. But let me reiterate what I have pointed out in my letter, and what I have emphasised so often in these columns, namely, that legislative prohibition is the smallest part of any programme of cow protection. The trend of the letters received by me, and the activity of most cow protection societies, however, show, that they would be satisfied with mere legal prohibition. I wish to warn all such societies against staking their all on legislation. We have already too much of it in this law-ridden country. People seem to think that when a law is passed against any evil, it will die without any further effort. There never was a grosser self-deception.

"Legislation is intended and is effective against an ignorant or a small evil-minded minority; but no legislation which is opposed by an intelligent and organised public opinion, or under cover of religion by a fanatical minority, can ever succeed. The more I study the question of cow protection, the stronger the conviction grows upon me, that protection of the cow and her progeny can be attained, only if there is continuous and sustained constructive effort along the lines suggested by me. There may be, probably there is, room for supplementing or amending the constructive programme sketched by me. But there is no room for doubting the absolute necessity of a vast constructive programme if India's cattle are to be saved from destruction. And the preservation of cattle really means also a step towards the preservation of the starving millions of India's men and women who have also been reduced to the condition of her cattle. The Indian states, undoubtedly, can in this as in many such matters give the lead to the rest of India. And among the states, probably, there is none better fitted, or better able, to make the right beginning than Mysore. It has, from all accounts received by me, a popular prince, an enlightened public opinion, no Hindu-Mussalman question, and a sympathetic Dewan. Mysore has also the Imperial Institute of Dairying and Animal Husbandry, and Mr William Smith, the Imperial Dairy Expert, is himself stationed at Bangalore. The state has, therefore, all the materials necessary for evolving a constructive policy. Add to this the fact that nature has endowed Mysore with a glorious climate. The title a Hindu king dearly cherishes is that of defender of the cow and the Brahmin. The cow means not merely the animal, the giver of milk and innumerable other things to India, but it means also the helpless, the downtrodden and the poor. Brahmin means the representative of divine knowledge and experience. But today, alas! Hindu princes are powerless, and in many cases even indifferent, if not unwilling, to ensure this full protection.

Unless the states and the people cooperate with one another to control and regulate the breeding of cattle, the production of milk supply, and the disposal of dead cattle, for the benefit of the people as a whole, the cattle of India will be bred but to die an unnatural death at the hands of the butcher, notwithstanding all the legislation that may be passed against cow slaughter. The ignorance of nature's law will be accepted as no excuse when men and women of India appear before the Throne of Judgment." pp. 177-179, [5], (7-7-1927)

In the above case, Gandhi had actually criticised the cow slaughter ban in Mysore state, by assuming that the Muslims would object. As it happened, the Muslims in Mysore, a miniscule minority, did not object to a ban on cow slaughter, forcing Gandhi to backtrack since the Muslims themselves were not objecting.

5. "Q: Isn't it proper to have laws enacted to deal with the questions of music [before mosques] and cow (slaughter)? What will be the advantages and disadvantages of such a measure?

A: This cannot be achieved by legislation. In the first instance people ought to be trained. Hindus have got to put up with cow slaughter. Killing Muslims will not stop them from slaughtering the cow. Similarly Muslims also should bear with the Hindus' music. This is one's dharma. What can the law do in this? The middle path is that they should make mutual allowances. But these, (I am afraid), would be vain efforts." p. 95, [6], (5-3-1942)

Here it may be seen that Gandhi had not changed his mind even in 1942, just prior to the Quit India Movement.

6. "The last complaint of the writer (a Punjabi Hindu refugee) is that when Pakistan has put a ban on the slaughter of pigs why cannot India prohibit cow slaughter? I am not aware about a legal ban on the slaughter of pigs in Pakistan. If the information given by this friend is correct, I am sorry about it. I know that Islam forbids the eating of pork. But even so, I do not think it is proper to stop the non-Muslims from eating pork. Has not the Qaid-e-Azam proclaimed that Pakistan is not a theocratic State and religion would not be imposed by law? But, unfortunately, it is true that this claim is not always put into practice. Would India become a theocratic State and would the principles of Hinduism be imposed on non-Hindus? I hope not. If that happens India would cease to be a land of hope and promise. Then it would not be a country to which not only all the races of Asia and Africa but the whole world would look with hope. The world does not expect from Hindustan whether as Indian Union or Pakistan meanness and fanaticism. It expects greatness, goodness and generosity from Hindustan so that the whole world can learn a lesson and find light in the midst of the prevailing darkness. I do not lag behind anyone in my devotion to and worship of the cow. But such feeling of worship and belief cannot be imposed on anybody by law. It can be created by increasing friendly relations and proper behaviour with the Muslims and all other non-Hindus. The Gujaratis and the Marwaris are supposed to be leading all others in the matter of protecting the cow. But they have forgotten the principles of Hinduism to such an extent that they would gladly impose restrictions on others while they may themselves ill-treat the cow and her progeny. Why are the cattle of India the most neglected lot in the whole world? As it is generally believed, why have these cattle become a burden on the land because of their extremely low yield of milk? As beasts of burden why are the bullocks treated so badly? The pinjarapoles of India are not such that one can be proud of. A lot of money is spent on them but the cattle are hardly tended scientifically or intelligently. These pinjarapoles cannot give a new lease of life to India's cattle. This can be done only by treating the cattle with sympathy and kindness. I claim that more than any other Hindu, I have saved a larger number of cows from the butcher's knife without the assistance of law, because of my being able to cultivate friendship with the Muslims." (Origin of applying different standards for India and Pakistan, delusions of grandeur that the whole world looks to India with hope). pp. 230-231, [7], (4-11-1947).

In the last part, we can see that even in independent India, when a Muslim-majority Pakistan had been carved out of India, and a pork ban was in place in Pakistan, Gandhi was unwilling to concede a cow slaughter ban in India.


[1] Hind Swaraj, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 11/12/1909. 

[2] Humanity vs Patriotism, Young India, 16/3/1921. 

[3] Opening speech at Belgaum Congress, 26/12/1924. 

[4] Presidential address at the Cow Protection Conference, Belgaum, 28/12/1924. Speech appeared in Young India, 29-1-1925. 

[5] Young India, 07/07/1927. 

[6] Answers to questions, 05/03/1942. 

[7] Speech at prayer meeting, New Delhi, 04/11/1947.  


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