The Gaushala and the IIT
From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Animal Intimacies
I met Mr. Prasad, at his suggestion, in a trendy coffee shop in an area of Patna dominated by entrance exam tutorial classes for medical colleges and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Dressed informally in plastic flip-flops, a well-worn collared shirt, and faded blue corduroys, the elderly gentleman seemed out of place against the sleek decor. Mr. Prasad identified as a social activist, and his NGO ran an eclectic range of campaigns for and with students. I was doing preliminary fieldwork on tutorial classes, known in India as the “coaching industry,” and I had arranged to meet Mr. Prasad because one of his campaigns concerned demands for “transparency” on the part of the owners of test preparation institutes. As it turned out, this campaign was only a small part of our conversation. Soon after I arrived, he pulled from an old cloth briefcase a thick pamphlet detailing each of his NGO’s projects: student scholarship and loan programs, a campaign discouraging sugar consumption, another to tamp down on vehicle horns. But his enthusiasm only reached its peak when he began to tell me about his gaushala, a shelter for abandoned bovines.
As Radhika Govindrajan notes in Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018), in her chapter on the forms of relatedness Kumaoni villagers developed with pahari and Jersey cows, Hindu nationalists have frequently emphasized the superiority of desi varieties of cattle over imported breeds. So it was with Mr. Prasad, whose gaushala aimed to preserve and protect the desi cow. Desi cows, he told me, gave “the best milk in the world.” Leaving the NGO pamphlet aside, Mr. Prasad pulled out his smart phone and began to show me photographs of his gaushala. After flipping through the pictures of a local bureaucrat hugging one of the cows, Mr. Prasad played a series of videos of two young women, dressed in salwar kameez, sweeping the byre and frolicking in the fields with the cows. They were, he told me with pride, students of IIT-Patna who had come to the gaushala to do seva (service). In fact, Mr. Prasad’s gaushala was located in the same town as the IIT, about an hour’s drive outside the city.
Reading Animal Intimacies brought my conversation with Mr. Prasad vividly to mind. Govindrajan’s monograph concerns the incongruous relations that stem from entanglements of violence and care in a mountainous region of India, geographically and culturally distant from the urban center of Patna on the Gangetic plain. The loving, laboring closeness to cows and the incongruity of the gaushala’s physical intimacy with India’s most prestigious technical institutes suggested the fruitfulness of thinking across Mr. Prasad’s videos and Govindrajan’s book. Taking some liberties with Govindrajan’s situated arguments, might her conceptions of relatedness help us understand other unlikely bedfellows? Can we think of “uninnocent” kinships (4) at the level of movements and institutions?
I suggest that such uninnocent kinships might provide a window into understanding contemporary Indian nationalism. For me, some of the potency of the image of IIT students sweeping a cow shelter lay in its juxtaposition of two threads of nationalist thought which have dovetailed in recent years. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi swept to power touting both a xenophobic Hindu nationalism and the promise of technocratic development, symbolized by Modi’s “Gujarat model.” Since then, their connection has become naturalized, even among critics of the BJP. Earlier that summer, an IIT professor opined to me that the narrow, focused nature of technical instruction in India made students into “good soldiers for the BJP.”
Yet we should resist turning engineering education into a black box regenerating Hindutva ideology in a younger generation. Instead, we can follow Govindrajan’s approach in tracing the contradictory rhetorics about cows in India down to the level of individual animals and their entangled relations with particular humans. In Animal Intimacies, Govindrajan contrasts the uncompromising, “transcendental” love of cows espoused by the local cow protection advocate, Pratap Pant, with the ambivalent, everyday affection that her friend Mamta held for the cow Chanduli (180). The fissures in cow protection politics, she suggests, come not only from contradictions between religious and economic logics but from the incommensurabilities between the abstracted cow and the embodied animal.
What, then, are the everyday sites of embodied encounter with technical knowledge in India? There is a rich literature on the contradictory positions and experiences of Indian technical workers caught in transnational currents of knowledge capital (Aneesh 2006; Xiang 2007; Amrute 2016; Upadhya 2016). But, like Govindrajan, we can also pursue this question to even humbler abodes: mundane sites of schooling that precede entry into the workplace. Tutorials and coaching centers such as the test preparation businesses peppering the area where I met Mr. Prasad are one such site. Although many of their students may aspire to capture an “All India Rank” and perhaps, eventually, to move abroad, these national and transnational aspirations are embedded within daily interactions with other students and tutorial instructors. How might such experiences—including the highly regimented lifestyle that students experience in coaching “hubs” like Kota and Andhra Pradesh—develop affects and attachments that cultivate a love for science and math? On the other hand, what kinds of hatred and hostility are generated in the frictions between jostling bodies in the coaching center? Govindrajan’s attention to the deep ambivalences of everyday relationships provides a model for addressing these questions within other veins of Hindu nationalism.
To understand how these veins intertwine, however, we must go a step further, toward the question of commensuration. While Govindrajan characterizes the respective affections of Pratap Pant and Mamta for the abstracted and embodied cow as “incommensurate” (65), the present potency of divergent yet associated nationalist sentiments might also prompt us to look for sites where these abstract and embodied loves are brought together. How and where are the uninnocent kinships of institutionalized nationalism constituted? Neither IITs nor cow sheds are the sole sites where contradictions within and between nationalist rhetorics might be brought into tense, perhaps temporary resolution. But Animal Intimacies should encourage us to continue seeking out those specific sites and those gendered bodies—whether pahari goatherds or female IIT students—that are crucially implicated in these processes.
Amrute, Sareeta. 2016. Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Aneesh, A. 2006. Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Upadhya, Carol. 2016. Reengineering India: Work, Capital, and Class in an Offshore Economy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Xiang, Biao. 2007. Global “Body Shopping”: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.