Even in a country where the cow is revered, a government ministry dedicated to the protection of the animal is a first.
Rajasthan’s right-wing Hindu administration is set to establish a government department for the preservation and protection of cows and to start research institutions, or cow science universities, focused on the rearing and health of the animal.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in the desert state, India’s largest by area, in December, is fulfilling a key pledge from its manifesto and plans to declare the cow as the state animal.
“Indigenous livestock protection should be of concern of any sensitive government and BJP has taken the lead in that direction,” said Jyoti Kiran, a spokesperson for BJP in Rajasthan.
Hindus, in general, do not eat beef out of reverence for the cow, which is viewed in the religion as providing nourishment. The animal has long been associated with various Hindu dieties, including Krishna, who is often depicted in images surrounded by cows.
Although there is no national law against slaughtering of the animal, many states have cow protection laws, some of which impose a prison term on those found guilty of killing cattle, or even transporting them to the slaughter house.
As a result, the killing of any kind of cattle, particularly cows, in India remains acontentious political issue, which in the past has led to violence and unrest.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (the World Hindu Council) urges Hindus to vote for politicians who say they’ll support a nationwide cow slaughter ban. “Cow is our mother,” said Prakash Sharma, a spokesperson for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Despite this, India is the world’s second largest beef exporter behind Brazil and will likely export 1.8 million tons of the meat in 2014, around 20% of world trade, according to United States government forecasts.
Most of this is buffalo meat, an animal viewed as less sacred than the cow in India and in many India states, including the capital Delhi, is allowed to be butchered. But the trade, even in buffalo beef which is also seeing a steady rise in consumption in urban areas of India, angers Hindu nationalists.
In Rajasthan, where cow slaughter is banned, the ruling BJP wants to review and toughen up the existing laws governing cow smuggling for slaughter and plans to give up to 3.5 billion rupees ($57 million) every year to nonprofits and government agencies running cattle smallholdings for feed and upkeep.
To protect cows reared in cowsheds, there will also be a state-wide campaign to provide them proper health care with clinics held twice a month for cattle, according to the states’ animal husbandry department’s plan for its first 60 days in office.
Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for forthcoming federal polls, has in the past called for an end to the export of Indian beef and criticized the ruling Congress party’s cow-related policies.
In an Aug. 2012 post on his website, Mr. Modi wrote: “Our future generation is not getting sufficient milk and this Government wants to kill cows that provide us ‘ladder for life’. I’m sure that you will contribute your might in stopping such insane act.”
More recently, his government in Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001, announced plans for a sanctuary close to Porbandur, where Mahatma Gandhi was born, for at least 10,000 cows.
Before Mr. Modi was announced as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last September, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist group connected to the BJP, said it would back Mr. Modi as the man to lead the party, as long as he promised to deliver on four issues, one of which was the protection of cows.
In the past, Indian states where the BJP has held power, it has tried to toughen cow rights laws. In the southern state of Karnataka, for example, the party attempted to introduce legislation to ban cow slaughter completely and make it illegal to sell any kind of beef in the state. However, it failed to do so because it did not get presidential approval, with the party kicked out of office in local polls in May last year.