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The Biopolitical Buffalo: Bovine Uncertainty and the Expansion of Cow Protection

Fri, March 17, 12:45 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: Lower Concourse, Grand Ballroom West


Despite focus on the “sacred cow,” India’s most prevalent and economically important bovine is the water buffalo. Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) and indigenous Indian cattle (Bos taurus indicus) are socially distinct beings: buffalo are favored economically for milk production, but ritually devalued and legally killable; cattle are venerated and protected from slaughter. However, as Hindutva politics intensifies in the 2010s, the buffalo is increasingly treated as cow-like, only conditionally separable from (and animated by) the cow itself. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Varanasi and Mumbai, I argue that bovine species converge as acts of violence expand the notion of the “protected animal.” The new wave of cow protectionism recruits buffaloes to the biopolitics of bovinity through which both animals and people are allowed to live or made to die. As self-styled (and recently, officially sanctioned) “cattle protection” vigilantes routinely intimidate or assault those suspected of possessing cattle corpses or meat—violence borne largely by Dalit and Muslim men—buffalo meat and corpses also become suspect. Wrapped up in the legal and corporeal intensification of “cow protection” is a destabilization of what constitutes a “cow,” as bovine bodies become sites of visual uncertainty after death. The water buffalo’s black, shiny hide is easily distinguished from the cow’s soft fur. But skinned corpses are difficult to visually differentiate, especially endangering those Dalits tasked with removing them from city streets. This paper explores the entanglements of humans, buffaloes, and cows, both alive and dead, in the production of human and animal hierarchies.


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