Milk in the Motherland: Not What It Seems

Living in an Indian household, one easily understands the importance of dairy products in the kitchen. It is difficult to find a food group more universal; from delectable appetisers to mouth-watering desserts, milk is an essential ingredient everywhere. A large proportion of the Indian population is vegetarian; for them, milk is the main (often only) source of protein. It would be tough to imagine the myriad of Indian cuisines without this essential ingredient.

However, the sourcing of this condiment has come under intense scrutiny in the recent past. Cow (and buffalo) milk is a nutritious mixture, intended to nourish calves that the lactating mother bears. How can we blatantly rob this elixir from a young calf, and subject its mother to inhumane cruelty, to obtain something that (many argue) doesn’t fit into our natural diets anyway? Across the globe, the vegan food movement is gaining steam; people are realising, slowly and steadily, how inhumane the food industry is, and are changing their diets to include plant-based alternatives. Especially after an investigation into one of the most prominent ‘ethical’ dairy farms in the United States captured footage of the brutal assaults these animals face on a regular basis. (Look up the FairLife Dairy Farms for more information about this).

These videos made me think about whether it was the same in India as well. Why would India be any different, you ask? It is because Indians revere the cow as a holy animal. In Hinduism (the most prominent religion in the country), the cow is considered to be a representation of the all-giving mother. Considered analogous with Aditi, the mother of the gods in some texts, and a representation of Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) in others, the cow is extremely respected and esteemed in the HIndu religion. More often than not, the life of a cow is valued more than human life. Seems too far-fetched for you to fathom? There’s a large number of news reports to back me up on this. These self-styled Gau Rakshaks (cow vigilantes) have made it their mission to put an end to the trafficking and consumption of cow meat, with no care about the law and the rights that it accords to Indian citizens. Thus, I pondered, is the dairy industry better in India? Surely, I thought; people wouldn’t dare violate the revered cow. Therefore, consuming milk and milk products which would be ‘ethical’ (in a sense) would not promote cruelty against these animals, since utmost care would be taken to prevent harm to the animal.

The former statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. The conventional picture, of a herd of cattle chewing the cud in an expansive meadow, is a facade for how the dairy industry really operates, even in India. India prides itself on being the top exporter of milk in the world, painting the picture that they carefully harvest the milk from the cow, causing the least pain possible. However, we don’t broadcast the fact that we’re the second largest exporter of beef in the world, second only to Brazil. If you believe that consuming dairy (especially in India) is less harsh on the animal compared to consuming the animal itself, this decades-long illusion has worked its magic on you, as it has on me and countless others. Artificial insemination, separating calves from their mothers at birth, sending male calves straight to the slaughterhouse, injecting lactating cows and buffaloes with hormones; all of these are standard procedure in an Indian dairy farm, too. Of course, the dairy and beef industries go hand in hand; one cannot survive without the other. After all, farmers need a place to dispose of the unwanted male calves and ’spent’ dairy cows and buffaloes, don’t they? The brutality of the dairy industry persists in our country too; the only difference is that it has learned how to cover up its tracks better.

Therefore, reflecting on the question I posed, I have come to understand that consuming dairy in India isn’t as clean and ethical as it would seem to be. The prominence of the dairy and beef industry in India is the biggest hypocrisy I have observed. The idea of worshipping cows and subjecting them to inhumanity simultaneously seems grotesquely comical; if only it was fiction. Neither is this farce going to be exposed anytime soon; milk products form an essential part of the vegetarian diet, and are staples in every Indian kitchen. Even as I write this, I contemplate my next meal, with paneer (Indian cottage cheese) as the star ingredient. However, with time and knowledge, we can hope to bring about change. We pride ourselves on being intelligent animals, but we forget this does not give us the right to slaughter all the others sharing our planet for our consumption; I hope this realisation dawns on us soon.

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