Mother Cow, Mother India
A Multispecies Politics of Dairy in India
Yamini Narayanan


Mother Cow, Mother India: A Multispecies Politics of Dairy in India


THE DYING, NEWBORN Holstein bull-calf lay on his side, small head extended upward on the hot sands of the Jaipur live “cattle” market. Saliva and froth dribbled out of his mouth as he panted slowly and feebly. He was emaciated, skeletal, barely holding on to his life by a thread. His black and white soft skin, exposed to the harsh Rajasthani sun, was surprisingly clean, though covered thickly with flies who buzzed in droves around his mouth and mucous-laden eyes, which were cloudy and dull, staring unseeing into the distance.

Thick rows of buffaloes, cows, and their infants were tied close together in pairs near the trucks or in groups, their faces tightly harnessed together down to a low stake on the ground. These animals could scarcely raise their heads or shift even a couple of steps to the side, remaining that way for hours until sold and loaded onto cramped trucks. It looked chaotic, hot, dusty. However, as I was to learn, an organized method of buying and selling these animals was in place. There was already a ring of vehicles around the entire periphery of the market, mainly large Ashok Leyland trucks and smaller Tata Tempos, standing empty, or in the process of offloading animals. More trucks continued to drive in, every inch of space packed with animals. At the gate, there was a small shack where market managers and a veterinarian sat at a table, stamping “fit-for-transport” certificates, without which it was illegal to transport live animals. Throngs of middlemen stood nearby, bargaining on behalf of dairy farmers, butchers, and transporters, negotiating the price for these certificates to be illegally stamped. Past these clusters of chained mothers and calves, the animal market broke into open space.

Next to the dying calf, a female black and white cow lay in the middle of the exposed space, stretched out with her legs extended and neck arched, eyes rolling right to the back of her head, exposing only the whites. Her swollen udders hung heavily onto the scorching sands, which were steaming hot even through my sandals. Foam frothed from her mouth, and her entire body shook with her labored breathing.

Manil, a Jaipuri animal activist, leaned over quietly to me. “Mother and son, no doubt,” he whispered. “She must have given birth only one day or even only a few hours ago. They were transported in that condition, neither could withstand it.”

I bent down and softly stroked the tiny calf’s forehead. He barely registered my touch, already halfway across into another world. “He is going to die,” I choked to Manil, barely able to get the words out. Do not cry! I thought furiously to myself. It was the first instruction every animal activist across India gave me. Do not cry, do not shout, do not show any emotion in these places. Do not out yourself. A series of muffled grunts made me look up and I saw a small, struggling calf at the edge of a cluster of cows, a few meters from me. A skinny, spindly female calf, her ribcage sharply visible, and barely bigger than the dogs on the streets outside the cattle mandi (market), pulled with force on the one foot of rope tethered around her neck to the fender of a Tata Tempo. She strained between her mother’s front legs toward the heavy udder at the back, just out of reach. The desperation in that tense, hungry little body was palpable.

The “cattle” market continued to swirl and heave at a careful distance from the dying cow and her baby as they lay exposed under the blazing desert sun with no shelter, no water, no mercy. No veterinary care was administered to the mother and infant; the vet’s role here—as in any space of animal production—was to keep the economics of animal commodification, in this case, the buying and selling of these bovine bodies, moving as efficiently as possible.

Farmers, butchers, and middlemen hovered around as we asked to whom the cow and calf belonged; no one answered, or they pretended they did not know. The mother and her newborn would lie there until death came, hours or even a day or so later. If they did not die by the end of the market day, they would be loaded onto the trucks and slaughtered at one of the thousands of illegal abattoirs in Jaipur and the surrounding regions. Otherwise, tanners and butchers would come to take away the bodies of the mother and son, too sick, weak, and broken to cope with the abject and brutal realities of being commodified for the dairy industry, and rejected as “discards.”


I was astounded, in 2010, when an Indian colleague mentioned in passing at a conference at Stanford University on religion and nature that he did not consume dairy “because of the way cows are treated in India.” We were in a group outside a lecture hall; I was close enough to catch the end of his sentence, and if I had so chosen, to turn around and ask, “What?” He was a brilliant mathematician; his work mapped onto naturecultures in ways I could not, at the time, fully understand. He certainly did not research animals; I knew no one at the time who did, and I could not have remotely foreseen that (other) animals could be, and in fact, already were, increasingly prominent subjects of political discourse and scholarship. It was the first time that I had heard such a notion explicitly stated. Did I intuit that if I dared to ask, behind that question lay a realization of violence that I would have scarcely known how to comprehend at the time? My question unasked, I pushed back into the theater with the rest of the group. It would be a few years before the truth of his words would confront me viscerally.

However, his words, stated so simply as fact, and my disbelief remained with me. What do you mean, the way cows are treated in India? Aren’t they worshipped and treated as gods? As images of violence, abjection, and mistreatment witnessed routinely through the years flitted hazily through my head, this internal conversation continued to reverberate in a circular way . . . and anyway, what does that have to do with not eating butter in America? Surely American cows are treated well? Unbeknownst to me, the seeds of what would become this book had been quietly planted.

On the whole, I did not spend too much thinking about the lived experiences of other animals, even as they were so palpably part of multispecies environments and lives in India. Was it the very ubiquitousness of their presence that rendered them unseeable? I certainly could not recall any instance when other animals were introduced into our social, political, or religious imagination as moral, or even sacred beings, whose wellbeing was our ethical responsibility. There were still moments, however, when animals themselves cut into my psyche, making me aware of their suffering. In the last few years, particularly since 2014, against increasingly shrill political and populist discourses on cow protection in India, hidden memories of the abuse of cows started to surface frequently in my mind. Significantly, as I would come to realize later, my childhood memories of urban India failed to include buffaloes, already and always erased from public recognition and concern.

As a child in Chennai, I vividly recall a young native cow hit hard by a car or a truck, downed and bleeding profusely in the middle of Mount Road, the city’s largest and busiest thoroughfare. She arched her neck back, blood drenching her body—the bright red a stunning contrast with her white skin—as it flowed down her distinctive hump. She had been hit perhaps only minutes before. Vehicles and pedestrians sped past without slowing. Perhaps several hours or even days later, when the cow was dead, the Chennai Municipal Corporation would come to haul her corpse away. Another time, on a scorching summer day in Delhi, I remember a pregnant cow desperately licking drops of water from the bonnet of a freshly washed parked car.

I recall, when I was engaged in field research on an entirely different area of study, passing an urban gaushala in Jaipur, recoiling, and walking away in disgust from the stench of ammonia that emanated from the dung-covered, urine-puddled cement structure. Gaushalas are widely understood as shelters for old, sick, and retired cows and bulls, based on the Hindu ethic of reverencing cows as sacred. They are different, however, from other farmed animal sanctuaries in that they are also involved in dairy farming. As I passed that gaushala on that day, not without shame, I found that at least part of my contempt was directed at the single thin white cow, a mixed crossbreed, who was chained there, streaked with her own feces and mud.

In recent years, the idea that cows are sacred to Hindus and therefore deserving of special protection is so deeply volatile and contested in intra-humanist identity politics that even the irony of such a debate is lost. Cows can be witnessed daily, foraging in the decomposing stench of the neighborhood trash, ingesting plastic, glass, nails, and even toxic hospital waste.1 Despite their hypervisibility in Indian landscapes, it is rarely understood that these individuals are intricately enmeshed with India’s milk industry—and even rarer still, worldwide, to consider the extractive violence of dairying itself, and its direct connection to slaughter. Humans tend to regard milk—the breastmilk intended for the newborns of other species—as much our birthright as water. The mythologies we choose to cultivate in different places and believe thus become even more powerful than the palpable realities that we may directly witness. So it is that our gaze can glaze over at the arthritic, hungry, abandoned “dairy” cow limping painfully on the hard bitumen of India’s thickly polluted cities, until she blurs into an abstraction to resurface in India’s national imagination as “our” revered (lactating) mother. Conspicuously, buffaloes are mostly missing from political outrage against cow slaughter even though buffalo milk is over-represented in Indian dairying, the largest in the world. Buffaloes do not even feature as an abstraction; conveniently, they can be legally taken to the abattoir when discarded by the dairy industry.

In the main, the notion that cows in India could be mistreated at all usually provokes stunned disbelief from Indians and non-Indians alike. And, indeed, that was precisely my response when confronted with my Indian colleague’s assertion to the contrary. In the Hindu-majority country, cows are mothers, cows are gods. Cows are so holy that their slaughter attracts criminal penalties in most Indian states, a remarkable legislative protection for a farmed animal enmeshed in any production. In some Indian states, the sale, consumption, and even possession of beef—a product that can be (more) obviously linked to the slaughter of the cow—can attract higher penalties than the trade in some narcotics. The lynching, rape, and killing of vulnerable humans in the name of cow protection cements the perception that cows in India have rights and security unparalleled for species otherwise designated “farm,” “food,” or “dairy” animals, and indeed, for some humans. The idea of protecting, and even reverencing the “sacred” cow makes it possible to be convinced of a scenario in which cows in India enjoy freedoms and even lifestyles unimaginable elsewhere. In India, above any country on the planet, cows are treated well. Or so the narrative goes.

Indeed, in recent years, the rhetoric of cow protection has provided almost theatrical landscapes for political violence against Muslims and Dalits, accused of slaughtering cows by Hindutva nationalists. Hindutva is a highly pervasive and influential form of Hindu nationalism that political economist Prabhat Patnaik describes as “almost fascist in the classical sense.”2 Those perceived to be involved in cow slaughter, or the consumption of beef, are now frequently subjects of this extremist violence.

In one case in January 2016, a Muslim couple, Mohammed Hussain and his wife Naseema Bano, were attacked by seven gaurakshaks (or self-styled “cow protectors,” also commonly referred to as cow vigilantes) from the Gauraksha Samiti, a local right-wing and Hindu nationalist cow protection organization, at the Khirkiya station in central Madhya Pradesh. The men boarded the train and insisted on searching through the bags of passengers for beef. Hussain was beaten up when he abused the vigilantes for pushing his wife around roughly. Eventually a constable came to their rescue. Laboratory tests later revealed that the meat was buffalo flesh.3

Subsequently, in the same year, four Dalit youths were severely beaten in Una in Gujarat state by vigilantes when they were “caught” skinning a dead cow. Dalits, formerly of the “untouchable” caste, continue to be one of the most severely marginalized and vulnerable human communities in contemporary India. A significant feature of Dalit labor is to remove cow carcasses from public spaces. A video of the assault was taken by the gaurakshaks and uploaded on Facebook, “to showcase their ‘bravery’ and to serve as a warning to others who do not treat their holy cow with due reverence.”4 Ironically, the video was circulated widely by the Dalits themselves on social media at a time when mainstream media coverage was negligible, leading to mass fury against the cow protectors, and widespread outrage from the Dalit community throughout India. Protestors marched through the city of Ahmedabad, shouting slogans and armed with sticks to intimidate.5 They dumped whole cow corpses outside the collector’s office at Surendra Nagar, while shouting, “Tumhari mata hai, tum sambhalo” (your mother, you take care of her).6

Such “disciplining” by cow vigilantes is hardly limited to extreme beatings. In 2015, the problem of cow vigilantism exploded into a major issue of extreme human rights violations when Mohammed Akhlaq was killed in Dadri district in Uttar Pradesh state by a lynch mob on suspicion of slaughtering a calf for beef. In 2016, a group of cow vigilantes thrashed and killed Mohammed Mazlum Ansari, a thirty-five-year-old man, and Imteyaz Khan who was only twelve years old, accusing them of selling bulls for slaughter.7 Their bodies were then hung from a tree by the fanatics as a warning. In the same year, Hafiz Junaid, a sixteen-year-old Muslim boy, was murdered on a train in Haryana state when a mob started to taunt him and his friend, claiming that their bags contained beef. When they resisted, a large crowd attacked them. In 2017, Pehlu Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer in Alwar, Rajasthan, was killed by a lynch mob on suspicion of smuggling cows for butchery. In 2019, the Rajasthan High Court posthumously acquitted him of the charges, ruling that Khan was transporting the animals for dairying, not slaughter.8

Nor is this violence in the name of cow protection restricted to men of marginalized communities. In 2016, a Muslim woman and her fourteen-year-old cousin were accused of eating beef, and they alleged that they were gang-raped by a group of Hindu cow protectors for their “crime.”9 Two other Muslim women were severely beaten on the Mandsaur railway station platform in Madhya Pradesh when thirty kilos of beef were discovered in their bags. The women claimed that the assailants were from the Hindu nationalist Bajrang Dal party. Subsequently, “a state BJP [the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] leader had admitted that the Bajrang Dal members were indeed present on the platform, since they ‘helped’ the police with such incidents,” though he denied their involvement with the beatings, and blamed the public.10 The Home Minister Bhupinder Singh condemned the attacks, but dismissed them as “minimal.”11 He said, “The beating was minimal. The women, with whom these incidents occurred, have also accepted it. The mistake was of the women’s [sic].” Mobile phone videos, however, clearly show the women being slapped, punched, cornered, and kicked.12

In early 2019, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on the steep rise in hate crimes and gross human rights infringement since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.13 The report states, “there was a nearly 500 percent increase in the use of hateful and divisive language by elected leaders—90 percent of it by BJP leaders—between 2014 and 2018, as compared to the five years before the BJP was in power.”14 Such violence-inciting speeches are delivered overwhelmingly in the name of cow protection. In 2017, Raman Singh, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh state, declared, “We will hang those who kill cows.”15 Vikram Saini, a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from the BJP from Uttar Pradesh state threatened, “I had promised that I will break the hands and legs of those who do not consider cows their mother and kill them.”16 Another BJP MLA from Rajasthan promised, “I will say it straight out, if you smuggle and slaughter cows, then you will be killed. The cow is our mother.”17

Underscoring all of this violence in the name of protecting cows is one specific racist, casteist, and sectarian obsession: that “Hindustan is for Hindus.”18 The bovine body represents Mother Cow as Mother India—implicitly a racially pure, “upper-caste” Hindu Mother India.19 The sentient, living (dairy) cow is a living embodiment of Hindustan, the “land of Hindus.” Allowing the cow to be slaughtered amounts, in effect, to sending the Hindu cow-mother-nation herself to the abattoir.

The realities of human rights violations, sectarianism, and casteism in the name of cow protection, and the rewriting of Hindu history by its extremists to advance the narrative of a cow-revering, cow-protecting Hindu civilization has been analyzed extensively. The most popular and controversial of these works, historian D. N. Jha’s Myth of the Holy Cow, uses archaeological evidence to demonstrate that the Vedic Brahmins consumed beef, offered cow sacrifices to the gods, and beef was a ritual commodity. The politicization of cows as sacred, and beef as profane, is a modern narrative born of a specific “upper-caste” Hindu Renaissance during the British rule of India.

In Buffalo Nationalism, Dalit activist and scholar Kancha Iliah also traces how the sacralization of the cow became political, particularly over the colonial era. Simultaneously, the buffalo became invisibilized in “Hindu literature, Hindu tradition, Hindu culture,”20 even though buffalo milk historically and contemporaneously constitutes the greater part of Indian dairying, and buffaloes are regarded as sacred by many agrarian castes like the Yadavs.21 Many key Hindu scriptures reference the buffalo in reverential terms too; in the Vishnu Puranas, Surabhi, the cow-goddess “was the mother of cows and buffaloes.”22 Some states also conditionally protect buffaloes from slaughter. Nonetheless, caste politics—both Brahminical and Dalit—rely on the differentiation of the cow and the buffalo, including their color, to realize the politics of humanist differentiation and exclusion. Viewing the cow and buffalo through the “unquestioned binary of sacred and profane, spiritual and economic animals” is an ongoing legacy of “hegemonic Brahman and Brahman-inflected scholarly writings [that] have divided the bovine world in precisely this way.”23 In a similar way, Iliah too contrasts the exaltation of lighter-skinned Brahmins and cows, with the simultaneous devaluation of darker-skinned Dalits and buffaloes, and asks, “Is it not that it is a black animal indigenous to this land and thus repugnant to the foreign invaders, and has been rewarded for its patient service by being regarded as the symbol of all evil?”24 Iliah notes that the “racist mind has been extended even to the animal world.”25 However, in this foundational opus on racism and animals in India, Iliah does not consider what the extension of such racism to the animals might also mean for the animals themselves.

Studies on the hyper-politicization of beef in India also miss reflecting on the strategically de-politicized and de-racialized nature of its milk production and consumption, warranting the need for a “milk politics.” Indian dairying comprises a racially and religiously segmented production supply chain, which weaves through an intricately interwoven informal and formal political economy. It is precisely this segmented supply chain that makes the impossible possible in India, that is the enablement of the idea of a supposed “no-slaughter” milk economy, through circulation modes that selectively visibilize, and then racialize the slaughter-end of dairy production. In his book Every Twelve Seconds on the politics of concealment in industrial slaughter, Timothy Pachirat explains that, at their core, ideas of human civilization are fundamentally concerned with the concealment of violence, not its eradication. Pachirat argues that:

power operates through the creation of distance and concealment and that our understandings of “progress” and “civilization” are inseparable from, and perhaps even synonymous with, the concealment (but not elimination) [emphasis added] of what is increasingly rendered physically and morally repugnant. Its alternative counters that power operates by collapsing distance, by making visible what is concealed.26

In India, the ideas of civilizational progress of both the secular state and Hindu political narratives are linked to dairy production. Dairy occupies a vital status in the religious imagination of Hinduism, as well as other Indic religions like Jainism, where cow milk is treated as a sacred commodity. As such, a focus on unveiling the hidden weight of dairying for the animals, and the gendered and reproductive violence involved in the production of what Carol Adams calls “feminized protein,”27 is highly overdue. In India, the politicization of “cow politics” as a two-dimensional issue, in its simplest form as Hindutva versus secular politics, has allowed milk to be depoliticized as a product that contributes to violence to animals, a gendered, racist, and anthropocentric neutralization of harms intrinsic in dairying. Politicizing milk—in contrast to beef—forces us to consider the living lactating animal’s vulnerability as a “dairy resource,” as well as those of racialized humans entrapped in specific segments of Indian milk production.

In India, racism operates as sectarianism or communalism, and indeed, casteism. Zaheer Barber argues that religion is inadequate to explain the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims; rather, in India, religious identities are mobilized to construct “racialized identities of ‘imagined communities.’28 The Hindu state specifically relies upon the continuous creation of internal “enemies,” produced both through the “‘racialization’ of Muslims and ‘ethnicization’ of Dalits.”29 In the former case, the ostensible “differences” between Muslims and Hindus are amplified; in the latter, “the radical difference of Dalits” from Hindu society is repressed “to incorporate them within a Hindu multi-caste and patriarchal family.”30 In recent decades, there are growing concerns that these types of racial or casteist oppressions may be more accurately described as fascism.31 Such racial, casteist, or, indeed, fascist violence intricately entangles and weaponizes not only vulnerable humans, but also farmed animals who are already enmeshed in the violence of animal agriculture.

As a “farm” animal who is bred in the millions annually in India and worldwide, the extraordinary distinction bestowed on the cow, in contrast to other mundane “food” animals like chickens, buffalo, goat, sheep, pigs, ducks, fish, among others, warrants deeper scrutiny. In the main, political scholarship and analyses on cow protectionism in India have tended to regard cows exclusively as instruments of communal, casteist, and fascist violence—and ignore not only the buffaloes but also other animals enmeshed in dairying such as sheep, goats, and camels. The realities of these living, sentient animals, entrapped both as “production” resources, and as weapons of religious ultranationalism and fascism, have almost never been a focus of what has been hitherto a manifestly humanist political discourse. It would seem as though animals, other than human beings, have no stake in their own lives, and “cow politics” can be debated only in terms of bovine bodies as landscapes for intra-humanist oppressions.

Decades of rich feminist, sociological, and political scholarship point out that in being used as tools of fundamentalist, racial, patriarchal, or fascist violence, women, for instance, are also subjects of such violence.32 The bovine, of course, is not merely political capital. In India, “livestock,” including but not limited to “dairy” animals, contribute to about a quarter of the total earnings from “agriculture and allied activities.”33 Dairying is one of the largest rural employers in the country. What of these nonhuman animal subjects who are mobilized as symbolic, cultural, and productive capital in oppressive human identity politics and development discourses? What then of the sacred cow and the despicable buffalo themselves?

It may seem grossly incongruous—even offensive—to focus on cows and buffaloes when horrific violence against racialized and casteized humans is being perpetrated in the name of protecting cows. However, bringing the bovines into focus as subjects in the discourse on their “protection” can—and, this book argues, must—change the entire political discourse on humanist identity politics of power, powerlessness, and privilege. Undertaking the “dangerous work”34 of subjectifying animal bodies, and considering the “animal” in political studies, and in turn, the “political” in animal studies,35 can richly deepen our understanding of how power operates in complex configurations of anthropocentrism, sectarianism, casteism, and patriarchy that constitute oppressive institutions—whether fascist movements or animal agriculture—in eerily similar, and mutually reinforcing, ways. It offers a basis for rethinking Indian politics as a multispecies terrain, needing to intersect with critical animal studies to be understood in its entirety. When viewed with animals’ interests in mind, the notion of “protecting” the cows or other animals begs a greater clarification of what, exactly, their “vulnerabilities”36 are at human hands, against which they require protection.

Without diminishing the violence committed against racialized and casteized humans in what has been rendered an ethnonationalist, even fascist project of cow protection, Mother Cow, Mother India, then, calibrates our attention on the cows and buffaloes. It frames the animals as key political subjects in cow protectionism discourses, rather than treating them, hitherto, as merely objects of political analysis. It emphasizes human–animal hierarchies and relations—in this case, a spectrum of human–bovine relations—as also political. Specifically, this book’s central claim is that the framing of the cow as “mother” is one of human domination, wherein the cow is simultaneously commodified for dairy production, and weaponized to create a Hindu state.

Mother Cow, Mother India shows that species is crucial for the fullest understanding of how fascism, religious extremism, and nationalism operate. When the species in question is a farmed animal, fascism and nationalism become interlocked with the institution of animal agriculture, in this case, dairying. The book demonstrates that the hyper-politicization of beef in cow protection discourses and practices obscures that the heavily state-subsidized dairy sector, India’s primary bovine industry, itself requires the slaughter of cows, buffaloes, sheep and other animals used for milk production. To acknowledge the role of milk in cow slaughter, however, places the Indian state in a fraught position. Cow milk, in addition to being widely consumed as a mundane dietary product, is revered by Hindus as sacred. As a vector for the indistinguishably interconnected religiopolitical and commercial value of bovine bodies, the cow’s motherhood becomes a vital resource for both the secular Indian and aspiring Hindutva state. The fullest extent of anti-casteist and anti-fascist politics in India, must then also compose an anti-anthropocentric anti-Hindutva resistance.

Mother Cow, Mother India, then, undertakes a larger task of also bringing into focus humans’ greater and collective accountability, not only as it pertains to violence based on race, caste, or ethnicity—but also as it is enacted based on species membership. This book explores questions that have almost never been raised in previous political scholarship on cow protectionism in India: What does it mean for an animal to be used in dairy production? What does it mean for a cow to simultaneously have a sacred status as “mother” and a mundane status as a “dairy” cow? How does the cow’s exalted status affect the buffalo—and, indeed, the cow? What and who does cow protectionism “protect”—and what and who does it render vulnerable? The book introduces anthropocentrism to the landscape of political thought on cow protection, and asks: how will attention to anthropocentrism illuminate new ways in which casteism, communalism, and fascism operate in India and elsewhere? In turn, how do oppressive humanist practices that negate the nonhuman animal, directly sustain and reinforce these structures and conditions of violence against marginalized humans, and animals?

Anthropocentrism is “a form of human centredness that places humans not only at the center of everything but also makes ‘us’ the most important measure of all things.”37 However, the “us” by no means even includes all humans. Rather, it represents a membership of racially elite, gendered humans, such as white, male, or Brahmin, among others, and excluding other racialized, casteized, and gendered humans, and certainly nonhuman animals, as also worthy of moral and political consideration. As philosopher and ethicist Matthew Calarco reminds us, it is precisely via anthropocentrism that the “benefits” of human exceptionalism itself are unevenly distributed—across race, gender, ability, and, indeed, species:

anthropocentrism refers to a set of ideas, structures, and practices aimed at establishing and reproducing the privileged status of those who are deemed to be fully and quintessentially human. . . . What is included and excluded under the rubric of the human shifts over time, and group belonging expands and contracts. . . . 38

A critique of anthropocentrism allows us to more fully understand how the disruption of human rights that is embedded in cow protectionism, may not in fact, be different from the damage of fundamental interests of other animal beings. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”39 In Pathologies of Power, medical anthropologist Paul Farmer writes that “the most basic right—the right to survive—is trampled in an age of great affluence.”40 The notion of human rights allows us to reflect on the experience of suffering, and the power (and powerlessness) that causes such suffering, beyond “a small slice of civil and political issues.”41 It unveils the historical hierarchies between humans that endure into the present that make it, as Farmer argues, one of the most critical issues of contemporary times.

Advancing the scope of the fundamental prerogatives of human beings through an acknowledgment of “sentient rights,” political theorist Alasdair Cochrane argues that “human rights are not qualitatively distinct from the basic entitlements of other sentient creatures.”42 Anthropocentrism undermines, in fact, the “the fundamental mission of the human rights imagination [of] checking the excesses of power on vulnerable life.”43 Rather than resulting in the dissolution of any human rights, a shared resistance between subaltern humans and animals might strengthen interspecific alliances that are necessary to undo the violence of anthropocentrism itself.44

Indeed, if non-recognition of the “unthinkable (unspeakable)” identities—race, gender, nationality, religion, class, and ability45—is foundational to their oppression, then species perhaps epitomizes the unthinkable in identity politics. Humanist discourse and language is complicit in normalizing human exceptionalism, and sanitizing the commodification and production processes involving farmed animals. Female human mammals have “nipples” and “breasts,” as distinguished from females of other species in forced reproductive labor who have “teats” and “udders.” Other sentient animal subjects are neatly displaced as objects and human property by referencing these individuals as “it.” The flesh of cows and buffaloes becomes packaged as “beef,” their infants are sold as “veal,” and their lactate is “dairy” or seemingly innocuously, “milk,” distinguished again from breastmilk, explicitly a newborn’s nourishment, which remains associated mostly with humans who lactate.

Subjectifying individuals and species condemned as “food” may be one of the most subversive political acts of our times. This book thus undertakes a feminist’s responsibility to tell stories46 of those whose lives and deaths are obscured in animal agriculture—in this case, dairying—and to render “ungrievable” lives “grievable.”47 It recalibrates the focus on the individual animals who are incarcerated in farm spaces; it calls for noting, for example, and then politicizing the bellows of a chained mother whose nipples are attached to a hissing, sucking milking machine but whose newborn infant is nowhere to be seen. It is this mother and her absent calf who are at the heart of India’s entangled political economy and religious traditions.


The blind spot in India’s cow protectionism discourse, politics, legislation, and practices has always been the inconvenient fact of the living cows and buffaloes used for dairying—those sentient, alive, and vulnerable animals who are forcibly bred in the millions to serve India’s milk sector. India has the highest “livestock” population in the world at 536.76 million (excluding chickens and fish), of which bovines—including cows and buffaloes—comprise approximately 303.76 million,48 making it the largest global owner of these species.

Invoking the Orwellian concept, Kathryn Gillespie argues in her book The Cow with Ear Tag #1389, that milk is the product around which humans employ the most “doublethinking,” our ability to “gloss over inconvenient or unsavory truths,”49 which is vital to sustain oppressions and injustices, whether upon humans or nonhumans. Doublethinking is an intuitive way of acknowledging the reality, which we must quickly deny, to render our own choices bearable.50 We know, of course, that “milk” is the lactate of another species, a vital source of a newborn’s nourishment for months, or even a couple of years, until the natural weaning of that infant can occur. Nonetheless, it is rarely properly understood or acknowledged that cows, buffaloes, goats, sheep, camels, and other animals used for “dairy”—just like humans who can lactate—do not produce milk “naturally”; they have to be continuously and deliberately impregnated in order to keep them lactating. Following a pregnancy of nine months, these mothers are usually impregnated within two months, so they are often pregnant and lactating at the same time for most of their short lives.

We are, no doubt, at least dimly aware that the mother-infant bond would have to be disrupted in some manner in order for humans to consume the mother’s milk instead. There can be no dairy production in any form without removing the infant immediately from the mother forever, or at least severely restricting their access to the mother. In a classic reversal of the female infanticide prevalent in patriarchal human societies in India (as females are seen as an economic liability51), male infanticide is prolific globally to serve dairying, bulls being an economic drain on the milk sector. Newborn males are usually starved to death, or butchered to serve the veal industry, and the female infants are recycled back into dairying. Notably, while beef is hyper-politicized to serve Hindutva politics, there is silence on veal, a product that can be immediately traced back to the dairy sector. Globally, “veal calves” are the discarded males from the milk industry.52

We don’t, however, dwell too much on what happens to the mother or her calf as a result of this commodification of her milk, nor the normalization of such capitalization of a “food” exclusively meant for a newborn’s consumption. In the main, the idea that milk extraction from an animal for human consumption involves violence against the mother or her infant is frequently met with surprise, or even offense by lay-persons, nationalists, and scholars alike; it is regarded as a grossly “hyperbolic”53 exaggeration. The moral affront that could come from considering the abjection of the separated mother and newborn that makes dairying possible is therefore elided. The suggestion that any “dairy” animals, anywhere, endure unnatural lives, and suffer intensely when forcibly and repeatedly impregnated, and then when denied the right to suckle their own infants, becomes so bewildering that it is almost impossible to take seriously.

Unlike the commodification of animals as “meat,” which obviously requires their death, the capitalization of products derived from living animals for human profit and consumption is seen as benign and nonviolent because it allegedly involves an activity that the living animal does naturally—albeit, of course, for their biological young. Human consumption of animal milk, as well as avian ova/eggs, may even be seen as an embodiment of a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and these animals, whereby animals are believed to enter into a relationship of exchange with humans. In the case of animals in dairying, this “exchange” is their reproductive labor—their lactate and their infants—for the “care” that humans give them.

A rich tradition of feminist work has outraged, rightfully, against the multiple violences of patriarchy as “a system of interrelated social structures which allow men to exploit women.”54 This “system” has been almost singularly responsible for sustaining and legitimizing the violent commodification of women’s reproductive and gendered labor, and capabilities, as resources to cement patriarchal power structures, including but not limited to both capitalism and religious fundamentalism. However, this framework of patriarchy does not protect other animals from the gendered violence that humans perpetrate upon them. There is breathtaking racist, casteist, sexist, and humanist privilege in curating what constitutes violence, who is violable, and how and to what extent such violations may be recognized as occurring at all.

Our species-engendered violence to other animals and their infants, I suggest, needs its own term. Over the course of my research, I found myself increasingly preoccupied with the idea of “anthropatriarchy”55 to explain the total human ownership of living animal bodies as resources; their reproductive systems, germplasm and ovum, labor, familial relationships, and even their genetic material. This absolute control of sentient bodies is the foundation of animal agriculture, and is enabled by humanist frameworks that privilege not only human exceptionalism, but, as I was to learn, also racial exceptionalism.

Is such violence something that only humans experience? Is the term violence reserved only for describing ways that humans are harmed and abjected? I don’t believe that such an idea can be sustained. Other animals are also subjects of profound violence, experienced both emotionally and physically, when their familial or herd bonds are disrupted. Like animals of our species, other animals, too, experience the violence of enslavement, abduction, physical invasion, and emotions like fear, terror, and the madness of being caged and incarcerated, all of which individual animals in dairying and other “food” production routinely endure.

However, advertising and public relation campaigns that the dairy industry worldwide has been running for decades present images of the cows whose maternal bonds they violate and disrupt as cheerful, beaming, and just happy to be lactating floods of their milk for human consumption. A popular French cheese brand goes so far as to call itself “Laughing Cow,” depicting a cartoon of an inanely grinning Holstein mother, who is only too thrilled to caricature herself by wearing the round cheese packages, containing product made from her lactate, as ear-tags. That these heavily lactating mothers have just given birth, are still in physical agony from labor and mastitis, have had their newborns forcibly removed, and are most likely bellowing in terror for their infants, are fully obscured by a tinnitus-like chant from the dairy industry, telling us in ever greater pitch that these mothers are happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy.

At an elemental level, all races of humans who consume the lactate of other mammals exploit them as their “mother.” However, this chant of happy cows acquires a particular shrillness in India through its depiction of cows as reverenced and loved “mothers” of humans, a misleading and cloying framing. “Indian” cows are not only happy but their sense of fulfillment is almost spiritual, evocative of the supreme contentment of a breastfeeding mother nourishing and caring for her infant in physical and emotional safety. The sense of maternal satisfaction of cows bred for the dairy industry in India is presumably unparalleled, revered as they are by their human “progeny” on par with the respect accorded to the most treasured relationship in intra-human relations—as “mother”—or indeed, even above a mother, as a “goddess.”

Dairying is, in fact, founded upon violating what we humans generally regard as the most inviolable of relations for our own species—that between a lactating mother and her suckling infant. To obscure this violence in India, not only is the cow’s motherhood celebrated as unconditional love for her human progeny, but the maternal instincts of other mammals used for dairying are not seen as worthy of any consideration. Thus, an entire spectrum of “violence against certain lives and bodies can become so normalized that it is not viewed as violence,”56 let alone as the kind of violence that constitutes one of the most enduring anxieties of the feminist movement. In its failure to acknowledge the gendered, sexual, and reproductive violence that humans inflict on animals of other species, exemplified in dairy production, mainstream feminism, too, can be uncomfortably, even dangerously, similar to mainstream patriarchy.

These uncomfortable moral complexities do not feature in political discourses of cow protectionism, even as they are played out on the bodies of the lactating cow and buffalo, and their missing calves. Where the “consumption” of the cow as “mother”/“goddess,” and cow as milk-machine is indistinguishably blurred, it can be even more difficult to “see” the violence done in plain sight to bovines as mothers of other bovines in the milk industry. To understand what the embodied experiences of the animals are, in political and production practices, and why they are important, this book focuses not only on the animals themselves but also the activists who advocate for animals.


Do not out yourself—implicitly as someone who cared about other animals—I was warned by animal activists, while visiting live animal markets and other sites of animal production. However, the broader human society, driven by the consumption of animal bodies and products, also does not want the animal activist to out themselves. The activist who advocates for “food” animals especially, occupies a “killjoy”57 position at the human dining table, and is an exceptionally inconvenient presence for states and governments who instrumentalize animals as vectors of development and various kinds of nation-building. The presence of anyone who draws attention to and challenges the violence perpetrated by humans against other animal bodies for food is so exceedingly uncomfortable that our social and legal systems can go to great lengths to silence and even criminalize animal activists, intensifying the trauma that comes from even bearing witness in this work.58

Being an animal advocate can bring on an overwhelming and almost unendurable sense of trauma59, “loneliness” or “madness.”60 Animal activists experience intense, ongoing suffering which includes “sadness, grief, depression, anxiety, dread, horror, fear, rage, and shame; intrusive imagery in nightmares, flash backs, and images; numbing and avoidance phenomena; cognitive shifts in viewing the world and oneself, such as suspiciousness, cynicism, and poor self-esteem.”61 In Aftershock, LGBTQ and animal activist pattrice jones argues that even the therapy for sufferers of post-traumatic stress events is inadequate for animal activists, as their everyday reality itself is profuse with continuous “nightmarish” triggers, surrounded by the normalization of animal consumption, and routinization of intense animal suffering.62

The social ostracization of animal activists can be deeply sexist. In Animaladies, Lori Gruen and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey unpack and triangulate the three aspects of the term that have often come to characterize animal activism—animal, maladies, ladies. They write: “Animaladies highlight how pathologizing human–animal relationships blocks empathy toward animals because the characterization of animal advocacy as mad, ‘crazy,’ and feminized distracts attention from broader social disorder regarding human exploitation of animal life.”63 Labelling animal activists as “mad” in particular, has long been a way of “disciplining the movement.”64 The “‘madness’ of our relationships with animals intersects”, they write, “with the ‘madness’ of taking animals seriously” at all in scholarly work.65

This censure of animal activists is not merely socially or emotionally ostracizing. Since the widespread proliferation of factory farms and animal slaughterhouses in the United States in the 1990s, it has become common to criminalize animal activism, branding those who bring light to the realities of farmed animals in particular, as ecoterrorists or animal rights extremists.66 In many US states, what are termed ag-gag laws deem it unlawful for activists to film, photograph, or otherwise document acts of animal cruelty in sites of animal production and slaughter. In Australia, many ag-gag laws have already been passed, or are currently pending consideration in various state parliaments.67 Thus the messenger, the animal activist who bears witness and then reports uncomfortable realities that may lead to questioning the whole idea of “food” animals at all, is punished for being what every other industry would deem a “whistleblower.”

In India, animal activism has been made synonymous with right-wing extremism. In their analyses of the ethics underpinning human–animal relations, it is not uncommon for scholars to unselfconsciously collapse all Indian animal activism with right-wing extremism, and accuse animal advocates of sanctioning ostensibly only “narrow” forms of relatedness, this narrowness being one of no intentional and pre-meditated harm and violence to other animal bodies. Where one might be more vigilant about collapsing human rights activists with religious extremists, Indian political and anthropological work often seamlessly equates “Hindu nationalists—and their animal-rights activist allies,”68 or “Hindu nationalists and animal rights activists around the world.”69 Animal activists in India, then, who have no right-wing sympathies, and who may in fact be human rights advocates themselves, are ungenerously dismissed as extremist—a move that justifies not taking seriously the important work they are doing for animal liberation, and the implications of this work for human social justice movements. This book rejects the tendency to collapse animal activism in India into one monolithic group, offering instead a nuanced account of these very different factions: separating out, on the one hand, “violent and xenophobic Hindu nationalists”70 who might instrumentalize cow protection for violent racist and casteist ends (often referred to as gaurakshaks or cow vigilantes); and on the other side, animal activists who have dedicated their lives to the alleviation of the suffering of animals, often at the cost of their own mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing (and whom I refer to as animal activists throughout the book), while acknowledging that even within these two very broad categories, there may be variations in motivations, tactics, and perspectives.

Why do animal activists undertake work that almost dehumanizes them, and exposes them to widespread ridicule and risk for showing empathy with other animals? Through her work with animal activists in India, cultural anthropologist Naisargi Dave highlights the compulsion to respond—it is almost impossible not to—once that which is hidden by institutional structures is unveiled. In her extensive interviews with animal activists at all levels—from powerful politicians and philanthropists, to workers and volunteers directly involved in risky undercover work or animal care, Dave highlights a common “coming out” story in the recounting of animal activists—the act of witnessing animal suffering, an act of looking that is more than observational. There is a moment of “locking of eyes” between the human and the individual animal that is both intensely intimate and political, as “the human’s knowledge is not of all animals in general, but of this animal, at this moment.”71 Such recognition demands, herewith, action and responsibility from the person. To counter the carefully hidden violence of routine animal agriculture, Pachirat too emphasizes the urgency of a “politics of sight” to make “visible what is hidden, and the need to breach, literally or figuratively, these very zones of confinement and invisibility, in order to bring about social and political transformation.”72

The logic underpinning such a politics of sight—and one that motivates undercover animal activist exposés—is that once the suffering that animals routinely experience in farms and slaughterhouses is revealed, it will incite—indeed, almost inevitably force—radical change in people. To a significant extent, this strategy is successful, evidenced by the palpable growth globally in consumer awareness about animal welfare, the proliferation of vegan products in supermarkets, and also, indeed, in the tightening of state-supported ag-gag laws that impose extreme penalties on activists for bringing the violence inherent in animal farming to light. Nonetheless, what of places, including India, where intensive and continuous confinement of animals—in small cages, on short ropes, in overcrowded housing—can be publicly and routinely witnessed? What of spaces where open slaughter, certainly of small animals like chickens is normative? Where live chickens can be weighed alongside potatoes in roadside stalls, where one can carefully examine and select each wide-eyed, panting chick as one would apples, and seeing through unseeing eyes becomes an everyday reality?

Political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz offers a meticulous analysis of the US-based Fair Oaks Farm, which invites the public for a tour of their factory farm where pigs are raised for meat and cows for dairy, as a counter to the undercover investigations of animal activists. In actively revealing that which is supposed to be hidden, the live openness can also instigate a counter and oppositional politics of sight in its normalization of such violence, such that it is not conceptualized as violent practice. In fact, video witnessing of violence can provoke greater shock than the live witnessing of the same event. As Dutkiewicz writes, “The politics of sight is not only about seeing and not seeing, but about understanding and interpreting, about a rhetoric that narrates what is seen [emphasis added].”73 Dutkiewicz notes the careful curation of the farm tour, and the sanitized presentation of seemingly bland facts about pig bodies that anesthetizes any hesitation or horror in consuming the piglets and their young mothers, who were being observed. In this way, live “revelation [operates] as normalization,”74 explaining the desensitization that may be necessary to sustain farm work.

This politics of open sight and revelation is epitomized in the normalization of violence that constitutes dairying, and through sentimental narratives of “free-range,” organic, farm-fresh, “family owned,” or indeed, the “mother” or “sacred cow.” Popular representations of the milk sector worldwide present wholesome, nurturing, green images of an industry that has been aptly described as “dark and dairy”75 for both the violence experienced by the animals, and the walls of secrecy and complicity—conceptual, political, physical—within which it is shrouded. These carefully crafted depictions of “dairy” animals in advertising, politics and popular media in India and elsewhere is increasingly countered by the political activism of animal rescue groups, who video-document the intensely unsanitized, raw realities of mothers, fathers, and their infants entrapped in dairying. The capacity to circulate on social media the video evidence of the sufferings of farmed animals has brought on an unprecedented capacity to bear witness to their realities.

In 2016, the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) started campaigns called #DontGetMilked and #WhiteLie, mobilizing people to “Ditch dairy and go vegan,” based on extensive documentation of the routine cruelties to buffaloes and cows in dairy farms (see figure 0.1). First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by activists in India on cruelties in dairying, live animal markets, transportation, and slaughterhouses; court cases documenting the sale of cows and calves by temples and gaushalas to abattoirs; video and photographic documentation of the conditions of buffaloes and cows by animal activists in these spaces; and the stories of various animals rescued from dairy farms into animal shelters, illuminate an entirely different aspect of what has come to be known as “cow politics” or “beef politics” in India. It was here, in the highly political spaces of animal sanctuaries and shelters, and in conversation with animal activists, that I commenced this research.

FIGURE 0.1 A FIAPO anti-dairy campaign at the Asia for Animals Conference in Kathmandu, 2017.

Source: Photo taken by author.


In 2013, I visited an animal shelter for the first time. During interviews with residents of the old walled city of Jaipur on how religion impacts urbanism and determines sense of place, belonging, and access,76 I learnt, unexpectedly, about electrocuted monkeys. Leaping macaques and langurs in the old heritage spaces of Jaipur would frequently be electrocuted on the naked electric wires that crisscrossed thickly over the tops of buildings. Oftentimes the victims would be mother-and-infant pairs. The “lucky” monkeys would die immediately; the unlucky ones would survive third-degree electric burns, and die a slow death from infections, septicemia, starvation, and attacks from other monkeys, dogs, vultures, and humans. These accounts were related to me in purely anthropocentric terms; understandably, the power cuts as a result of the electrocutions were an inconvenience to the more privileged human inhabitants of the space. However, I could not get the picture of the surviving burnt monkeys out of my head. What happened to them?

At last, I was directed to Help in Suffering, one of the country’s oldest animal rescue shelters founded by the British animal activist Crystal Rogers in 1980. As I stepped down from the auto-rickshaw in front of the gate, several barking dogs ran up to me, some hobbling on three legs and leaping around exuberantly, a typical welcome, I was to learn, in animal shelters in India. A retired army colonel volunteered his time to manage the shelter. When I explained the purpose of my visit—my curiosity, really—he gently said, “It is not just the monkeys.”

What followed was nothing short of life-changing—a grisly tour of the injuries and traumas inflicted by humans on other animals, and the lives and deaths of nonhuman animals in spaces dominated by humans. Puppies and kittens crushed and paralyzed by moving vehicles; thin, diseased, and limping dogs, including abandoned pedigree “pet” breeds; monkeys, dogs, and cows burnt by acid or boiling water or oil attacks for venturing too close to human habitations when looking for food; “riding” camels with broken nostrils after the ropes threaded through them were pulled violently to make them move faster; emaciated and severely injured donkeys with fractures from carrying loads for India’s large brick and construction sector; large numbers of male calves discarded by dairy farmers (always cow calves, as the buffalo calves are sold more easily and openly to the veal market); pigeons with shredded, bloodied wings from the glass-coated twine of soaring kites flown during festivals; and “free-roaming” cows catatonic with chronic colic pain caused by forty to sixty kilos of plastic waste in their four-chambered stomachs.

Nonhuman animal lives are intricately enmeshed in the cultural, political, urban, and technologized worlds of humans, both in India and throughout the world. Yet, in the main, the existence of these living animals is obscured and erased from human imaginations. Their lives are deemed morally irrelevant, even as the realities and conditions of their lives are directly a result of human activities. I peered into the cage of a dog with a severe case of mange—she weakly raised her head as my shadow fell over her thin body, holding my gaze directly for several seconds before dropping her head in exhaustion back onto her thin jute bed.

It was clear to me that day that a vitally important story was waiting to be told of a massive, diverse political group, so severely marginalized as to be almost invisible, awaiting due recognition. As “already subjects of, and subject to, political practices” that determine the conditions of their lives and deaths, animals are indeed political subjects.77 I could, however, scarcely begin to imagine how or what form this scholarly centering of animals as political actors might take.

A year later, I made contact with Pradeep Kumar Nath, founder of the Visakha Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (VSPCA) in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh state. He patiently answered my emails regarding his Facebook posts on various issues of animal cruelty. I sensed that this might be a critical place to begin my research. I arrived in his small office, which was overcrowded with files, an ancient computer, and two semi-paralyzed street dogs. Pradeep himself, a slender man with curling hair, sat hunched over his table. When I entered at the designated time, he looked up slowly.

“Oh, you are here,” he said. And then, with no trace of malice or irritation, he told me, “I really don’t want to speak to you.”

“Oh!” I said, confused. “Uh, should I come later if this is a bad time?” I stammered, my mind already racing to potential “wasted” days of precious fieldwork time.

Pradeep sighed, a heaving weary exhalation. “Every day is a bad time in this field. You are here, now you might as well stay.”

Now even more acutely conscious of wasting this man’s time but my need for knowledge eclipsing my hesitation, I told him I knew nothing, nothing at all about the lives of animals in our country. “Tell me everything,” I begged. Pradeep sat back and for the next four hours, he spoke of some thirty years of suffering, his own trauma as witness and activist, melding with the suffering of animals he tried to save. I sat immobilized, my head and heart pounding. He told me of the seven cobras he had rescued with their fangs pulled out, and mouths sewn tight by cobra charmers. Wild-caught for tourism, these cobras usually die of starvation and stress after a few weeks of display and entertainment. When the stitches were removed, they yawned wide in relief, the worst stink he had ever encountered emanating from their small mouths. Too sick for rehabilitation, the snakes were euthanized.

He spoke of the young goat in a Kali temple who was killed as a sacrifice, literally by a thousand cuts with a blunt knife. The crowd turned upon Pradeep with sticks and knives when he tried to save the animal.

I learnt of the cat meat trade in India’s southern states, where cats would be hunted, stolen or abducted, thrown into sacks and bashed repeatedly against walls to kill them, or be roasted alive. “They believe that the more the animal has suffered, the sweeter its meat,” he said. He recalled enduring the violence of pig slaughter while taking an exam as a university student. “Pigs are difficult to kill, and she screamed, screamed like a human. Do you know a pig’s scream is like a human screaming?” In drawing attention to the human-like screams of the pig, Pradeep was not intending to anthropomorphize the pig as much as to plead for empathy for the pig, to indeed emphasize also, the pig-like screams of the human.

Pradeep described breaking into a backyard slaughterhouse where a live cow was being skinned alive and carved, even as her small calf shook violently in terror, watching the assault on his mother, on unsteady feet. “It was like walking into a surgery theater,” he said. “They had cut into her, she was alive, her skin had been peeled off, and she was putting everything into staying alive for her calf. Her eyes were fixed on her calf only.” This sentence would continuously reverberate like thunder in my head over the next several years, as humans would blithely talk to me of the cow as their mother. The dying cow who was being stripped of her very flesh was putting every effort into trying to save her baby, her biological infant, the only progeny who mattered to her.

He told me of the bulls used for traction in agriculture. The diversion of young bulls to pull the plow for agriculture is seen as a “humane” alternative to slaughtering them as “bobby calves” or dairy waste, and is as romanticized in Indian national discourses as the lactating cow. Pradeep described how the bulls were castrated while conscious, and then beaten and broken into total submission to drag a plow weighing several tonnes through waterlogged paddy fields for hours every day. Often, their harnesses would not be removed at the end of the day, forcing them to keep standing all night before another day of hard labor. In a state of chronic starvation, the bulls often collapse in the fields, when they are carted off for slaughter. “You look into the bull’s eyes, he is begging for mercy,” said Pradeep.

Later in the day, Pradeep took me to visit VSPCA’s animal shelter at the Kindness Farm, an unexpectedly arcadian sanctuary across eight acres in the outskirts of the port city of Visakhapatnam. Generously large by the standards of most Indian animal shelters, it was home to over 800 individual animal refugees of different species. “I have a surprise for you,” Pradeep said. We turned a corner to look straight into an enclosure full of almost a hundred emus, native birds of Australia, staring at us with a slightly demented gaze, pressing against the fencing in curiosity, or for food. Originally exported by Australia for what was to become a failed experiment in emu meat and eggs, these birds were hatched in India, many with disabled legs, and rescued en route to their slaughter. I felt sickened by this sight of international trafficking of animals. I felt distressed by the complicity of global human institutions that, through a “visa,” gave me full right to return to Australia but not the naturally vastly free-roaming native emus, permanently exiled, and incarcerated as refugees in a densely overpopulated Indian city.

I returned to my hotel room, sat on the floor, and wept for several hours. Upon these animal bodies, entire systems of human life were founded. I could scarcely believe the multiple privileges of being born upper-class, “upper-caste,” and above all, being born a human animal, where not even being born female had ever deprived me of access to a wholly privileged life. Why me, and why not that cow? Why me, and why not that pig or emu? I returned the next morning to the VSPCA office, with no more clarity about what to do. “Shall I write about the goats?” I asked Pradeep. “Or the cobras? Oh god, how about a comprehensive study on all animals?”

We went back to the Kindness Farm that afternoon. As we walked, and Pradeep narrated the rescue stories of different animals as we met them, he gave me what was to be the first critical piece of advice in advancing this study. “Focus on the cows,” he said.

The cow has become so political that the animal has been lost. The animal is lost even though it is in full focus. The cow is an example of how totally we can lose the animal even while making the biggest issue out of it. The cow issue has colored matters for all other animals also. Even we as animal activists do not know how to respond to this. There is maximum confusion with the cows. Do the cows.

And so, four years after my Indian colleague explained that he did not eat dairy because of how cows are treated, I set out on a path of research and activism that would lead to this book.

With “beef lynchings” beginning to surface in the news with alarming frequency, combined with news reports of India’s rapidly growing beef exports, a focus on cows seemed timely. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seminal From Where the Buffalo Roam report would confirm that India had become the world’s leading beef exporter in 2014.78 I started to focus on the ways in which cows were referenced in political, media, and anecdotal discourses—the spotlight almost always being on their trafficking for slaughter, which, I was to realize much later, defined the final stages of a dairy production continuum. It would be even later when I realized that my research, too, had almost risked missing the presence of buffaloes in India’s cow politics, despite their singular part in beef exports specifically.

It was around this time that the second critical piece of methodological advice came from Dawn William, managing director of the Blue Cross of India, Chennai, when I visited the shelter a few months later. An ex-military man turned animal activist, Dawn exuded a no-nonsense demeanor. As I began asking Dawn about what he knew about cow trafficking in Tamil Nadu, he stepped in, turned the interview completely around, and began firing questions at me about what I had learned so far—and how I had learned it. “I heard . . . ,” I told him. “I spoke to . . . ,”’ I explained. “I read . . . ,” I stated.

Dawn held up his hand, and gave me advice that only an animal activist, fully immersed and engaged politically in the daily realities of the animals, could offer. “When you come back after finishing this study, I don’t care what you conclude,” he said. “But I don’t care for opinions. I don’t want your opinion. People don’t hesitate to have opinions about animals without seeing what they actually go through. You decide what you want, but see everything first. See whatever you can. And only then you decide.”


Dawn’s advice to heighten the focus on animals as subjects has had the deepest imprint upon this research, shaping every aspect of the three years of empirical, archival, and ethnographic work that focuses the cows and buffaloes in India’s cow protection politics. Ethnography is a popular research method, particularly in anthropological work, to study humans and their cultures by observing them. The researcher, in so far as possible, aims to position herself as a member of this society, in an attempt to understand their cultures and politics from their standpoint. Since 2010, the sub-field of multispecies ethnography79 has become increasingly popular, which aims to observe other animals to inform research. This methodological trend, however, is far from unproblematic in the field of animal studies and splinters almost neatly into two further subfields based on the politics of each.

It was crucial for this book to veer away from mainstream forms of multispecies ethnography, a methodological intervention that has become yet another way of instrumentalizing other animals to understand the human condition. As such, it has an “extremely narrow agenda”80 that, in effect, reinforces human domination, human–animal binaries, and does little, if anything, to address the deeply uneven and naturalized81 hierarchies that exist between human and other animals. At its core, it often reflects the reluctance on the part of individual researchers to consider their own personal objectification of animals by eating them or their products, and “unwillingness to actively work to undo their internalized speciesism.”82 In maintaining and legitimizing human supremacy, and correspondingly, animal abjection, such multispecies ethnography often deeply harms other animals by reinforcing their status as abject to human animals. Unsurprisingly, such work does not attempt to engage directly with animal activists.

The use of cows in Indian historical, political, and anthropological discourses to understand intra-human politics and hierarchies is precisely an enactment of such unselfconscious ethnographical anthropocentrism. Cows are instrumentalized as a way of articulating India’s intra-humanist politics to the extent that discourses on “cow protection” have been rendered almost incoherent when read against what might constitute genuine vulnerabilities for the animals themselves.

By contrast, this book is a conscious and deliberate attempt to engage in “posthuman ethnography”83 or “politicized multispecies ethnography”84 that explicitly chooses to challenge the overt or covert anthropocentrism in social sciences research. In being consciously focused on exploring genuinely ethical and respectful human-to-animal relations and improving the lives of animals, these methods are political in their dedication to advocacy for other animals. This work is necessarily mindful about working “emotionally”85 with animals as a way of understanding, in so far as possible and witnessable, the full extent of their rich emotional lives. In working this way, I have not “refused the risk of an intersecting gaze [with another animal] . . . and in response undone and redone [myself].”86 It is arguably more coherent scholarship and politics to make legible the realities of the animals involved in cow protectionism. To persist in an endeavor to dismantle the chains that hold human minorities abject without sacrificing the interests and lives of animals is certainly more challenging, but ultimately more meaningful to the fullest ethical possibilities and responsibilities of feminism, social justice, and emergent multispecies democratic politics in India and elsewhere.

I conducted my research for this book between 2014 and 2017, during exceptionally troubling political times. It was in 2014 that the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP came to power, and Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India. The study was conducted in a sociopolitical climate where ultranationalist Hindu narratives and practices of cow vigilantism were on the rise, violently marginalizing minorities who were depicted as killing cows.

My own foray into the world of animals—and cows specifically—became open to political interpretation. I am a member of the “upper-caste” Brahmin community that has been historically and politically associated with cow protectionism. My intellectual curiosity made sense to some Hindu ultranationalists; as a Brahmin, I’d naturally, they assumed, be concerned about the preservation of the cow, and by extension, the restoration of the Hindu civilization. Others viewed my work with skepticism for the same reason. Some Dalit colleagues initially responded with fury. “How dare you think about animals before thinking about us?” a senior political student leader at Hyderabad’s Dalit-majoritarian Osmania University asked me in understandable anger.

The directness of the question froze me. I genuinely wanted to understand the complexities of diverse Dalit worldviews on how animals constituted their politics and sociologies. And yet I froze because my caste rendered my inquiry—undertaken during a time of rising violence in Hindutva cow vigilantism, no less—instantly suspect, a cliché, and even potentially, yet again, an assertion of Brahminical dominance, a caste often associated with knowledge and learning. It was a powerfully humbling reminder of how the shrill political and self-righteous narratives of cow protectionism had rendered the idea of a genuine anti-caste animal politics implausible. “I have not come to reinforce any hierarchy,” I pleaded. I truly wanted to arrive at a rounded understanding of cow protectionism beyond the one-dimensional account of Hindu and Hindutva groups. It was in this spirit of bringing the most marginalized into focus as political actors, even as they were among the most exploited as political and economic resources, that I also trained my focus on the animals. I had explicitly set myself the difficult task of not defaulting to the people versus animals impasse, “solutions” that I believed to be improvisations at best.

However, in that moment, my stammered explanations were of no consequence. It was the dominance of a particular intelligibility—perceived Brahminical vested interests—that was being rightfully challenged. On what basis could I, who comes from a caste whose humanity was realized, presumed and unchallenged, suggest that we also need to move to categories beyond “the human,” when the humanity of those against whom cows were weaponized, was constantly under attack? This central objection raised a profusion of other questions for me. Would my plea for animal liberation make me culpable in rendering more vulnerable those who were already dehumanized in the name of animal protection? Did animal liberation inevitably clash with Dalit liberation? And what did animal liberation, and specifically that of the cows, mean for “upper-caste” politics and culture? Did it strengthen Brahminism—or could it possibly bring hitherto unchallenged Brahminical practices around animal exploitation into question? Could such a scrutiny offer anything meaningful to Dalit politics? How best might I—and must I—use the unearned privileges of my birth in negotiating the landscape of unfathomable violence in which both humans and animals were enmeshed, and where Hindu nationalists often featured prominently in perpetrating that violence?

I had no answers to these questions that raced through my head that day. The only respectful or adequate response I could offer, I understood, was to engage in “a politics of listening.”87 I needed to speak less and remain uncomfortable. And as I listened, I learned about the myriad ways in which pain and humiliation upended the lives of these students and scholars, as they told me of their grief over the then recent suicide of University of Hyderabad Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula whose scholarship was suspended on a charge of being supposedly involved in “anti-nationalist” politics; their rage at the news of a Dalit woman being stripped and forced to drink urine by a “higher” caste couple in Madhya Pradesh88; daily reports of police torture of Dalits; and then, in their personal lives, pointedly being served on disposable paper plates in a friend’s house; the social prohibition against entering many temples; and insolent treatment at every institution, from the university to the hospital to the police station. Against this context, the targeted beef bans being instituted in state after state at the time brought on another slew of humiliation, rage, and fear, reinforcing the multiple oppressions of casteism that Dalits experience from virtually every caste deemed “higher.”

Caste, broadly, is a system of social organization that is “invested in purity, pollution, endogamy, hierarchy, and inflexibility locked in the rigidity of birth.”89 Caste organizes society throughout Asia, Africa, and North and South America, though the way it negotiates and maintains a hierarchical social system in a manner that explicitly produces “out-castes” has rarely been studied outside of India.90 Though a fifth of the world’s human population may claim a caste identity,91 casteism has not been taken as seriously as racism. At the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR) in Durban in 2001, some 300 Dalit representatives from India and Nepal described casteism as a “descent-based discrimination”, and made a landmark appeal for the international recognition of casteism as oppressive identity politics.92 This demand remained unmet due to vociferous resistance from the Indian government at the time.93

Caste’s primary distinction from race lies in the notion of “purity”; as Suraj Yengde explains, “Belief in the purity of soul and blood affirms the raison d’être of the caste system [emphasis added].”94 The most pernicious impact of such sociobiological purity in India is the production of the outcaste through “untouchability,” or “the practice of excluding, from social or religious life, people who are believed to be permanently impure.”95 Such ideas of purity and pollution are solidified via labor,96 differentiating those who might own cows and dairy farms for instance, from those who engage in slaughter or tanning labor, even as these “pure” and “impure” activities together compose the dairy production continuum.

Animals, I would learn over the years, are not incidental to caste politics. Animals, in fact, are used as core political metaphors to sustain the typologies of many polarizing caste-based nationalisms in India, and to maintain adversarial caste positionalities and hierarchies.97 While the abjections of racism might rely on comparisons with the animal—the figurehead of the black and the animal being a classic example98—casteism operates somewhat differently. In the logic of casteism, humans of all castes are explicitly interlinked with animals; the noteworthy distinction lies not in the human-to-animal comparison itself, but which group of humans are related with which species of animals. In her opus Hindus: An Alternative History, Wendy Doniger notes that certain animal species and certain human castes are politically connected in the Atharva Vedas based on purported shared social qualities. For example, “lucidity or goodness or intelligibility (sattva), energy or activity or passion (rajas), and darkness or inertia or entropy (tamas),” respectively dominate in cows and Brahmins; horses and Kshatriyas (warrior-castes); and dogs and low castes.99 Notably, in the Hindu imagination then, other animals are also born into caste, and inherently carry the admirable or stigmatizing qualities of their particular caste.

In exploiting their political and affective labor to sustain differentiation in identity and nationalist politics, animals are used across the caste spectrum.100 The politics of differentiation certainly has a purpose; as Dwaipayan Banerjee reminds us, it allows “those that are seen as radically different as having the capacity for coherence”101—including, arguably, radically different nonhuman animals. Equally, he explains, in fixating on difference, politics gets “fetishized”,102 and in caste and communal politics, the animal too becomes fetishized.

Caste, of course, cannot be read exclusively through the animal, as indeed, the animal is also not defined solely by caste, though each is essential to the fullest understanding of the typologies of caste and species. Introducing the animal body into political debate only through caste, religion, or race, also forecloses the possibility of species having their own legitimate presence, in their own right, in radical democratic politics, however uneasy, messy, and complicated. Animals are subordinated not only by casteism or communalism, but centrally by the implicit nonhuman othering of humanism103 itself. Instead, it is only through presence of “the animal” as his own sovereign body in political debates and praxis that the complex task of important and meaningful interspecific alliances104 between animal activist groups and some of the most marginalized human groups may be creatively imagined.

That day in Osmania, as student after student recounted the events that led to the annual beef festivities as Dalit resistance in the university campus, I thought of the intricate and abject ways in which “untouchability” continues to pervade and shape socio-political life in contemporary India via the animal body. It was clear that beef had been weaponized as a core vector of “untouchability” in India—and beef consumption had thus been rendered an explicit act of Dalit resistance. Hindutva oppression thus becomes enacted in different ways against the subaltern human body, and the subaltern animal body, even as both are tightly enmeshed in the perpetration of violence against each other. Against this bifurcated oppositional framing of the cow and the Dalit, it becomes all the more important to be attuned to creative and meaningful ways in which interspecific solidarity may be imagined and enacted. Banerjee writes, “any politics of thick solidarity should acknowledge anthropologies (in the plural),” specifically those born out of colonialism and other oppressions.105 Inspired by postcolonial law and feminist scholar Maneesha Deckha’s call to “centralize the dynamics of race and culture” in feminist animal studies, I left Osmania with a solidified commitment to foreground caste and religion in my study, critical to avoiding the legitimate charges of ethnonationalism and elitism.106

The animal, however, and the farmed animal in particular, is also subordinate to human oppressions; as critical animal geographers Collard and Gillespie write, “entrenched hierarchies between humans and other animals are a defining feature of our relationships.”107 Could a radical humanist politics of thick solidarity, then, find its fullest expression by being in relation through allegiance and solidarity with radical animal politics and extending fellowship to nonhuman others, in what are multispecies social and political worlds? Through the years, I would speak to diverse caste and religious groups throughout the Indian dairy production continuum with different economic interests in the cow commodity that would each be narrated and justified in differential caste terms. And I would come to understand that in India, a politicized multispecies ethnography was also an anti-caste methodology, in its plea to all caste groups to take seriously the de-commodification of animals in order to undo the violence of anthropocentrism, a necessary precursor, as I would come to believe, to dismantling caste itself.

The exploitation of cows and buffaloes for milk production is not confined to any one Indian state; thus, it became necessary to engage in a pan-India exploration, the first of its kind that sought to understand how actual buffaloes, cows, bulls, and their calves were embroiled in India’s bovine industrial complex as (re)productive, religious, and political capital. I visited the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telengana, and Andhra Pradesh. Although this research by no means covered the full extent of the bovine industrial complex in India, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Gujarat are among the leading dairy-producing states.108 Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat, and Maharashtra were also particularly volatile landscapes of Hindu ultranationalism where stringent cow slaughter and beef bans were enacted during this time.

As Communist Party-ruled states where the killing of cows was permitted, Kerala and West Bengal have some of India’s few licensed cow slaughterhouses. Kerala is one of the highest consumers of meat, including beef in India, and is the leading state for cow slaughter.109 West Bengal serves as a conduit for cross-border trafficking of cows and other animals into Bangladesh. In 2019, news reports emerged that the Indian Border Security Force had found cows with crude explosives attached to their necks in West Bengal near the India-Bangladesh border so that rescuers, whether cow vigilantes, animal activists, or military personnel, might be blown up along with the animals.110 However, “misdirection” through the media is often an endemic political game throughout local, state, and global geopolitics.111 State institutions, including the police, assert that cow smuggling finances terrorism,112 a charge then used to justify increased militarization of contested international borders based on the ostensible “illegal” smuggling of cows.113 However, the experiences of border security and transporters in negotiating the “smuggling” and “seizure” of cows blurs the bovine body as sacred or commodity, disrupting the legal/illegal binary that frames the “cattle trade” in the India-Bangladesh borderlands.114

To develop deeper understandings of how cows are enmeshed in politics, I focused this research on what I classified as spaces of “production” and “protection” in these states. These sites are located in the continuum of informal, semi-formal, and formal political economies. Dairying may be semi-informal but legal; the transportation of animals between sites along the dairy production continuum falls in the shadow zone of legality, illegality, and even criminality as the purpose of movement is not always clear; and under India’s cow protection laws, the slaughter segment of dairy production generally falls in the black/illegal economy. “Protection” spaces such as gaushalas also fall in twilight zones of authorized/unauthorized, and even legal/illegal. As dairy production spaces, gaushalas are not immune to the realities of market logics that require the disposal of unproductive animals.

I visited “production” sites such as dairy farms, licensed and unlicensed slaughterhouses, frozen bovine semen farms, state animal husbandry departments, veterinary and public health departments, agricultural and dairy research institutes, and “cattle” mandis in different states. I spoke to dairy farmers, dairy owners, dairy economists, veterinary and bovine genetic scientists, transporters, middlemen, and butchers. In all sites where living animals were present, I spent hours with them, to observe animal behaviors, bovine-to-bovine engagements, and bovine interactions with the human workers. Collard and Gillespie write, “Attention to these contact zones and to the fraught power relations existing in them is a key feature in a critical geographical multispecies ethnographic approach.”115 The observation method “allows the time to learn animal gestures, expressions, and sounds that we can use in many ways to further our understanding,” to ensure that “humans and animals can achieve ‘operative understandings’ that not only make routine interactions possible but also provide insights into the animal mind.”116 Like Pachirat’s ethnographic account of human labor in a US slaughterhouse, “[m]y account relies . . . on context, with an emphasis on little things and multiple voices, and with a tolerance for ambiguity.”117

To understand bovine realities in empirical and conceptual spaces of protection, I visited animal sanctuaries, gaushalas and gosadans (municipal gaushalas), Hindu temples, police departments, and highway commissions. I went to gaushalas, managed by temples devoted to the cow-loving god Krishna, or managed by Hindu political parties, state municipal corporations, private owners, and Hindu trusts. I interviewed managers, workers, priests, and devotees about their ideas and practices of cow protection, and about their understandings of the concept and role of gaushalas. I spoke to gaurakshaks and activists from animal welfare organizations like FIAPO, Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), and the Humane Society International India offices, and critically, the local animal shelters and gaushalas of different cities.

My explicit positionality in all spaces varied based on my intuitive sense of the place and relational dynamics. The purpose of the interviews—to understand the production and protection conditions of animal existence—was explained candidly throughout, to both productionists and protectionists. This was a routine inquiry at the time as media interest in cow transporting, and the halting of trucks by animal activists and cow vigilantes, was high.118 I intuitively relied on political ethnographer David Tittensor’s advocacy for trust and reciprocity while doing ethnography in difficult or hostile climates.119 In my respondents’ counter questions to me, they too drove the conversation, and made decisions about entering our dialogues of reciprocity and trust.

Some of the respondents gave permission to be identified. Others, including many government officials and those working in the disposal end of dairy production (including those operating in authorized slaughterhouses), did not. However, regardless of whether this permission was provided, only the names of those respondents who are already recognized in the media for their work have been identified in this book. These names are used in full; in all other instances, names have been anonymized through the use of a changed first name only, as the intent is not to personalize or individualize any aspect of the cow protection or production complex. Rather, the focus is on the systems and processes of the entangled informal and formal economies that are normative in all animal farming in India, and indeed, globally.

FOCUS on the cows. Pradeep’s words still reverberate in my mind, even years later. Focus on the cows. What does it look like to focus on the cows and buffaloes, the animals, even as they are prominently embedded in fraught landscapes of human political conflict? It is impossible to disentangle the bovines themselves from the political, religious, and economic context in which they are situated. To understand their lives and experiences, it is necessary to trace how the lives of cows and buffaloes are shaped by legal, political, and economic histories of modern, independent India.


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