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Hindus push to halt killing of cows

Hindu organisations are to travel around the country by chariot to demand a ban on the slaughter of cows.

Families share their courtyard with roaming cows in the Indian city of Jaisalmer.
Families share their courtyard with roaming cows in the Indian city of Jaisalmer.

KOLKATA // Hindu organisations have announced they will travel the country by chariot to mobilise the Hindu population to demand a ban on the slaughter of cows and designate them India's national animal. But critics say the move is more about political point-scoring ahead of national elections in May than out of genuine reverence for the animal. The groups are planning to launch a "rathyatra" campaign, which will include top Hindu leaders, on Sept 28 in the north Hindu town of Kurukshetra and travel 20,000km through all of India's Hindu-majority states over 108 days.

"For many years we have been campaigning in support of the ban [on cow slaughter] and only some state governments have cared to legislate it. This rathyatra will pass through all state capitals and major towns to increase awareness among people in support of the cow," Jagadguru Swami Raghaveshwar Bharati, the chief monk of Gokarna Pitham, Karnatak, said at a rally this month in the eastern state of Orissa.

"Our main rathyatra will address public rallies in at least 400 places across the country. Our leaders will also try to mobilise local governments in states where the ban has not yet been legislated ? Alongside our rathyatra there will be a signature campaign across the country in support of saving the cow. We expect to collect around 500 million signatures and submit an appeal for the ban to the president [of India], at the end of the rathyatra."

An aide to Mr Bharati said 15,000 smaller rathyatras, or single-car campaigns, will also start off in Kurukshetra on Sept 28 and travel through smaller towns and villages across the country. But analysts said the rathyatra is about more than the cow and is aimed at helping Hindu political parties in forthcoming elections. "A non-issue is being blown into an issue in a nationwide campaign, possibly in the political interest of the Hindu parties, targeting forthcoming national elections [in May]," said Anjan Basu, executive editor of Kolkata's Bengali daily Pratidin.

"Nine months ahead [of the rathyatra] the Hindu leaders have made the announcement of the grand anti-cow slaughter campaign. Hindu parties could gain political mileage from this announcement by the Shankaracharya [chief monk]. "Throughout the world people are eating beef. But in India these Hindu leaders are clearly asking India's Muslims to stop eating beef. A group cannot dictate on another's preference of food - it's illogical and unacceptable ? If they want, they can make an appeal to the [beef-eating] Muslims and Christians requesting them to change their food habit. But demanding a ban on it is unfair."

Mr Basu also said the announcement of the rathyatra in the communally sensitive state of Orissa was significant. "In the past in such politically motivated campaigns Hindu groups were mostly active in the northern and western Hindi belt. But now as they made this sensitive announcement in the eastern state of Orissa it is clear they are targeting to strengthen their hold outside the Hindi belt," he said.

"On the issue of conversion and slaughtering of cows, Hindu activists targeted minority Christians in weeks-long communal rioting in Orissa and this rathyatra has surely triggered panic among minorities [Christians and Muslims] there." Recounting the Hindu BJP party's 1991 rathyatra, which provoked radical Hindus to tear down a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya and triggered Hindu-Muslim riots that killed more than 3,000 people across the country, Zafarul Islam Khan, a New Delhi-based Muslim community leader, said he was concerned that the cow rathyatra could provoke similar unrest.

"For the Hindus in the Hindi belt, cow slaughter is an extremely emotive issue and this rathyatra is going to provoke the powerful majority Hindus against the poor minority community again," Mr Islam said. "They are going to start this rathyatra from Kurukshetra, a place where, according to Hindu belief, the famous war in Mahabhatrata was fought. The Hindu leaders too want to symbolise this rathyatra as a holy Hindu war."

The cow has a special role in Hindu mythology. Some trace cow worship back to the Hindu god Krishna who is said to have first appeared as a cowherd. Several other gods also lived for a time as cows, and the animal remains a powerful symbol of the Hindu religion. aziz@thenational.ae