Save the cow, target the tiger: Twisting an old tale

The controversy over the politicisation of a poem on honesty may have died down but the tiger continues to get a bad name. | Illustration - Prathap Ravishankar

Govina haadu (Song of the Cow) is a popular Kannada folk ballad that has touched the hearts of generations. A pious cow, Punyakoti, is accosted by Arbudha, a tiger in the forest. The cow says she has to feed her calf and would return to the tiger to become her prey. The tiger lets her go and as promised, she returns to the tiger. Struck by the cow’s honesty, the tiger is overcome by remorse. Saying God will not like it if it kills the cow, Arbudha takes its own life by jumping off the cliff.

This simple ode to honesty had acquired political overtones a few years back, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) distorting it to suit its pet “cow is sacred” and “beef eating is immoral” line.

In 2012, when the BJP was in power, it changed the conclusion of the poem in a Hindi high school textbook. In that version, the tiger doesn’t end its life but takes a pledge not to eat cows hereafter. Secularists saw red and when the Congress rode to power in 2013, they came up with their own distortion of the original poem. This version changed the title of the poem to Huliya haadu (Song of the Tiger), but more on that later.

The controversy over the politicisation of the poem may have died down but the tiger continues to get a bad name. The statement by the BJP’s “rajaguru” of sorts, Vishvesha Teertha, the seer of Pejavar Mutt, likening the tiger to a terrorist because “the two share the same core character” is bizarre. But it should be seen in the context of the campaign to make cow the national animal getting shriller by the day.

The 89-year-old seer was quoted as saying at a congregation of saints in Udupi that India had committed a blunder by naming the tiger as the national animal. If only India had embraced the cow, a symbol of love and innocence, terrorists would not have been born in this country, he said.

It is not the first time that the pontiff of the Madhwa monastery, an influential voice of the Hindutva brigade which has been relentlessly pursuing issues like Ramjanmabhoomi (Lord Ram’s birthplace), cow protection and common civil code, has invoked the “cow is pious, tiger is evil” theme. In June this year, he regretted that the government took steps to protect the tiger but not the cow. “Are cows inferior to tigers?” he had asked.

The seer’s statement ties in well with the demands from within the BJP in Karnataka to ban cattle slaughter and consumption of beef. Karnataka is one of the states where slaughter of buffaloes and consumption of their meat is permitted under law. But within days of the BJP government assuming office in July, the party’s cow protection cell, Gau Samrakshana Prakoshta, wrote to Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa seeking a complete ban on cattle slaughter.

Law of the jungle

During his earlier stint in office, the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill had been passed in both the houses of the Karnataka legislature, providing for a stringent law against cattle slaughter. That bill, which had been rejected by the Governor, was later withdrawn by the Siddaramaiah government.

As of now, Karnataka has in place a 1964 law that partially prohibits cattle slaughter but permits slaughter of non-milch and diseased cattle. The 2010 bill had sought to bring slaughter of buffalo also under the ambit of the law, and banned the sale and transport of beef, while prescribing a maximum seven-year jail sentence for offenders.

If the BJP manages to win sufficient number of seats in the December 5 bye-elections to 15 seats and ensure for itself a comfortable majority in the Assembly, the demands for bringing back the bill are likely to get aggressive. The party has announced that it had constituted a team of experts to study the relevant laws that exist in other states.

If the BJP goes ahead and brings back the bill, the Congress is sure to find itself on the back foot, given its ambivalent stand on cow slaughter and consumption of beef. While Siddaramaiah has opposed any curtailment of people’s food choices, not everyone in the Congress are likely to support his view. For instance, his colleague Ramalinga Reddy, who was Home Minister in the Congress government, was quoted by The Times of India as saying, “All of us worship cow and it should not be slaughtered. Personally, I object to the killing of any animals.”

Coming back to the controversy over Govina haadu, the poem turned into Huliya haadu under poetic licence exercised by poet and playwright KY Narayanaswamy.  When the Congress came to power in 2014, the secularists latched on to it to counter the Hindutva agenda.

This version stresses the food chain in the natural order of things. The main protagonist turns into a tigress, a mother just like Punyakoti. While preying on Punyakoti, the tigress is told by her cub to let the cow go so she could feed her calf. When the cow returns as promised, the tigress refuses to eat it saying they are both mothers. As the tigress moves away, she is shot down by a cowherd. The cow thinks the tigress has killed herself out of guilt. The cub asks the dying tigress: “If meat-eating is wrong, why didn’t God create grass-eating tigers?” The tigress dies, but not before advising her cub to not hesitate to kill.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He has reported extensively on politics and policy for leading news publications in India and the Gulf)
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