Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / Advocacy and Social Movements

Cow Vigilantes and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism


In September 2015, a mob attacked and killed a 52-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, pulling him out of his home in a village near Delhi, India, on suspicions of eating beef. Not only did Prime Minister Narendra Modi remain silent following the attack, but some politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defended the killers. A year later, when one of the accused died of a respiratory failure, he was treated as a martyr, with his coffin draped in India’s national flag.[i]

This was not the first instance in recent years of mobs in India attacking and killing Muslims on suspicions of eating or transporting beef. Cow slaughter is banned in most Indian states, and vigilante groups have recently emerged to protect the cow. The data journalism website IndiaSpend, which in 2010 started tracking hate crimes reported in the media, found the first such attacks in June 2012, when a mob went on a rampage, damaging a factory where about 25 cows’ carcasses were found and setting the houses of at least two Hindu workers on fire.[ii]

IndiaSpend has recorded 66 hate crimes, 97 percent of which were reported after the pro-Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, with the most occurring in 2017.[iii] Responding to the brutality of the killings in the name of cow protection, a concerned Supreme Court asked India’s Parliament in July 2018 to enact a separate law to punish the offenders.[iv]

A look back into history shows that a similar symbolic language of the sacred cow was used in the early part of the nationalist movement to galvanize large numbers of Hindus across class, caste, and regional divides in British India. Back then, it helped forge a common Hindu identity against a colonial power.

Today, the symbol is once again being used to unite Hindus across multiple identities. The difference is that this time it is the ruling party members, fanning and even supporting hatred against India’s Muslims, viewed as a threat and as outsiders.

History of Cow Protection and the Spread of Nationalism

Cow protection as a movement started only in the late-19th century, when India was under British colonial rule and a nationalist movement was emerging. It would prove to be a precursor to the Hindu nationalist ideology formalized through the Rashtriya Syamsevak Sangha (RSS) in 1925, the ideological parent organization of the BJP and where Prime Minister Modi received his early training.

Although ancient Indians ate beef, the cow came to be considered sacred by around 300 BC. In a society that was largely agrarian, the living, milk-producing cow was seen to be a giver of food. Many food restrictions were also caste based,[v] and the lower caste did not follow them, at times due to poverty but also due to complex religious and cultural reasons. Still, there appears to have been a general reverence for the cow that continued for centuries. Muslim conquerors who ruled India also respected these sentiments. In fact, two Mughal emperors, Babur, who founded the Mughal empire in the 16th century, and his grandson, Akbar, are said to have banned cow slaughter.[vi] Scholars have noted the presence of shelters for “old and infirm” cows even before British colonial rule.

The movement to protect the cow originated through the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. It was founded by Dayananda Saraswati, a Sanskrit scholar, who believed that to save Hinduism from Islamic and Christian influence, it needed to return to the values promoted in ancient Indian texts, the Vedas.[vii] Saraswati was opposed to the caste system and many Hindu rituals and idolatory.

In 1881, he started to call for the protection of the cow, publishing a paper that opposed the slaughter of the cow as an anti-Hindu act.[viii] Newspapers and magazines helped circulate the message,[ix] as did the saints who took it from region to region. Individuals were asked to contribute even as little as a handful of rice so that cow shelters could be set up. In that way, the common individual came to be part of the movement. In 1882, the movement received further impetus when Saraswati founded a committee for the protection of cows. Even the orthodox Hindus, whose practice he had opposed, joined in. This was the start of a new language of Hindu nationalism.

It was a highly organized movement, with Hindus across caste differences participating. Feudal lords also supported the societies. While they could not be directly involved under colonial rule, their support as landowners, commanding considerable authority, was crucial. Schoolmasters and small landholders were directly involved in organizing. As leaders of the community, they organized meetings and, with the help of printed instructions on posters, explained the need to protect the cow. People then took the rules to different localities, where they were held up as a model and could be amended as they thought fit. As historian Sandria B. Freitag explains, these meetings brought together “personal activism and the reform of personal religious practice.”[x]

The movement received a further boost in 1888, when a court in colonial India ruled that a cow was not a sacred “object” as defined in the Indian law. [xi] It ruled that Muslims were not being disrespectful toward Hindu religious sentiments if they slaughtered cows.

Riots broke out over the issue and spread across parts of British India, including as far as Rangoon, part of today’s Myanmar. Scholars point out that entire populations of villages were involved in the riots—people joined across caste and class. Bands of people roamed around the country seizing cows from butchers and herders. Chain letters were circulated to mobilize support.

In Bombay city (known now as Mumbai), 80 people were killed, including both Hindus and Muslims. Temples and mosques were damaged as both sides waged violence. The riots were worse in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where 800 people were arrested. In one particular instance in 1893, as described by Freitag, a crowd of 5,000–6,000 people marched for hours to a village on the occasion of Eid, a time when Muslims offer a sacrifice as part of their religious beliefs. The mob’s effort was to dissuade the Muslim landlord from sacrificing a cow.[xii]

The seriousness of the violence made the British lieutenant-governor of the northern state of Punjab comment in 1894: “The cow-killing question is the question of all others, which at least for the last 20 years, has been regarded by us all as the gravest danger that threatens us in India.”[xiii]

Following India’s independence from British rule, India adopted a constitution that asserted its secular status. However, cow protection remained a concern among many Hindus. It was among the most contentious issues during the framing of the constitution. Members of the Constituent Assembly, elected to write the constitution, wanted prohibition of cow slaughter to be included in the constitution’s chapter on fundamental rights.[xiv] After much debate, the issue was included in the constitution, but only as a “directive principle of state policy.” This meant that it would guide states in policy making, but it was not binding for them to do so and could not be enforced in a court.

About two years after the constitution was adopted, in late 1952, the Hindu nationalist group RSS, in partnership with its political wing, the Jana Sangh, mobilized signatures to ban cow slaughter. In Delhi, the procession of protestors is said to have stretched as far as five kilometers.[xv] The states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan were among the first to impose the bans in the 1950s,[xvi],[xvii] and today, 20 of India’s 29 states ban cow slaughter.[xviii] However, the ban means different things in different states. In 11 states and two union territories (federally administered regions), the ban is the strictest—no slaughter is allowed of cows, calves, bulls, or bullocks.[xix]

Despite this history, cow protection in independent India rarely led to such hateful killings as it has in recent years.

Cow Lynchings Today

The symbol of the sacred cow is once again being used to create a militant form of Hinduism and foment fear among minority groups. However, this time, the movement is not directed against the state—rather, it is in collusion with the state.

Emboldened vigilante groups sprung up far and wide after witnessing the government’s reaction to the September 2015 murder of Mohammad Akhlaq on suspicions of eating beef. Soon after, a 15 year old was attacked and killed on a train for the same reason. In 2017, there were about a dozen such brutal killings as these vigilante groups roamed freely and even uploaded videos of their heinous crimes on social media.

There is a reason why the symbolism of a cow is so powerful. Indeed, it has a sacred history in Hinduism, but it can very easily transcend multiple Hindu identities. As scholars have often pointed out, there is no single Hindu culture. “Hindu” is a large category with a wide set of beliefs, which are not united by a common institution, unlike the Abrahamic faiths. As David Ludden, a historian of South Asia, says, “Hindu identity is multiple, by definition, and India consists of many other religious identities as well, including those among Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Christians, and Jews.”[xx]

But the powerful symbol of the cow can become a unifying force against a perceived common enemy. In the form of a mother who provides food, the symbol can quickly invoke feelings of protection, as well as hatred against those perceived to be perpetrators of violence against it. In the hands of Hindu nationalists, it can be used as a potent symbol of threat to a Hindu nation from outsiders. This symbol can be used as an easy reminder of the oppression of colonialism and to fan deep-rooted biases with long and complex histories.[xxi] Under the Modi government, senior leaders have stoked this hatred. As IndiaSpend found, a “permissive environment for hate attacks” was “created by frequent hate speeches by senior leaders of the party.”[xxii] A BJP minister, for example, felicitated eight men convicted for a brutal lynching. In another such example, a BJP politician was reported to have released a video saying, “lynching will continue until cow slaughter is stopped.” Such support has emboldened the perpetrators.

This is not to say that all Hindus have been united in this new wave of hatred. Sections of the Indian middle class have raised their voice against such killings. In 2016, large numbers of people protested in at least 12 different cities, calling the killings “Not in My Name.”[xxiii]

Ending Cow Vigilantism

I argue that these few protests are not enough. Those targeted in this hatred are the most vulnerable.  Much of the violence, in the name of the cow, has been committed on the lower socioeconomic classes—a segment largely left out, even at a time when the middle class is reported to be growing.

The people who killed the 15 year old in 2017 initially started a quarrel over a seat on the train. But in an environment where hatred has been fomented against the Muslim minority, the quarrel quickly escalated into brutal mob violence, and the 15 year old was accused of carrying beef and ultimately killed.

It is this less-well-off section, that includes both Muslims and often lower-caste Hindus—that is also most hurt by the cow-protection policies of the Modi government. India is among the world’s largest beef exporters.[xxiv] The industry employs Muslims and poorer Hindus, among others. India is also among the top five producers of leather. The hide is used not just for shoes but also musical instruments. Following the cow-protection movement, leather has become scarce, and workers are losing their jobs.[xxv] The tradition of creating these instruments has been passed down from generation to generation—and not only by and for Muslims.

This religious hatred hurts everyone and more so the poor. I grew up in India and traveled across the country in my work as a journalist, and I know how closely different communities live. They come together not just in their living space but also through commerce. In a recent visit to the northern city of Varanasi, often seen as the holy city of Hindus, I saw how at least eight different major faiths live together in the city. Varanasi, with a strong sense of a Hindu culture, also is 30 percent Muslim, all of whom live in very densely populated areas with their Hindu neighbors. It is the Muslim weavers who make the sarees and other garments that are used to adorn the icons of the various deities.

Lives are interlinked through common cultures, commerce, friendships, and even religious spaces. Across India, Hindus and Muslims often occupy the same religious space when they go to sufi shrines. In recent times, police officers of different faiths have risked their lives to save people from the anger of mobs,[xxvi] and in one case, a Hindu policeman was killed.[xxvii] The rising hatred is, therefore, of concern to vast numbers in both communities.

Representing the nation’s large diversity, India’s Muslim population is about 172 million, by most measures the world’s second largest after Indonesia.[xxviii] Using religion for political ends will prove destabilizing not just for the region but for the world. India occupies an important geo-political space, and its stability should matter to all.

To check the spread of this communal hatred, those who have more education, more economic resources, and simply more power will need to speak up.

Recently, a well-known Indian film and stage actor, Naseeruddin Shah, spoke against the violence, saying the “poison” had spread in Indian society where the death of cows gains more attention than that of a police officer.[xxix] Shah, a Muslim who married a Hindu woman many years ago, has explained his religiosity as stemming from the diversity of the environment he grew up in. He came to have his own personal relationship with a god whom he could remember by reciting Hindu mantras, Sikh prayers, or his inner voice.[xxx] Shah called on people to be “angry and not scared” and not allow anyone to be their spokesperson on religion. Shah was verbally attacked by those sympathetic to the Hindu nationalists.

Nonetheless, those who believe in this diversity of India will need to speak up. Today’s India needs the voices of more people like Shah. It is not enough, I believe, to stage a one-time protest of Not in My Name. Perhaps there is still time to check the spread of this communal hatred. But to do that, those with the power to influence change will need to show more forcefully why they will not tolerate this hatred.



Kalpana Jain is a journalist who worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, The Times of India, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2009. She has a master in public administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a master in theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School.


Edited by Phoenix McLaughlin

Photo by Max Pixel

[i] Mohammad Ali, “Hurt to see tricolour on coffin of Akhlaq’s killer, says family,” The Hindu, 7 October 2016, last updated 1 November 2016,’s-killer-says-family/article15474492.ece.

[ii] Delna Abraham and Ojaswi Rao, “86% killed in cow-related violence since 2010 are muslim, 97% attacks after Modi govt came to power,The Hindustan Times, 16 July 2017,

[iii] “25 Cases Of Cow-Related Violence In 7 Months Of 2017, Surpassing 2016 As Worst Year,” IndiaSpend, 28 July 2017,

[iv] Dhananjay Mahapatra, “Mob lynching: ‘Draft New legislation to stop people taking law into own hands’, says SC to Parliament,” The Times of India, 24 July 2018,

[v] Sruthisagar Yamunan, “The Holy Cow and the Dalit,” The Hindu, 2 November 2015,

[vi] Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 90.

[vii] van der Veer, Religious Nationalism, 64–5.

[viii] van der Veer, Religious Nationalism, 91.

[ix] Sandria B. Freitag, “Contesting in Public,” in Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India, ed. David Ludden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 216–17.

[x] Freitag, “Contesting in Public,” 215.

[xi] Anand Shankar Singh, “Charles Crosthwaite, Congress and the Cow Protection Societies,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 495–501.

[xii] Meena Menon, “Chronicle of Communal Riots in Bombay Presidency (1893-1945),” Economic and Political Weekly 45, no. 47 (2010): 63–72.

[xiii] van der Veer, Religious Nationalism, 94.

[xiv] Gautam Bhatia, “Cow Slaughter and the Constitution.” The Hindu, 1 June 2017,

[xv] Christophe Jaffrelot, “The Statregy of Ethno-Religious Mobilisation and the Politics of Secularism,” in The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, 1925 to the 1990s: Strategies of Identity-Building, Implantation and Mobilisation (London: Hurst, 1996), 113.

[xvi] Sumantra Bose, Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 307.

[xvii] Prabhash K. Dutta. “Long before Yogi Adityanath, a Congress CM banned cow slaughter in UP against Nehru’s wishes.” India Today, 26 March 2017,

[xviii] Express News Service, “The states where cow slaughter is legal in India,” The Indian Express, 8 October 2015,

[xix] “Where in India can you get beef?” BBC, 1 April 2015,

[xx] David Ludden, ed., Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7.

[xxi] Saif Ahmad Khan, “The Ugliness behind long-standing anti-Muslim bias in India,” Asia Times, 27 December 2017,

[xxii] Harsh Mander, “New hate crime tracker in India finds victims are predominantly Muslims, perpetrators Hindus,”, 13 November 2018,

[xxiii] “Protest Diaries: Not in My Name, Break the Silence and More,” Economic & Political Weekly 52, no. 25–26 (2017).

[xxiv] Virginia Harrison, “Holy cow! India is the world’s largest beef exporter,” CNN, 5 August 2015,

[xxv] Tommy Wilkes and Mayank Bhardwaj, “Cattle slaughter crackdown ripples through India’s leather industry,” Reuters, 14 June 2017,

[xxvi] Bobins Abraham, “Brave Sikh Police Officer Saves Muslim Youth From Mob Lynching In Uttarakhand,” India Times, last updated 25 May 2018,

[xxvii] “Bulandshahr: Why a policeman was killed over ‘cow slaughter,’”  BBC, 4 December 2018,

[xxviii] “Religion Census 2011,” Census Organization of India,

[xxix] IANS, “Naseeruddin Shah on mob violence comments: Raised a concern about my nation that I love and live in,” The Economic Times, 21 December 2018,

[xxx] Natasha Badhwar, “‘This is our home; who dares to evict us from here,’” LiveMint, 12 January 2019,