MADRAS, India — The Indian cow is not mad. But it has enough clout to cause insanity among the country’s political classes, and even the masses.

India’s Hindu majority considers the cow to be holy. It is worshipped, petted and pampered. Naturally, its slaughter is banned in most parts of this nation of 1 billion people.

At times, all this celebration and concern boil down to bovine absurdity — for instance, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was recently accused of eating beef. It is not surprising that he vehemently denied the charges, for he had much to lose if the smear campaign succeeded.

As the head of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which, along with several coalition partners, runs the federal government in New Delhi, Vajpayee would rather die than be caught eating beef.

While the BJP and their increasingly fanatical Hindu associates view the protection of cows as an assertion of their religious rights, liberal educators and historians — despite being members of the same community — are weary of all this. They see the cow debate as a travesty of Hinduism, something that reflects the disappearance of the more enlightened aspects of the faith.

There are indications they are right. Hardcore Hindus, both within the government and outside of it, say the cow issue is part of the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. Many members of India’s minority Muslim population of 140 million eat beef, and they have been an obvious target of Hindu radicalism ever since the subcontinent was divided into two nations by the British in 1947.

Apart from deepening the rift between Hindus and Muslims, the cow issue has caused confusion in legislative circles. There have been a spate of aborted laws and episodes of one-upmanship between the BJP and other political parties, most notably the Congress party. In fact, it was the Congress party that put up banners proclaiming that Vajpayee was enjoying beef.

Political parties have often used the highly emotive cow issue to cause bloodshed. Killings of cows have provoked riots. At times, Hindu politicians have even thrown cow carcasses outside Hindu temples to incite a mob into butchering Muslims, who were thought to be the culprits.

Other assumptions exist that are equally ridiculous. Not all Indian Muslims eat beef. In Islam-dominated Kashmir, Muslims do not touch beef. In central India — known as the “cow belt” where beef is banned — rich Muslims eat mutton, and the poor slaughter and eat buffalo.

In Kerala, most Hindus consume beef, and in the seven states of northeastern India, beef is a staple diet. The last time there was a debate on banning the slaughter of cows, one of the speakers in India’s Parliament pointed out that such a law could result in a food crisis in the northeast.

As these discussions continue — interspersed with bloody massacres and dirty personal accusations — cows themselves lead a miserable existence. Most are sickly and starving because they have been left to wander drought-stricken villages and urban jungles in search of food. Hundreds of cows die every year because they have no fodder.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say there is food for only 60 percent of India’s cattle. The rest, which have been mercilessly abandoned to fend for themselves, die slow and painful deaths with their intestines clogged with garbage, plastic bags and glass.

If cows are really divine, as Hindus believe, why are they allowed to suffer? In reality, the whole issue of cow protection seems to provide an excuse for some to butcher Muslims or, at the very least, to smear politicians.

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