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Why the Indian Government U-Turned on ‘Cow Hug Day’

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

India’s state-run Animal Welfare Board U-turned Friday on urging citizens to celebrate “Cow Hug Day” on Feb. 14 this year instead of Valentine’s Day. The reversal came after sparking criticism—and in many cases mockery—from the public at home and abroad.

“This is NOT a joke!” read one tweet in response to the Animal Welfare Board’s appeal.

The Board gave no reason for the U-turn in its Friday statement.

In its original statement Wednesday, the government department called cows the “backbone” of Indian culture and rural economy, saying that “hugging cows will bring emotional richness and increase individual and collective happiness.” It added that hugging cows would help counter the threat posed to Vedic traditions—which stem from the ancient religious Hindu texts of the Vedas—that faced “near extinction” because of Westernization.

The initial statement marked one of the few times that a government entity had come out so forcefully against Valentine’s Day. But in recent years, Hindu hardliners had gone as far as raiding shops as well as burning cards and gifts, the Associated Press reported.

Why does the Indian government want its citizens to hug cows?

Many devout Hindus believe that in Vedic Aryan tradition, the cow is a sacred animal to be worshiped because, to them, it represents Mother Earth. As the statement from the Animal Welfare Board reads, the cow’s “nourishing nature” is the “giver of all providing riches to humanity.”

But India has not always attached such importance to the animal. In his book The Myth of the Holy Cow, historian D.N. Jha argues that the cow’s sanctity is a relatively recent tradition by a community whose culture is “often imagined as threatened by Muslims.” More importantly, he writes, “the cow has tended to become a political instrument in the hands of rulers over time.”

While India has historically pushed secularism and diversity with seven different major religions, Hindus comprise nearly 80% of the nation’s 1.4 billion people. In the last decade, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s majoritarian agenda, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has led devout Hindu followers to argue that the celebration of romance on Valentine’s Day goes against traditional Indian values.

Academics note that by 2014, a period of “saffronization”—where Hindu nationalist supporters began wearing the orange hue traditionally worn by Hindu priests—was well underway in India. During this time, vigilante groups began patrolling the streets to enforce Hindu moral codes, which included stopping the slaughter of cows by non-Hindu butchers and harassing couples for holding hands in public or celebrating Valentine’s Day.

Modi has not expressed his support for such radical tactics. However, the BJP’s policies expressly refuse to uphold secular values.

Read More: How a Historic March Could Revive India’s Opposition Movement

How has India celebrated Valentine’s Day in recent years?

In the early 1990s, Valentine’s Day began to soar in popularity as India underwent a series of economic liberalization policies, which led to the rise of a new Indian middle class with spending power, and the purchasing of gifts and cards from international brands like Hallmark and Indian stores like Archie’s. Valentine’s Day has also featured heavily in Bollywood rom-coms like Dil to Pagal Hai.

Today, young Indian couples, especially in urban cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, will typically celebrate Valentine’s Day by gifting each other balloons and chocolates, spending time together in public parks, cinemas and restaurants, or going to Valentine’s Day-themed parties. One tech platform reported that Indians spent anywhere between $100 to $200 million dollars on Valentine’s Day gifts and experiences in 2020 alone.

However, such celebrations have also been met with fierce opposition from Hindu hardliners, who in recent years have formed anti-Valentine’s Day squads that target people celebrating the holiday. In a notable incident in 2009, one group in the southern state of Mangalore assaulted women for being out with men in a pub. In 2020, another group issued a notice in Delhi stating that any couple caught engaging in the criminal act of “obscenity” would be “handed over to the police.”

In 2018, the BJP once again attempted to shift the emphasis from celebrating romance on Valentine’s Day to celebrating one’s parents by introducing the Matra-Pitra Diwas or “Mother-Father Day.” In the northern state of Rajasthan, the decision was overturned by the state government, with the state’s education minister stating that “worshipping [the parents] should not be limited to any single day.”

How are Indians reacting to ‘Cow Hug Day’?

Since the Animal Welfare Board released its original statement on Wednesday, many Indians have taken to Twitter to post comments, memes, and videos in reaction to the news.

While some have shrugged off the statement as mere entertainment, others have also expressed their support online. “What’s the issue ? If people can celebrate happiness with animals like cat and dog so why not with cow ? [sic],” one Twitter user posted.

Others reacted with more subversive comments. “The world is going to be a much safer place for Indian women on Feb 14th with the Bhakt armies going to hug cows,” posted another user, a reference to the prevalence of gendered violence instigated by vigilante groups.

“Unclear whether bovine consent is required but you’ll find out, no doubt,” another Twitter user joked, a nod to questions over how the Animal Welfare Board’s plea would go down among the wider public.

Either way, whatever Indians feel about Valentine’s Day, many agree that the Animal Welfare Board’s initial appeal was an overreach. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, told the Associated Press, the appeal is “absolutely crazy and defies logic.”

“This shows an eraser of one more line between the state and religion, which is very depressing. Now the state is doing what political and religious groups have been campaigning to do,” Mukhopadhyay added.

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Write to Astha Rajvanshi at astha.rajvanshi@time.com