The night we travel from Delhi by road to my ancestral home in Himachal Pradesh, where my grandmother’s funeral is to take place, there has been news of an unsettling incident. The day before, a young Muslim man was lynched to death by a group of locals, alleged to be activists of Bajrang Dal, a radical right-wing Hindu organization. The deceased had been accused of smuggling cattle, caught in Himachal en route to Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. This happened just weeks after a 50-year-old Muslim man in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, was dragged out of his home by a mob and lynched over suspicion of consuming beef (he was, in fact, eating mutton).
For quite some time now, beef politics has been intensifying its death grip on the minorities of India. The agitation was partly kindled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat and campaigning for his current office as a BJP candidate. In 2012, on the occasion of Janmashtami — the birthday of Lord Krishna — Modi took a swipe at the Indian Congress for the massive export of beef under its governance. “We not only revere Lord Krishna but also everything associated with him,” Modi wrote. “Among other reasons, his association with cows made us to worship them as our mother. In Gujarat, we have left no stone unturned to protect ‘Gau Mata’ [cow mother].” Modi’s speeches railed against cow slaughter. Following the BJP-led beef ban in Maharashtra, home to Bombay, this antiquated boycott was revived in Jammu and Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim. The restriction came at an odd time, with Bakri Eid right around the corner. A petition to the courts to stay the ban during the festival — when poor Muslims resort to sacrificing cows or buffaloes, which are less expensive than the more ceremonious mutton — was ignored. In October 2015, in Jammu, a mob set a teenaged Kashmiri Muslim truck driver on fire with a petrol bomb over suspicions of his having run over a cow.
Other skirmishes of intolerance have been surfacing across the country, stroking the saffron mane of Hindu nationalists. The tension has relayed a disturbing message: those of a different faith need to edit their cultural habits to fit the mainstream, and unbelievers should exercise self-censorship. Some ministers of the ruling party, the BJP, have often interpreted resistance to Hindu machismo as a defection to Pakistan. Since the inquisitorial faction of right-wing Hindus equates patriotism with devotion to the cow, it follows that the virtues of a good Hindu make a good Indian. This idea is as old as India herself: a decade after the country won its independence, the release of the iconic Bollywood film Mother India (1957) celebrated the trinity of nation, mother, and cow. This cultural equation was reinforced by the economy’s deep reliance on agriculture during India’s early decades. But today, when the political and federal machinery gets behind the cause with such fanatical zeal, the anachronistic adoption of archaic ordinances is motivated by little more than communal divisiveness and religious illiberalism.
My ancestral home is tucked away in the hills of Kandi, Palampur, in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh. It’s a quiet village; for the urban guest, its air offers the restorative powers of the Himalayan cedar. This is where I spent most of my summer vacations growing up. My grandmother’s passing has cast a shadow on my narrative of this other home; in weaker moments, I fear her death has affected an abrupt estrangement. Her more-than-a-century-old house stands bereft of its last link to the generation in which it was built.
On these October evenings, the draft diffuses a somber chill in the high-ceilinged, capacious halls. The newer homes in the valley, built out of lighter concrete, wear contemporary facades and are furnished with the latest amenities. My grandmother’s home is fast becoming a relic, a reminder of both the inconveniences and the bucolic majesty of bygone days. The walls are three feet thick, made of unbaked soil bricks and stone. The slanted roof is scaled with dull gray slates. Over the decades, the house has undergone a few augmentations, but none too drastic to obscure the original impression. The floors used to be earthen, the rooms cooled by a layer of cow manure — used for its disinfectant quality and the belief that it was sacred — applied once a month. The cosmetic green dye mixed with the manure adhered to my soles as I scuttled around barefoot as a child.
These quaint aspects of rural life were far removed from the Indian metropolis, rapidly modernized during the 1990s by the adoption of a free-market economy. My sister and I, the sole beneficiaries of my father’s hard-earned privilege, were born and raised in the capital city of New Delhi, embodiments of the unavoidable duality of contemporary India. I remember being mildly dismayed one summer when the floors of my grandmother’s home had magically turned to concrete, selfishly worrying that my getaway would be robbed of its old-world charm. Yet when back in the city, I never proudly claimed my rural heritage. Instead, enrolled in an elite school in Delhi, I told small lies about where I went for my summer vacations: my grandmother’s home was in Shimla, the cosmopolitan capital of Himachal, formerly the summer capital of British India — a slight, excusable distance from the latitude and longitude of Kandi.
Help has been hired to assist with the memorial services. Two women from the Gujjar clan are preparing the meals, tea, and refreshments for visitors who have come to share their condolences. The Gujjar community is traditionally tasked with purveying milk for the village; they rear cows, buffaloes, and goats, and live in the upper reaches of the hills, a one- to two-hour hike from the communities they serve. This is probably the most traditional way of selling milk door to door, but packaged dairy products are hurting their business. Their children are also moving on to jobs in the service industry — moving to the cities, which offer more financial security. The appearance of these women is quite misleading, their slender figures betraying no hint of their athletic abilities — until you see them effortlessly carrying heavy loads up the treacherous, hilly terrain. They come from a lineage of gypsies, who historically moved with their cattle in search of greener pastures.
I tell them about the Dadri incident that has spurred concern about intolerance in the country. When I ask them for their thoughts, their reaction comes swiftly: “It’s wrong!” It takes a second for me to realize they are responding to the allegation that the victim was eating beef, not the fact that he was killed for it. It is only when I ask again that they admit the mob might have gone too far. When I ask why they believe the cow is sacred, I am met with a quizzical look: it just is. After a few minutes, they provide more mundane rationales: cows give milk; their male offspring traditionally helped plow the earth for crops; their excreta — both dung and urine — purportedly have disinfectant qualities. I am informed that cattle theft is not really an issue in Himachal but that there are some “sacrilegious people” who stop caring for cows once their udders run dry. Abandoned on roads and hillsides, these cows are vulnerable to being smuggled away for other purposes, such as slaughter for food and clothing.
Himachal had always seemed to me more culturally evolved than the other states of India, as if its people emulated the serenity of the august cradle of the Himalayas. In retrospect, I chalk this view up to a romanticization of my place of origin, yet even so, the state rarely makes it into the headlines for incidents of communal strife. “We kicked them out in 1947,” one of the Gujjar women says when I ask if there is a strong Muslim community in Himachal. She then affirms the conventional narrative — that the Muslims started the riots during the partition. According to a statewide census, Himachal has the highest percentage of Hindus and one of the lowest percentage of Muslims in the country (even the population of Dalit — the untouchable caste — is very low). The peace in this valley starts to make more sense to me now: the calm derives from the region’s relative uniformity rather than from its salutary mountain air. And one need look no further north than to Jammu and Kashmir to see that peace isn’t concomitant with paradisiacal vistas. States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that host a diverse throng are ripe for demagogic exploitation by the Hindu-majority RSS, which has raised concerns about the rising population of Muslims in the country.
The 1977 film Godhuli (The Hour of the Gods) addressed the Hindu fanaticism surrounding cow worship, astutely portraying the precarious state of modern values in rural India. Adapted from a story by the legendary Indian author Premchand, the film featured actors and writers — B. V. Karanth, Girish Karnad, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah — strongly associated with the liberal guard in India at the time. The plot builds up to the gratuitous slaughter of a village cow by an American woman, who is provoked by the local cleric’s hollow accusations of her beef-consuming ways. When word of her act spreads, the villagers, armed with sticks and stones, rush to her home, their dull murderous hum likely similar to the last sound heard by those luckless citizens recently lynched for similar offenses. In the film, however, the American woman is saved by the intervention of the priest, who convinces the mob to relent. Godhuli ends with the potential for conversation between progressives and conservatives, but also with a strong message urging protection of the cow, which is celebrated in the final scene.
As scholars like Reza Aslan have shown, religious ordinances were often rooted in utilitarian principles governing the cultures in which they emerged. It has only been a few decades since India’s traditional reliance on agriculture began to wane, and the cow enjoyed unparalleled status in the former agrarian regime. Those beliefs continue to hold sway in certain parts of rural India. In ancient Indian religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana, the earth takes the form of a cow, the life-giving force. As for the evolution of the Hindu proscription on beef-eating, B. R. Ambedkar has famously suggested that there was a time when beef was considered consecrated meat reserved for venerated classes. Gradually, a greater, almost humanlike sentience has been attached to the animal. The Gujjar women tell me they treat cows as one would a family member, and have witnessed one cry when she saw her human owner in pain. In my view, it is clear that the sacrifice of any animal in the service of symbolism or as a holy offering should be phased out, but when the motivation for such a move lies in protecting the majority’s religious sentiments, the inclusivity of a modern civilization is undermined.
I must concede that I have a fondness for many aspects of Hinduism, particularly its inventive avatars of gods and goddesses, its fantastical mythology. I am predisposed to abiding by its innocuous cultural habits. My attitude toward my inherited faith for most of my life has been similar to something actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi once said of identifying as a Muslim: “I consider myself to be a cultural Muslim; it means I do everything except eat pork. Isn’t that what all Muslims do when they are not very religious? I don’t eat pork but I drink, so there’s that.” I also admire Hinduism’s polytheistic quality, which I believe shows a great potential for inclusivity. But I will not be carrying forward customary practices like Karva Chauth — even in their most token iterations, as some of my friends do — save for celebrating the festival of Diwali. Some religious tenets are just too deeply rooted in the strictures of a regressive past, and these ossified ornaments of faith must be rejected if one is to live in the modern, cosmopolitan world.
Around 1990, during a trip to the holy city of Haridwar, my grandmother bought the religious accoutrements for her funeral, which she stashed away in a small trunk. The bright red chunni she chose — the play of sunlight animating a fluid, flickering constellation of stars along the golden zari embroidered in its fabric — shrouds her lifeless frame now, as she is being taken away from the house I had always known with her in it. After the cremation, I join my parents for the overnight journey to the last stop, Haridwar, where my grandmother’s ashes will flow with the Ganges. Our driver is a self-professed scholar of Hindu mythology, and during the journey he regales us with parables culled from the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, and Mahabharata. Having thus secured a learned Brahmin from Mathura, the holy city of Lord Krishna’s birth, to accompany us on our sojourn, my father appreciates the invisible hand of providence.
Shortly after midnight, our driver halts at a rest stop, recommending we catch a couple of hours of sleep in the car so we may pass through Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh — site of recent acts of violence perpetrated by cow vigilantes — at a safer hour. The next morning, when we stop for tea and breakfast, he opines: “These Muslims have been creating a nuisance, and the other side [the right-wing radicals] is also up to no good.” The river Ganga, which slaloms through the holy cities of Varanasi and Haridwar, glistens a dull viridian in the sunlight. (Cleaning up “Maa” [mother] Ganga was another highlight of the Hindu symbolism animating Modi’s campaign.)
In Haridwar, a moving theater of street hawkers lines the pathway leading to the main place of holy ceremonies. They are selling peculiar fare: small balls of dough to feed the fish in the river and chillams (hash pipes) carved out of wood and stone. A stray puppy nervously hovers around the tiny heap of dough balls a lady is kneading into shape with her nimble fingers. “I’ll kick you and throw you into the Ganga,” she snaps at the animal, giving it a sharp shove of her hand. A muddle of boxy concrete compartments walls the periphery of the main area by the waterfront, accented by tall temple domes and an arching clock tower. Within this muddle, narrow alleyways and stairwells lead to various places of holy commerce, the crevices soiled with grime, evocative of the organized chaos of a busy marketplace in Old Delhi.
We enter the offices of the pandit, who keeps a ledger of all the recorded deaths in my father’s family tree. The search for the right ledger takes a while. Once the pandit locates a distant cousin of my father’s, the tracing back to my grandfather is swift. My father recommends switching to computers, but I silently admire the quaintness of this tome, with its yellowing scroll-like pages that document our lineage in varying penmanship, lending sentient veracity to these expired lives. The priest adds my grandmother’s name to the list in long, stilted letters. My father then accedes to the ceremonial tonsuring, his greatly altered appearance underlining the sense of unfamiliarity — the unraveling of known ties — that has been gnawing at me throughout this journey.
As my father takes the holy dip in the river and prepares to immerse my grandmother’s ashes, a protégé of the Hindu cleric recites verses and directs him through the motions. Somewhere in the middle of the invocations there is a pause and talk of money — how much will my father pay for the services? A flicker of disconcertion crosses my father’s face; he urges the man to save such talk for later and proceed with the ceremony. The rites are concluded by pouring libations of milk into the river, in the direction of the sun. On last glimpse, I spot some residual chips of bone — resembling shards of broken porcelain — clustered by the edge of a shallow step in the river, where the water is relatively still. The atmosphere is crisp and bustling, the river’s forceful gush further up, where the water runs deep, giving an illusory motion to this busy thoroughfare between life and death.
The drive back home is slightly less trying. Googling the news on my phone, I read that the Kashmiri Muslim truck driver has succumbed to his burn injuries in a hospital in Delhi. Almost home now, we cross the largest public abattoir in Ghazipur, at the border of Delhi, under a sky swarmed with birds of prey. It’s been a beastly few days.
Neha Sharma is a writer and cultural critic who divides her time between New Delhi, India and New York.