Mithun: Arunachal’s Holy Cow

In Arunachal Pradesh’s capital, Itanagar, a kilo of mithun meat can be purchased for 400 rupees. For the same sum, one can get more than three kilos of beef. The difference though, doesn’t end there.

Much screen time and space has been accorded to Arunachal Pradesh in the past few weeks, and surprisingly this time it has nothing to do with China’s claims over the Indian state in the far north-east!

Ever since the political crisis in the state began close to a year ago, it has snowballed into a right mess that eventually culminated in the imposition of President’s Rule; on Republic Day no less.

From TV debates to newspaper articles discussing and dissecting topics as varied as the merits and demerits of the arguments placed by the governor and the Centre for imposing President’s Rule down to the Congress high command’s failure to curb in-fighting, nothing, it seem is off the table, including the meat of bovines, beef or otherwise.

Last week when it was widely reported that governor JP Rajkhowa had cited the ‘slaughter of a cow’ in front of the Raj Bhavan gates as an example of the volatile law and order situation in the state, many chaffed at the argument. While some pointed to the fact that it was a mithun, and not a cow that was ‘sacrificed and not slaughtered’, others argued that the species of the animal in question was irrelevant and that the act itself was meant to serve as an act of defiance against the constitutional head and his handling of affairs.

As the Supreme Court continues to hear both sides of the argument leading to the imposition of President’s Rule, the cow-mithun debate rages goes on.

Anyone who has chanced upon a mithun or even an image of one can instantly tell that a mithun is a mithun and not a cow. Although the two animals may be scientifically classified as belonging to the same family, to those of whom it matters- the people of the state- they are two very distinct animals.

The mithun, a semi-domesticated animal, can be found roaming freely in most parts of the state with the same amount of impunity that cows in the streets of Delhi enjoy.

Now, it is common knowledge that shooing cows away in the busy streets of our metropolises is paramount to committing the gravest of sins. Entire streets come to a standstill when a cow decides to soak in the view of incoming traffic by parking herself on a zebra crossing.

The human-mithun interaction though, is a little different.

In Arunachal Pradesh, urbanization has not permeated to the natural world to the same extent that it has in other parts of the country. Mithuns can be seen on the lower reaches of hills that envelop most urban centres in the state but for most parts, the animal steers clear of traffic and is left to its own devices.

Traffic-related difference aside, there are other more important distinction between the two animals.

Unlike how one is treated in parts of the country as holy, the other is not. While it is milked by some communities in certain places, the mithun is accorded importance for two reasons- its meat and as an indicator of personal wealth.

Created with Nokia Refocus

A mithun’s primary role is to serve as an animal of sacrifice and have its meat be served.

During wedding ceremonies, mithuns are the preferred choice of gift and so naturally the more mithun a man can give the more indicative it is of his personal wealth. As archaic and chauvinistic as it may sound, its a tradition dating as far back as mankind.

Mithuns are also sacrificed as part of various rituals including those performed during celebrations of festivals. Consumption of its meat has always been considered essential to conduction of certain rituals. It is in this aspect that the mithun differs from the cow; not those relating to species or appearance but with regards to how it is perceived by the people.

There is of course the matter of the governor recently claiming that he had never mentioned mithun in his report to the Supreme Court. The problem here is that that report has not been made public and in fact, it has been shielded from everyone besides the court.

If a document is permissible in court as evidence, surely it can be made available to those who are affected the most by it- the people. While the governor may have denied mentioning mithun in the report, it was his own counsel (as per media reports) who disclosed this fact. Unfortunately, the secrecy surrounding the report means that until the report is disclosed, we will have to accept that there is a contradiction between the statements given to the court and one given to the media.

The problem is not necessarily in the contradiction but in the fact that information that flows from power corridors is often shrouded in such mystery in an attempt to save face. For example, on the evening of February 2, news was trickling in that YS Dadwal had quit his role as the Centre’s advisor to the governor. By later that night it was more or less confirmed. However, sources within and close to the Raj Bhavan maintained that he was merely going on leave for health reasons and that he would be back. By the next day the story had become clear and Dadwal’s resignation hit national headlines.

Officials in the Raj Bhavan cannot be blamed; after all that is the nature of the beast. Speaking of beasts.

One of the arguments that has been doing the rounds is that the animal in question is a non-issue; that the very act of slaughtering/sacrificing any animal, cow or otherwise, is an act of blatant disregard for law and order.

Does the crime that a person commits have less of an impact on the victims by the nature of the crime? Well, yes and no.

India is home to crimes of different kinds that occur with far too much frequency then anyone would like. However, even in cases where accused persons are found guilty, they are not always convicted with death sentences. It is only on rare occasions that the court awards death penalties to criminals for the harshest of crimes while in most cases it awards life imprisonment sentences to the guilty. While life imprisonments do ‘kill’ a large part of a person’s life, they are not the same as the death penalty. In our present case, the nature of the beast really is irrelevant compared to the nature of the act. But, what is relevant is the interpretation of the act and its presentation thereof.

Until the governor’s report is made public, we will have to accept what was told to the court- that a ‘cow’ was ‘slaughtered’. The reason that the wording is so important is that it can viewed as an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of those who uphold the cow with sanctity. It is, some may argue, an attempt to pull at the strings of an emotion that may skew someone’s logical view.

There is of course, no doubt that the mithun has a special place amongst most people in Arunachal almost the same way that the cow in certain communities in parts of the country is held in high regard.

The mithun though, not only enjoys a position of high esteem here, it is also enjoyed steamed.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s