Sachin Patil was sitting under a constellation of Hindu deities within a cow's body on the wall of his office outside Mumbai, reading a newspaper article about a vigilante who had tipped off the police about a Muslim meat-seller vending beef. The western Indian state of Maharashtra criminalized doing so earlier this year when it extended a four-decade-old ban on cow slaughter to bulls, bullocks (which are castrated), and calves.
The meat-seller, who was the first to be arrested by Mumbai police since the amendment, was declared innocent when the meat was tested and found to have originated from the water buffalo, whose slaughter remains legal. Authorities dropped the charges, which can bring a penalty of up to five years in prison, but he was not compensated for the confiscation or humiliation.
Patil, a delicate 31-year-old man with a receding hairline and a face that radiates sincerity, was pleased that the ban had reenergized the Hindu movement for cow welfare. He has spent more than half his life working for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization that is associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and which launched Prime Minister Narendra Modi's career. Patil joined the group to help preserve Hindu culture and values, including actively protecting the cow, which Hindus honor as a sacred and selfless maternal figure.
"A cow sacrifices whatever she has, from the day she is born to the day she dies," he told VICE News. "If we don't aggressively protect the Indian cow right now, soon we will have to show our children photographs and tell them, 'See, this was a cow, this is where milk used to come from, not from cardboard boxes.' "
'To think that the cow is only useful for milk is myopic. Cow dung and urine are by far the most significant component of everything she gives.'
Patil manages the Keshav Srushti Gauseva Parishad, one of roughly 2,000 cow shelters in India that are run by the RSS and its related trusts. It is a four-acre property with 220 cows, bulls, oxen, and calves, and the ban's enactment has made him busier than usual.
"When children throw their parents out of the house, they have nowhere to go but old age homes," he said. "In the same way, when cows stop being viable, they are thrown out and they have to come here. This is wrong."
A cow shelter at the Sanyas Ashram. (Photo by Mansi Choksi)
Cow slaughter is illegal in much of India; Muslims typically oversee this industry where it is allowed. The country is the world's largest exporter of beef, but the meat it exports is supposed to be entirely that of water buffalo. A cattle smuggling trade worth $600 million a year has been on the rise; cows and bulls are routinely trafficked across the border to Bangladesh, where they are sold to beef processing units, tanneries, and bone-crushing factories. This year alone, Indian border guards have arrested 400 cattle smugglers and seized 90,000 heads of cattle.
"What law has ever wiped out crime?" asked Mahendra Ambar Singh, who manages a cow shelter at the Sanyas Ashram, an organization connected to the RSS which provides accommodation to religious itinerants in western Mumbai. "Today the cow, our mother, is asking us why we don't take care of her, why we leave her to get slaughtered when she gives us all she has."
Singh's shelter — a shed erected in a parking lot — contains cows, bullocks, and calves that were rescued from slaughterhouses, bought from cash-strapped farmers, or donated by those who could no longer afford to care for them. The cows provide milk for tea served to devotees as well as urine, which is consumed by those who believe it naturally purges toxins from the body.
'Cow urine detoxifies the body and can cure serious health problems, especially diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and skin disease.'
"To think that the cow is only useful for milk is myopic," Subodh Kumar, who runs cow shelters in New Delhi and Mathura, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that is believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity (and cowherder) Krishna, told VICE News. "Cow dung and urine are by far the most significant component of everything she gives."
He pointed to a paper by an agronomist at the University of Missouri published in 1958 that discussed how cow dung and urine boosts soil fertility. The same knowledge had been recorded in the Vedas, a body of the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, in references to agavyuti, or wastelands.
"These barren wastelands had been described as war-devastated areas that can be revived only by cows," Kumar remarked. "It was known then that soil could be rejuvenated through cow waste."
At Patil's shelter, some 24 products made from cow urine, cow dung, or a combination of both are manufactured by workers who are no longer stunned by the putrid smell of waste springing from hulking steel vats. These products, many of them cosmetic, are sold cheaply across shops in the RSS's network within India and overseas.
Assorted products manufactured from cow waste. (Photo by Mansi Choksi)
The Gaumaya Face Pack helps "remove pimples and black spots." Nandini Hair Oil is an "all-season oil for healthy hair and body." Gaumaya Black Dantamanjan is tooth powder that can be applied on the "gums, teeth, and tongue using your finger or a brush if required." Nandini Snanadi Vilayan is a shampoo that reputedly makes "hair soft and glowing."
"Cow urine detoxifies the body and can cure serious health problems, especially diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and skin disease," Dr. Shruti Warang, a practitioner of traditional Hindu medicine known as Ayurveda who oversees production at the shelter, told VICE News. "The demand for these products is from everyone because they medically benefit whoever uses them, including non-Hindus."
About 40 cows lumbered around outside, occasionally slumping their heads into a ridge filled with grass. Various slogans had been painted at the site, such as, "Cow protection is protection of nation," "Donation for cow is the greatest of all donations," and "The cow is a universal mother." On one pillar, a sticker portrayed Krishna as a child reaching into a pot of butter.
Environmentalists often note that cattle cultivation is a critical source of greenhouse gas emissions, with methane 105 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Pasturing a growing population of slaughter-free cattle can also displace wildlife, air-purifying vegetation, and agricultural crops.
But Kumar argues that an economy remodeled around the cow would reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and provide renewable energy through methane-rich biogas. In invigorating the soil, he says, cow waste can support greenery and fight climate change.
Hindus must capitalize on the current momentum the cow-protection movement has gained under the political leadership of Modi, Singh said, and revitalize neglected cow shelters, which are in need of money, volunteers, and a sustainable business model. Doing so would be particularly important if other states were to ban beef like Maharashtra, as Modi's government has encouraged.
Desperation has meanwhile set in for many of Maharashtra's farmers, who have found themselves unable to sell heads of cattle that have grown old and are unable to work.
"It has become very difficult for most small farmers to maintain even one bullock, not to speak of a pair," Nilakantha Rath, an honorary fellow at the Indian School of Political Economy, recently wrote. "Keeping them will mean both their cattle's starvation and their own in the end."
Rajnikant R Shah, a dealer of surgical gloves, invested his personal savings into building a shelter to accommodate 500 cattle that were burdening farmers.
"When they give their cattle, they are literally crying," he said. "As if they are giving away their children."
His shelter on the outskirts of Mumbai is now being fitted with ceiling fans, CCTV cameras, sprinklers, and a music system that will play devotional songs to keep the cattle "in good spirits." It will become fully operational later this year.
"The non-vegetarian lobby is making a big hue and cry about the state ban on beef. It has become adverse propaganda," he said. "But we have to work and try to give as many animals as we can the right to live and die with dignity."
Follow Mansi Choksi on Twitter: @mansi_choksi