The sacredness of the cow and the religious proscription against the consumption of beef were invented as late as the medieval period, and have since represented powerful unifying forces among the Hindu community. Today, the wave of lynchings the country has experienced shows how these notions continue to be instrumentalized by the nationalist extreme right.
Since 2010, at least 63 lynchings, provoking 28 deaths related to ‘cow terrorism’, have been mentioned in the Indian English language press.  These attacks are committed by ‘Gau Rakshaks’, groups dedicated to protecting the sacred cow, and they specifically target segments of the population believed to consume beef. 51 % of the lynchings involved the Muslim minority and 8 % the Dalits (the lowest castes, considered untouchable), and in 21 % of cases, the victims’ caste and religion are unknown. How do we understand the emergence of this violence in the sub-continent? What social and political tensions do these attacks reveal?
The origins of a dietary taboo
When referring to the sacred nature of the cow, the Hindus call it ‘Gau mata’ or mother cow and, as such, it is the object of a dietary taboo related to ritual purity. But this has not always been the case. In The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009), the historian D. N. Jha recalls that the nomadic peoples who settled in India during the 2nd millennium BE, and founded the Brahmanical culture we call Hinduism today, did not consider the cow a sacred animal. At the time they ate its meat and used it in ritual sacrifices. Although animal sacrifice is rejected in the Vedic texts (dating from between the 15th and 5th centuries BC) the consumption of cows was not considered a sin at the time.