Are You a Cowboy or an Indian?

A while back I was invited to a party. It was a Wild West-themed fancy dress party. People could dress as anything connected to the theme. I chose not to make any effort. For that is how I roll.

When asked what I was dressed as, I replied, “I am an Indian.” I can’t recall if anybody found that joke funny. However, as the evening wore on—under the influence of different drinks—I would totter (tottering is my signature dance move!) around the dancefloor, calling out “not cowboy, but Indian.”

During a recent India Explained Podcast (TIEP) recording, talk of this party brought back some fun memories and also flagged the state of play in a big national debate. All of it bottoms out into the question whether you are a cowboy or an Indian?

My fellow podcaster @rchops and I noticed that cows, specifically the restrictions on beef, had taken centre stage in the nation’s politics and public discussions. This ban extended to all professions along the beef supply chain, in effect people who farmed, transported, cooked, and served beef. The restrictions were enforced by our very own version of cowboys.

First off, we were perplexed by the ‘apna cowboy’ phenomenon. These are not the mythic cowboys of the Wild West variety, heroic figures who would help the weak against the strong. Instead these are generally gangs of lawless thugs calling themselves ‘gau rakshaks’ (cow protectors). Their duty is to police the circulation of cows and prevent consumption of beef. Lynching people and harassing innocent people are viewed as a natural side effect, a small occupational hazard of a noble profession. The fact that victims are often poor and Muslim is perhaps a mere coincidence.

If we had to make some Western-style movies for this lot we would probably run with a gentle opener The Magnificent Lynching, with the sequel The Ugly, the Dumb and the Fanatic and the climax rounding up the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in UP.

Secondly, we were curious as to why cows, even given their sacredness, have been prioritized over other animals. In the Hindu pantheon, animals have a very meaningful overlap with Gods.  Durga has a lion, Saraswati a swan, Karthik a peacock, etc. So our question in this faith-driven protection racket is who is protecting these other animals? We would love to hear more about this and specifically from people who have skills and aptitudes in managing zoos. You can find us at @IndiaExplained

In the end, we felt that the best way to deal with the cowboys of our times is by being Indian. We noticed a brilliant initiative in IIT Madras where students have organized a beef festival; we know that groups of Kolkata’s foodies have organized ‘porkaholics’ food tours and Tunday Kebabi of Lucknow are open for business again. We look forward to hearing from people who through everyday gestures are signaling to neighbors, friends and colleagues that in their bits of India, the cowboys are not winning and never will.

@buntybolta for the IndiaExplained team. Share your stories with us @IndiaExplained