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Milking Bodies to Make a Nation
Women and the bovine as founding mothers
By Apoorva Sripathi
Does milk make a nation?
In many cultures across the world, dairy has been one of the building blocks of civilization. As Paul S. Kindstedt writes in Cheese and Culture, milk first became a part of the human diet as sustenance for infants and young children, who were still in possession of lactase, the transient enzyme required to digest it. For them, “milk was an invaluable food.” Evidence suggests that adult humans started drinking milk some 6,000 years ago, perhaps even before some of us became lactase persistent. Lactose malabsorption in adults was almost universal until sometime between 7000 and 6500 BC, when we started to domesticate animals and drink their milk. The discovery of pottery helped us store and transport warm milk in pots, which also gave us yogurt, cheese, and butter — products that helped ease adults into milk consumption. Or as my colleague at CHEESE, the magazine of culture, Anna Sulan Masing put it: “Cheese was the gateway drug.”
Today, milk is revered in itself, and is the beverage of choice for many children growing up. From public health mandates and school programmes to TV advertisements and the rebuking of parents, the importance of milk in the diet of a child is hammered home. There is simply no escaping milk.
Sometime in late colonial India, writes William Gould in Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India, cow’s milk became associated with the purity and strength of the nation, and the concept of the “mother cow” was mirrored with that of “Mother India”; both the cow and its milk simultaneously became life-giving. If drinking milk makes children into strong adults, who in turn become symbolic of a nation’s strength and power, then perhaps milk does make a nation. But first, a nation must make milk.
As a commodity in Indian culture and life, milk has been present since the time of the Harappan civilization. However, the issue of milk and nation-making became an urgent necessity after Independence. The government’s plan to increase both the production and consumption of milk, especially among the poor, resulted in the great dairy development scheme of the 1970s, Operation Flood. To this day, Operation Flood, also known as the “White Revolution”, is heralded as the country’s landmark agricultural project. By making use of donations from European countries and the United States through the World Food Programme (WFP), it transformed India from a milk-deficient country to the largest producer of milk in the world. Writes Andrea S. Wiley in Cultures of Milk:
Europe’s dairy industry had been generating massive gains in milk production, which had resulted in a vast surplus at home that threatened to destabilize local milk prices. The WFP was a way of disposing of this surfeit without causing the collapse of local dairy industries in Europe and the United States, and it could do so with an ostensibly humanitarian purpose.
Initially, the WFP’s food aid, in the form of surplus milk, was supposed to help reduce the price of milk in India by increasing supply. Eventually, Dr. Verghese Kurien, chairman of the Indian National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), convinced the WFP to allow the formation of a milk producers union, known today as Amul, to reconstitute milk powder from the surplus, sell the milk, and use the profits to expand the dairy industry. Operation Flood, which sought to revolutionize milk production and marketing, eventually expanded its mandate to include improving the organized dairy sectors in India’s four metros, increasing rural incomes, expanding milk outlets, forming village co-operatives, and so on.
Although its legacy is lasting — India is now the world’s largest producer of milk — the narrative of Operation Flood as a success is somewhat dubious. Not only did the funds from the sale of milk to urban consumers go towards importing European bulls and heifers and investing in high-yielding and crossbred cattle in a kind of ecological imperialism1, but the linear narrative of progress masks the reality that while some benefited from Operation Flood, others did not. Foremost in this narrative is its “success” in empowering rural women, which has taken root in public rhetoric in recent years. Critics of Operation Flood note that despite the fact that women are responsible for taking care of cattle, collecting fodder, and milking, they’ve had limited access to new technologies due to the industry’s focus on men, and their role in the program has not been adequately recognized. In actuality, Operation Flood alienated rural women with its modernizations, destabilizing their incomes by selling butter, ghee, and other milk products through Amul. This undermined (and removed) their subsistence economy, and transformed it into a capitalist commercial enterprise, while lowering their status in society and family, writes Greta Gaard in Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies.
One legacy of Operation Flood is that simply, more milk is available than before. And more people consume it. Amul, the largest dairy cooperative to come out of Operation Flood, held its own against dairy giants like Nestle and Glaxo, thanks to the (then) newfound production of skim milk powder made from the country’s abundance of buffalo milk. India’s milk production grew by 36 percent between 2014-15 and 2019-20, and today, the dairy and animal husbandry sector constitutes four percent of GDP. So, in a sense, milk did make this nation.
But what kind of nation did it make?
Post Independence, India’s focus was on self-sufficiency through programmes like Operation Flood and the Green Revolution (which saw the industrialization of agriculture in India). The impact of both has been fiercely controversial.
The post-independence period in India was haunted by the ghosts of insufficient agricultural productivity, land reforms made without the requisite changes in power patterns or economic disparities, and droughts leading to frequent famines. Of course, it also saw the displacement of about 20 million people as a result of Partition, which shifted borders to suit religious differences and created irreversible fault lines between the countries of India and Pakistan and their residents.
The impacts of Partition, and the large-scale communal violence, riots, and the abduction and rape of women that it entailed, continue to reverberate in India today, manifesting as in mob violence against the Other — violence that is closely tied to the consumption of bovine bodies. The “beef lynchings” of Muslims, of Dalits, Adivasis, and people of marginalized castes, are vicious expressions of hatred by those who don’t eat the cow against those who do. “Lynching is an old crime here, often committed against those of so-called lower castes and marginalized tribes, in order to reinforce brutal social hierarchies,” writes Supriya Nair in a piece on India’s beef lynchings for The Atlantic.
These “brutal social hierarchies” are what helped build, and continue to build, the framework for a nationalist India. And crucial to these social hierarchies — besides taboos on cow slaughter and meat, mob violence, and a Hindutva ideology that endorses all of the above — is also viewing the cow as the “vulnerable” mother that requires protection from so-called “predatory” beings who consume its meat.
The cow has been adored by and widely celebrated among many of the world’s religions and cultures: Ancient Egypt had a maternal cow goddess; depictions of Greek and Roman feasts show cow-head rhytons; cows appear on pottery from China’s Qing dynasty, whose reign prohibited the slaughtering cows and horses; and 19th-century ivory cow figurines (or netsuke) from Japan reflect a time before the Meiji reign when meat was not only considered to be unsafe, but the Buddhist principle of reincarnation forbade eating beef and drinking milk (it was seen as akin to drinking blood).
But none come close to the obsessiveness of India’s bovine protection squad.
Cow vigilantes, as they’re called, are self-appointed Hindu fundamentalist groups who carry out violent attacks against those — predominantly Muslims — who consume and slaughter cows, or are in possession of beef. One such act in 2015 came to define the country’s continued structural violence against the Other. A violent mob dragged Mohammad Akhlaq, 52, from his house and beat him to death after a Hindu temple in his village of Bishahra, in Dadri district in Uttar Pradesh, announced that he was in possession of and had consumed beef. A year later, in 2016, cow vigilantes flogged seven Dalits for merely carrying out their occupation of skinning dead cows. From 2012 to December 2018, there were 99 official instances of violence related to cow vigilantism.
Beef consumption — considered by Hindu upper castes as “morally problematic” “impure”, and “non-vegetarian”2 — was actually a part of Hinduism during the Vedic times; the taboo grew during the rise of Buddhism and Jainism as a way of positioning Hinduism in opposition to those religions. Today, beef consumption is prevalent in most regional cuisines and religions in India, including Hinduism in some cases, and has become a form of political resistance to state power. Meeting this resistance are forceful deterrents: a ban on cow slaughter in many Indian states, heftier punishment for those caught violating the law, and horrifying extralegal attacks by cow vigilantes, whose obsessiveness and reverence of the cow as a cosmic being and mother in Hindu thought and tradition run deep.
Like Nair writes, lynching is an old crime in India and is one of the many ways employed by caste Hindus in their attempt to claim superiority over Muslims and the lower and marginalized castes they consider “inferior”. Constantly dehumanizing the Other — for swimming in a well, for riding a horse, for sitting cross-legged, for sitting in a train after enjoying Eid festivities — creates a social hierarchy that keeps power concentrated at the top, all the while squeezing out wealth, labour, pleasure, the right to eat beef or to marry someone of one’s choosing. This is how upper-caste and Hindutva machinations work to forge a nationalist identity.
One of the key instruments of this nationalist identity lies in the control of bodies, both bovine and woman, which are sites of Hindu patriarchy and nation-making. Just like how the control of the bovine, in the form of “protection” from the Other, is in the hands of a few powerful, so is the control of women. Women have been fighting men and the patriarchy world over for control of their own bodies, for higher pay, for political representation, for religious and personal freedom. But in India, this fight is also against Hindu conservatism, centuries-old caste hierarchy that is upheld by endogamous marriage, which in turn supports the country’s “outrageous culture of son-preference…widespread reproductive control, including but not limited to illegal sex-selective abortions and female infanticide,” and its hesitation to criminalize marital rape.
It is no surprise then that what one eats and whom one marries are critical in the making of a homogenous Hindu nation. Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, an eight-part series featuring an elite matchmaker trying to find “suitable” matches for her wealthy clients, was a prime example of that. It gave the world a taste of India’s ‘familial values’ — code for caste, religion, and morality. Marriage in India is still governed by the holy trinity of caste-religion-class and overseen by the Indian family (both one’s immediate and the society at large), a powerful social unit that upholds oppressive structures. It is why arranged marriages are still the norm and inter-caste marriages are low, at around five percent. Caste endogamy may be viewed as a means to maintain the ‘culture’ of a group or minimize conflict that may arise from customs, rituals, and everyday rules, by upper-caste Indian families. But it is more than that.
Caste endogamy, arranged marriage, marrying within the same caste or community — whatever the name, the practice is fundamental to the structure of the caste system, and in maintaining the status quo. It is also fundamental in depriving women of their agency. Failing to comply with the rules can result in brutal violence, where sometimes people pay with their lives. In 2019, the relatives of an upper-caste woman killed her Dalit husband in Gujarat in retaliation for marrying her against their wishes. Five days earlier, a gang murdered a couple in Tamil Nadu for marrying across caste lines. In another incident from 2019, a father allegedly doused his daughter and her husband with kerosene and set them on fire because he “vehemently opposed” their union. In the last five years (not including 2021), there have been a horrific 195 cases of honour killing (the term for the murder of a woman/man who is said to have brought dishonour/shame on the family) across the nation.
“Marriage, especially between ‘dominant’ and ‘untouchable’ castes, can pose a threat to that [caste] hierarchy. That explains why people in dominant castes often carry out brutal violence against their own family members who dare to marry outside their caste, particularly if a partner is Dalit,” writes Yashica Dutt, whose memoir Coming Out As Dalit dealt with her journey of coming to terms with her identity while also taking the reader through the history of the Dalit movement. “Of course, many marriages arranged by the parents and families of the couple turn out to be perfectly sweet and happy. But many also come with a loss of agency, especially for the woman, who must be ‘flexible’ and ‘adjust’ to the norms of her husband’s family, as the show [Indian Matchmaking] points out.”
“Motherhood” in Hindu patriarchy, and in the construction of a homogenous Hindu nation, is an exploitation of both bovine and human. No animal comes close as to what the cow can provide — from hides for leather and dung for fertilizer and fuel, to bones for refining sugar, milk and beef for food — and its value as a resource in agrarian societies is unmatchable. Cows are seen as sacrificing mothers who give freely to their children, even if it means denying milk to their own children. The resource-giving cow is framed as a primordial mother.
This primordial mother-cow association goes back to Gandhi, an upper-caste vegetarian, and to the iconic image of Kamadhenu, a divine bovine-goddess depicted as a cow's body studded with Hindu deities, which has been printed on calendars and pamphlets since the early twentieth century. The cow in Hindu religion and patriarchy is reproduced as political and religious capital, even though materially, the animal is merely an economic asset, forced to bequeath its milk, meat, and labour. In the beef-spurning Indian nation, milk is the symbol of inherent goodness and purity; it is commodified as “divine”, and is a source of “vegetarian” protein. Milk and milk products are a part of every Hindu ritual and practice. The cow’s udder is objectified as “exhaustless and all-sustaining”; it can pour “a thousand streams” and “give milk to feed us.”
Cows are also burdened “as guardians of Hindu purity”, writes Yamini Narayanan for Hypatia. Nevermind that drinking cow’s urine is permissible as medicine or spiritual therapy but eating its meat is considered sacrilege. Longstanding taboos on cow meat go hand in hand with taboos on marrying across caste lines; it is, after all, the woman who is considered the keeper of traditions and cultures through marriage and food. It is through the maternal figure and motherhood that the sensory experience of food is transmitted. It is the mother who nurtures bodies through food (including breast milk), especially in early human life, and it is through her that the lineage continues, bearing the burden of the household’s “honour” and “shame” alike. But the labour of constructed love (for both the cow and the woman) to build a Hindu society does not take into account the labour of bodies that are involved in this economy; it actively devalues their labour, while inflicting violence upon their bodies. And it burdens them with being the cultural guardians of this nation-state.
Both bovine and female bodies are sites of exploitation and capital for the Hindu patriarchy and ethnonationalism. Not only is the bovine body worshipped as a Mother Cow or even Mother India, but “her motherhood itself is mobilized as a resource for exploitation.” Similarly, it falls to women to comply with society’s need for “good” daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, marrying as per family rules or observing modesty in dressing, behaviour, and thought. Generally, a woman is of “value” only if she serves the purpose of labour, in giving birth and working for the house, like the bovine. Interestingly enough, it is also women who are largely responsible for the labour involved in taking care of livestock. Intertwined in this gendered oppression are notions of caste and religion which regulate intimacy, desire, and politics.
In Gender and Nation, a searing analysis on gender and the construction of a nation-state, Nira Yuval-Davis describes how women give birth to nations biologically and symbolically, referring to them as both “cultural transmitters as well as cultural signifiers” of the collective nation. Where does this leave the bovine, whose milk is ubiquitous across cultures and nations, and which offers a narrative about India’s urbanization, economics, consumer culture, and patriarchy? Milk may have built this nation, but the burden of gendered oppression and nation-making lies with the cow and the woman.
Apoorva Sripathi is a writer, editor, occasional poet, and the co-founder of the independent magazine CHEESE. She also runs shelf offering, a food and culture newsletter that's currently on sabbatical.
This essay would not have been possible to write without the works of other authors, namely: C Sathyamala, Shanti George, Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Carol J Adams, Greta Gaard, and Arjun Appadurai, among others.
Gaard, G. (2013). Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies. American Quarterly 65(3), 595-618. doi:10.1353/aq.2013.0040.
Gould, W. (2004). Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wiley, A.S. (2014). Cultures of Milk: The Biology and Meaning of Dairy Products in the United States and India, 75. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England.
The term ecological imperialism was coined by Alfred Crosby.
A pejorative neologism that not only indicates a food hierarchy where vegetarianism is the default, but also points to the social power of the vegetarian class.