As I said in an earlier column, I am against the killing of cows as, indeed, of all animals and birds. I equally oppose cow vigilantism because of the accompanying attacks on, and killing of, those suspected of carrying beef or cattle for slaughter, and the fact that people’s eating habits, evolving over thousands of years, cannot be changed overnight. Besides, the vigilantes have done nothing about the inhuman treatment of most cows by people owning them. Cows are often ill-fed. Calves are starved because the bulk of the milk is sold or consumed by owners. Male calves are abandoned the moment their gender is detected and left to fend for themselves in a hostile world. Most of them die slowly and miserably.
Most cows are abandoned after they stop giving milk. It is easy to imagine their plight on being suddenly deprived of the food and shelter they had enjoyed till then, and left exposed to the elements and forced to fend for themselves. In urban areas, they are driven away from parks by gardeners and security guards who fear that they will eat up the grass and plants. Since there is little grass elsewhere, hunger drives them to eating plastic bags lying all over in abundance. The result is poisoning and painful, slow death. In rural areas, they are pushed out of villages and the outlying agricultural fields for the fear that they will eat up crops. In areas close to jungles, they become food for tigers and leopards.
One often hears that is difficult for dairy farmers to feed cows after they have stopped yielding milk. Fodder is expensive. They occupy space in cow sheds, which could have been provided to cows giving milk. But then even many, who can afford to maintain such cows, do not do so. They think nothing of the fact that if they have earned money by selling milk, they have a moral responsibility to look after the cow even after it has gone dry.
This responsibility is all the greater in case of those who worship the cow as holy and call her mother. As for bulls, Nandi is the deity guarding the gate to Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva, and is also his mount. It is the symbol of his power that gives life force to humanity. At the gate of the Brihadeeswara temple (part of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation world heritage site comprising all Chola temples) at Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, stands a massive statue of Nandi carved out of a single rock. Every two weeks, about 50,000 people assemble to see it ceremonially bathed.
Unfortunately, most Hindus are grossly remiss when it comes to practising their faith, which is the fundamental cause of the mal-treatment of cows and bulls. It will not be easy to change this. Meanwhile, the first priority must be providing shelter and succour to abandoned cows and bulls. Here, the Union and State Governments can do a lot by improving cow shelters and pinjrapols, many of which are known for their corruption and inefficiency. Besides, new shelters need to be established. Most of the existing ones are grossly over-crowded.
Stopping people from mal-treating and abandoning cows and bulls will be more difficult. Making examples of some culprits will help in getting the message across that such conduct will not be tolerated. Punishment by the Government, however, will by itself not be enough. A strong public opinion, translating itself into action, is needed. For that, there has to be a campaign and the formation of groups under a Government-run umbrella organisation to intervene in cases where necessary.
These groups, however, must not take the law into their own hands. Their task will be persuading people to treat cows and bulls with care and kindness. In cases of abandonment and persisting abuse, they should report the matter to the umbrella organisation which should have units in every city, district town and sub-division, where its telephone number and address should be widely publicised, so that people know where to report. Response must be swift.
To coordinate the huge amount of work on multiple fronts that all this will entail, the Union Government should set up a separate Ministry of cattle welfare without delay. It has no reason to feel defensive about the matter.