Cow, ‘backwardness’ and ‘Bahujan’ Women


Asha Singh 

asha singh 1My Ahir-dominant village in Bhojpur district of Bihar has a school only up to standard seven. After the seventh grade, if somebody (or their family) decides to study further, they get enrolled in schools in nearby villages or Arrah Town. Boys do go to these schools. However, girls visit these schools only twice every year – Once to get their names enrolled and the second time to give their yearly exams. They are accompanied to the school by the male members of the family. One needs to recognise that these ‘two visits’ are also marked by several hurdles. Every household in my village has small holdings of land and varying numbers of cattle. If an adolescent girl has to leave for her school, she has to begin her day early, in dark morning hours, cleaning the cow-shed. Cleaning includes removing cow-dung followed by feeding the cattle (dry or wet fodder), washing the cow-shed, and sprinkling/spreading ash on its surface to dry the cow-shed. Washing utensils, plastering the aangan (veranda) with cow dung and mud, setting the fire, cooking food, serving breakfast to the men of the family are also listed in her chores. Young girls and women do not reside in their homes as ‘students’. They are cattle-rearers (pashupalaks) and are historically burdened by gendered domestic labour. Their mothers and other elderly women have to look after the fields. Their work includes cutting grass and collecting fodder for the cattle, sowing, transplanting, weeding, harvesting, winnowing so on and so forth. When young women are capable enough of taking care of the household and ensuing domestic chores, elderly women take up greater responsibilities outside.

If adolescent girls were to spend an entire day in school, it would mean a complete ‘disruption’ of gendered domestic routine. In such a situation, it is impossible for them to attend schools every day, all round the year.

However, they are surely enrolled in schools and ‘passing’ matriculation or completing high school is being increasingly perceived as a necessary condition in the marriage economy. In order to fulfill this ‘condition’ women do reach their examination halls. Recently, a close acquaintance fixed his daughter’s marriage with a government employee. Among other dictates, the would-be groom’s family insisted that the girl should at least ‘pass’ her matriculation exams as the boy is a rare specimen (a government employee) in their ‘backward’ caste.  When the conditions were agreed upon the would-be bride was preparing for her matriculation (tenth) board exams. Unfortunately, she failed in Maths when the results were out. This news did not go very well with the boy’s family; they seemed rather hesitant about pursuing this proposal further. But the girl’s father requested for a year’s time to fulfill their demand as he had already paid one lakh rupees as dowry ‘advance’. Next year, after pulling many strings, he figured out the examiner’s address and visited him. He bribed the examiner and ensured that his daughter does not fail!

Unlike certain Dalit communities[1] in Southern India or Maharashtra (especially Ambedkarites and Buddhists), backward classes in Bihar do not envision ‘education’ as an important strategy or instrument to rupture caste-gender structures. On the other hand, ‘education’ is seen as a commodity which ornaments existing caste-gender practices.

Thus, it is not very difficult to understand that young women from rural, agrarian, cattle-rearing castes who are placed in a complex system of gendered caste labour will find few opportunities to study or read.

In such a situation, ‘answers’ would not appear in their answer sheets through miracles. Nor would they ‘miraculously’ reach colleges or universities to claim their place in ‘reserved’ or ‘unreserved’ seats. For women from cattle-rearing castes, ‘cattle-rearing’ or pashupalan is a major hurdle in accessing educational-social-political and economic resources. This essay is an attempt to understand the ‘backwardness’ of pashu-palak women. Such an exercise is important in present times when a milch animal is made the center of politics with renewed vigour.

Cattle, Khataal and Everyday Life

First, it is important to provide a general idea about the everyday life around cattle. To understand the role of women in cattle-rearing households I conversed with women in my extended family and also visited Khataals[2] in Danapur, Bihar. However, one cannot deny the fact that we need detailed and time-consuming research work to capture the gendered processes involved in cattle-rearing. My descriptions are mostly indicative and not exhaustive. A description of each and every meticulous detail would stretch beyond the present scope of this essay.

After getting up early in the morning, the cattle are brought out of the cow-shed and tied close to the Naad (a large vessel made of cement, fiber or clay often immersed in a hole dug on the ground. It contains the fodder for the cattle. There are broadly two varieties of fodder - dry and greens (wet, known as Hara or Hariyari). Dry fodder usually consists of Chokar, Chuni, Khuddi and Kharaayi (cereals, seeds, forage etc.) They are usually mixed with water and emptied into the Naad. The greens (foliage) from the fields are prepared for food by mixing them well with dry fodder such as hay. Feeding the cattle requires a lot of water. If there is an accessible well in one’s backyard or veranda the intensity of work is relatively less. On the other hand, if this is not the case, one needs to get water from nearby sources. A single cow requires around three to four buckets of water per meal. One can imagine how many litres of water is required to fill three to four buckets. In a day, per cow/per meal would mean not less than 50 litres of water. And the cattle are fed at least thrice every day. (Mandal Commission in its eleven indicators of backwardness also included - The distance of the nearest accessible water source from the household. Classes which lived away from the nearest water source were counted as ‘backward’. It is indicative that ‘cattle-rearing’ is largely an occupation of identified ‘backward’ classes.)

After feeding the cattle, the cattle-shed is cleaned and dried. This includes removing the dung and collecting it in a specific location near the shed. It is collected in a way that it can be later converted into cow dung cakes for fuel. After removing the dung, the shed is dried up using ash. Ash is spread on the floor of the shed. This is done to get rid of the moisture caused by dung and urine. Cleaning and drying the shed daily is paramount as the cattle need to rest in its shed in the afternoons and evenings.

It is not often possible to build an exclusive shed for the cattle, due to lack of space/land. Thus, many cattle-rearers convert their veranda/porch into cow-sheds. This basically means that the cattle and the ‘cattle-rearer’ have the same living room/space. While in urban areas, certain sections obsess their living rooms with several accessories such as air-fresheners and air-cleaners, cattle-rearing women ‘enjoy’ the fragrance of cow dung and urine! The urban lives of ‘cattle-rearers’ are not very different. I have closely learned that urban cattle-rearers sleep, live and cook food in cow-sheds, across towns and cities in Singrauli, Arah, Delhi, Danapur-Patna or Calcutta. We lived in Arah for a few days in a rental accommodation. Close to our accommodation, a relative had started his own Khataal. One day, it rained quite heavily, leaving the floor of the Khataal cold and damp. Our relative’s wife came hurriedly to us saying that she is afraid to let her children sleep on the wet floor as it is infested with insects and worms. She requested us to let her children sleep in our house for that night. 

Near our apartment in Danapur, a friend and his family (three children and his wife) run and live in a Khataal along with fifteen cows. My father often visits them to help their eldest son (who is in Grade Six) in his studies and assignments. He also tries to tell them that life in Khataal is not conducive for pursuing education. Children need a separate room/space with minimum facilities. Our friend fully agrees with my father and wants to rent a separate room for his family. However, his meagre income does not allow him to do so. The Khataal is a temporary make-shift structure and he does not own the land on which it stands. His father worked in a Khataal in Calcutta while he lived along with his mother in a village in Bihar. He used to attend school as well. However, the untimely death of his father deprived them of their only source of income and consequently, he had to take up the ‘caste-ordained’ occupation of cattle-rearing. He migrated to Danapur and started a Khataal of his own to earn a relatively better income.

Often such Khataals are set up on vacant plots in urban residential areas. The pashupalaks who set up such urban Khataals do not own these vacant plots. This makes the enterprise vulnerable to unwarranted evictions. They try to operate within a very limited space. Their existence is often under the patronage of local residents who tolerate them (in spite of its ‘disgusting’ appearance) for the fresh supply of milk and milk products. The khataals in Calcutta where hundreds of Bihari migrant pashupalaks work and live are located in the most hostile, uninhabitable areas of the city. 

In such contexts, where children of cattle-rearers lead their lives around cattle, one can imagine the impossibilities of educational mobility. The entire day is centered on the cattle in managing its food, excreta, and urine. These children hardly possess a ‘study table’, a clean room or corner or a peaceful environment. Don’t these caste-induced structural factors ensure ‘backwardness’?

Children are an integral part of cattle-rearing. Ahir women are taught to collect cow-dung and make cow-dung cakes from a very tender age. They are also trained in making curd, butter, ghee etc. Ahir men are trained in grazing cattle, bathing buffaloes for their childhood days. They are also trained to go door-to-door to supply milk. In urban centres, milk distribution is mostly a male domain. However, in villages, women do go door-to-door to sell curd and milk. My grandmother was an itinerant curd seller in Arrah Town. My mother often talks about this while my father is hesitant to give out such details. Yadav Conferences in the 20th century had resolved to prohibit women from selling curd and milk in markets as they come in contact with ‘other’ men.[3] Controlling women’s spatial and economic mobility was a potent method of making claims to ‘good’ varnas in the brahmanic scheme. However, there was hardly any focus on female education. It should be reiterated that cattle-rearing happens in very difficult material and human conditions.  In other words, cattle-rearing women do not have proper toilets, electricity, health care or mobility resources. A general lack of ‘material conditions’ is closely linked to ‘cow-induced’ caste-dictated ‘backwardness’ of the community.

My father would often tell me that if I did not study well I would be forced to make cow-dung cakes like my cousins. This idea might have pushed me to study further and lead a life free of cow excreta. My father hated cattle-rearing, and this hatred for a caste-ordained occupation inspired him to teach his children. In Singrauli, many Ahir households nurtured cattle in their government quarters. In government quarters cattle-rearing was an exclusive burden of women (wives, daughters, sisters of the male government employee). My father would try to convince these men that a cow-shed would ensure the ‘educational backwardness’ of their children, he would also try to ridicule their obsession for ‘cattle-rearing’. Cattle-rearing has been internalized in everyday conversations to such an extent that my mother, who spent a substantial span of her life looking after cattle, describes its ‘existence’ in her daily routine in one breath - रा काढ़-, चूल्हा लीप-, गोबर काढ़-, गोबर बटोर-, गोबर ठोक- (Remove the ash- plaster the hearth; remove cow-dung, collect it, and ‘cake’ it ).  After my paternal grandfather’s death, cattle-rearing stopped in our family. However, once my mother tried to look after a goat secretly. This secret obsession led to many fights in our family.

Kancha Illiah’s cattle-rearing scientists!

Kancha Illiah in his book ‘Post-Hindu India’[4] presents a positive picture of cattle-rearing communities. He underlines the importance of ‘labour’ in animal husbandry. Personally, such a positive portrayal was a new reading experience for me. Growing up, I have always held ‘negative images’ of my community. Self-hate is more of a rule for lowered-castes.[5] Other than electoral politics, I had hardly experienced the assertion of my casts in modern spaces.  I had hidden my identity all through my school, college, university and journalism days. Hiding my identity was a conscious decision. I knew that being an Ahir woman in modern spaces was either gazed with suspicion or as a rare exception. During my journalist days in Bhopal (Naidunia newspaper) a Brahmin colleague would often recount a proverb which listed lowered Bahujan castes such as ‘Ahir’, ‘Gujjar’ etc. to conclude that if these castes never existed people would have left their doors open with no locks.  In other words, the proverb says that these castes are ‘thieves’.  There are many  Bhojpuri proverbs which make Ahirs their object of humiliation and ridicule[6] -

* गोआर साठ बरिस में बालक होवे [A Gvala remains a child even at the age of sixty]

*अहीर बुझावे से ही मरदवा [The one who can ‘enlighten’ an Ahir is a man!]

*कतनो अहीर होय सयाना, लोरिक छोड़ ना गावहीं आना [However smart an Ahir may be, he is incapable of singing anything beyond the glories of Lorik (a legendary Ahir figure)]

The existence of oral cultural productions which communicate the non-meritocracy of Ahirs have many social and cognitive consequences. These productions are ways of maintaining ‘caste-discipline’.Many ‘Hindi’ scholars of the region have documented these proverbs without any critical analysis. One finds such documentation in folklorist Krishnadeva Upadhyaya’s work ‘ Bhojpuri Lok Sanskriti’ published by Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, Prayag.

Let it be oral or written literature, one hardly finds any positive description of one’s caste. In such a situation, Kancha Illaiah’s book is very important, where superficial accounts of ‘caste pride’ are rejected. Instead, he tries to anticipate and explain the historical journeys of skills acquired by cattle-rearing communities. He claims that cattle-rearers might have developed numbers to count their cattle instead of Brahmins. The latter was busy in writing Vedas which did not demand any application of numbers. Similarly, he claims that pashupalak women discovered the recipes of curd, ghee and paneer. Pashupalaks knew how to cure cattle, protect them in all weathers, attend them during pregnancy etc. Due to all these skills, Illiah describes cattle-rearers as mathematicians, scientists, doctors etc. When we read this for the first time, it feels really good. However, very soon one realizes that doctors, scientists, and mathematicians are professionals who exist within a political economy. One fully agrees that cattle-rearers are doing an important job, but in present times being a ‘cattle-rearer’ is not like being a mathematician or a scientist or a doctor. Their social and economic status is beyond comparison. Women in cattle-rearing communities are not ‘scientists’. They did not ‘choose’ cattle-rearing. People choose to be engineers and doctors. Gvala or Gvalin are not choice-based careers, it is a caste-ordained enforcement. Though women make curd and ghee they hardly have any consumption rights over their product. The milk-curd-ghee produced in a Pashupalaks household is majorly consumed by the Savarna consumer. They also do not have the right to decide the price of their products.

This ‘lack of autonomy’  over one's produce in a caste society needs to be placed within a historical timeline. Among the many caste-ordained taxes which existed in Bihar, one was succinctly called ‘ghee tax’. Due to the permanent settlement of zamindari during British Colonialism, upper-caste zamindars emerged as a very powerful force. According to G. Aloysius,[7] the biggest gainers of British Colonialism were upper-caste landlords. The colonizers wanted to set up an efficient tax regime and savarna landlords wanted to consolidate their power over land and enter the modern public sphere (universities, government jobs, media etc.) This give and take between the colonizer and the upper-castes, collusive colonialism as Aloysius calls it, ensured the exploitation and impoverishment of labouring castes.

Prasanna Kumar Chaudhary and Srikanth in their book ‘ बिहार में सामाजिक परिवर्तन के कुछ आयाम give a detailed account of caste-ordained tax systems.  According to the reports of Gaya Survey Settlement and Muzaffarpur Survey Settlement cattle-rearing castes, especially Gvalas had to pay a variety of taxes, which prominently included - Ghee Rent, Bhaisandaha, and Khar-Charaai. If one makes and sells Ghee one pays a tax, if one has a milch buffalo one pays a tax, if the cattle graze one pays a tax. Apart from these taxes, cattle-rearing communities were supposed to supply free milk-curd and ghee during Holi and Dussehra. Even those Gvalas who did not have a cow were also supposed to pay these taxes. 

Such caste-ordained taxes were imposed on other productive-labouring castes as well. Koeris had to supply free vegetables, Chamars had to supply free footwear, Telis had to supply free oil during festivals and death anniversaries, Doms supplied free bamboo containers, Kumbhar supplied free earthenware, Gadariyas had to provide free woolen blankets. Such taxes were collected in various forms under various headings. Tax regime followed the logic of graded inequality. This primarily meant that upper-castes such as Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayasthas hardly paid any tax. Brahmins lived almost tax-free lives.

The beneficiaries of this tax regime, Savarna Landlords, often were guardians and founders of their own jati associations. Distributing student fellowships among their jati-men, organizing resources for higher education, starting schools and colleges for their castes etc. were the functions of such jati associations. For example in 1899, Bhumihar Jatiya Sammelan contributed 50,000 rupees for the establishment of Bhumihar College in Muzaffarpur.[8] One can imagine where the money came from.

Today, the Savarnas, who entered modern education, financed by the toil of Dalit-Bahujan, productive-labouring castes are perceived as ‘meritorious’, ‘general’ people. On the other hand, the latter is perceived as ‘backward’ and ‘category’ people.

The Politics of Milk

Now let us come back to women of pashupalak castes. In my village I have observed that the first right over milk lies with the male toddler, followed by the men and the female toddler. What remains belongs to the women. In most cases milk never reaches women in the household. Women often yearn for their men to leave Dudh-bhaat (Milk and rice) in their plates so that they can consume a little bit of milk. Often sisters compete with each other to eat the leftovers of their brothers. My sisters do not eat these leftovers in front of the family. It is not possible to eat anything without going through the ordeal of gendered taunts. Women have internalized the fact that they do not have any primary right over milk. Even today, if my mother makes herself a cup of tea, she ‘explains’ with embarrassment that her tea was made from the watered-down milk left in the vessel.

I often argue with my relatives on why girls are not given an equal share of milk and curd to consume. During my visit in 2014, a fight erupted between two groups in the village. This led to heavy stone-pelting on either side. Fights are commonplace in my region. Controversy over land titles, cultivation or cattle grazing etc. could be possible immediate reasons for such fights. These occasional fights are frustrated responses to shrinking livelihood options, the drudgery of everyday life and deep-seated structural inequities. Nevertheless, during this fight, a cousin of mine had climbed up the roof and was quite enthusiastically involved in stone pelting. His proud mother, my aunt remarked अब समझलू, काहे मरद के दूध पियावल जाला, आज दूध पीके मरद नु इज्ज़त बचावे खाती कोठा प् चढ़ल बा, लईकी के दूध पिया-के का होई [Now did you understand why we feed men with all the milk. Today well-fed, strong men could climb up the roof and protect our honour, if we would have fed women with milk, would they be able to climb up the roof, confront those men and protect our honour?] From her explanation, one can infer that rural agrarian castes value masculine power and make a disproportionate investment for its conservation.

The politics of milk is a product of patriarchy and caste. Kancha Illiah in his book ‘Post-Hindu India’ argues that women from cattle-rearing castes are ‘free’ of patriarchy. He uses the metaphor of the ‘mother-hen’ to explain that pashupalak women look after their cattle and children on their own, while men mostly take up outdoor responsibilities, such as grazing the cattle. This claim of domestic autonomy, ‘equitable’ division of labour and assertion are romantic formulations. Women do not ‘own’ or rightfully control their children, cattle or other resources. They are only ‘caretakers’; the way cattle-rearing castes (as a whole) are only ‘sevaks’ and not the ‘proprietors’ of the Brahminical caste system.

Cattle-rearing is not a ‘profitable’ business for women from cattle-rearing castes listed under ‘Hindu’ religion. It is a caste-ordained, spiritual slavery. Such a spiritual slavery has its own history. In the beginning of the 20th century, caste associations of pashupalaks were linked with ‘cow-protection’ projects of Hindu revivalists. Yadav castes were given the temptation of mobility within the Varna scheme. However, there were/are very few discussions on the physical labour involved in the care and upkeep of this spiritually and politically valuable animal. Most of discussions and debates are focused on cow-slaughter or beef consumption. The brahmin-savarnas who discipline and control these spiritual and political discussions are not ready to look after the animal. This labour has been imposed on cattle-rearing castes and communities. This labour does not provide any spiritual mobility to the caretaker (of any gender), their spiritual status is inscribed within the ‘shudra’ project of the varna scheme.

Recently, a judge[9] and an adolescent sadhvi,[10] in two different contexts, argued that ‘Cow’ is the ‘mother of all mothers’, because ‘human’ mothers stop breastfeeding with time but ‘cow’ mothers (gomata) provide us with milk all our lives. The ‘national’ importance of this animal is being reiterated from different forums. However, one needs to ask why is it that the cattle-rearing men and women who look after this national animal, the ‘mother of all mothers’, are undisputedly listed among the ‘backward’ classes all across the nation-state? Why couldn’t they achieve social-spiritual and economic progress?

Cattle-rearing castes need to realize that ‘cattle-rearing’ is simply a means of livelihood, not a means of development or emancipation. Moreover, in a geography where the value of a milch animal is decided by the ‘brahmin’ and not by the pashupalaks, the latter will forever remain spiritual slaves.



[1] Shailaja Paik in her book argues that the educational visions of Savarna Reformers and Phule-Ambedkarite reformers were diametrically opposite. Savarna reformers envisioned women’s education as ‘soft-skills’ while the Phule-Ambedkarites imagined it as a way to break caste-gender structures. Though Savarna women often utilized their education to challenge structures, it was not perceived as an intended consequence by Savarna reformers. (Paik, Shailaja. Dalit women's education in modern India: double discrimination. Vol. 6. Routledge, 2014)

[2] Khataal are temporary make-shift structures which lie somewhere between a cow-shed and a dairy farm. They use rudimentary technologies similar to those used in a cow-shed. However, they are purely ‘self-employment’ units which aim at varying levels of income generation, hardly comparable or scalable to a dairy farm.

[3] Chaudhary, P. K. "Bihar mein samajik parivartan ke kuchh aayam (1912–1990)." New Delhi: Vani Prakashan (2001).

[4]Ilaiah, Kancha. Post-Hindu India: A discourse in Dalit-Bahujan, socio-spiritual and scientific revolution. SAGE Publications India, 2009.

[5] See Mani, Braj Ranjan. Debrahmanising history: Dominance and resistance in Indian society. Manohar Publishers, 2005.

[6] Baudh, Kavi Nareshbabu. ‘Uttar Bharat ka Periyar, Dalit-Pichado ka Massiha: Lalai Singh Yadav’. Samyak Prakashan (2009)

[7] Aloysius, G. ‘Contextualising Backward Classes Discourse’. Critical Quest (2016).





Asha Singh is presently an Assistant Professor (Gender Studies) with Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC).

Translation: Nidhin Shobhana (in consultation with Asha Singh


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