This is a transcript of part two of The Anthill’s podcast series, India Tomorrow. Click here to listen to the full episode and also find out more about past and upcoming episodes in our series episode guide.
Shalini Sharma: So the roots of Hindu nationalism are actually I guess the same as the roots of nationalism in India per say and we really need to go to the 19th century when a lot of people were asking questions like why you know why are we subjugated? Why are we under colonial rule? What does that mean?
Annabel Bligh: Shalini Sharma is a lecturer in colonial and post-colonial history at the University of Keele. In the decades after the unsuccessful Indian rebellion against British colonial rule in 1857, a number of new movements sprung up – some thinking hard about religion.
Shalini Sharma: Now someone like Vinayak Savarkar was very much influenced by these by these movements. He was very much a nationalist. He was somebody who was imprisoned because he was very close to people who were conspiring to assassinate British administrators. And while he was in jail he was picking up on the latent anti-Islamic sentiments of a number of Hindu reformist groups in India of the 19th century and early 20th century and he decided to pen a sort of pamphlet called Hindutva in which he defined what a Hindu was.
Hindutva basically claimed that a Hindu is somebody whose religion was born in the territory that we now know as pre-partition India. So. So Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Hindus of all different sort of sects within Hinduism, they are Hindus. People whose religion was not born in India, so Christians and Muslims do not constitute Hindus and are thus outside of Hindutva.
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Annabel Bligh: You’re listening to India Tomorrow, a series from The Anthill podcast, brought to you by The Conversation. I’m Annabel Bligh from The Conversation UK.
Indrajit Roy: And I’m Indrajit Roy, lecturer in politics from the University of York.
Annabel Bligh: In part one of this series, we looked at how fake news fuels violence in India, and why the battle for information plays a crucial role in elections. In this episode, we’ll be finding out about Hindu nationalism, where it came from, its influence in India today, and its centrality to the politics of prime minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party.
When I say the word Hindutva, Indrajit, what does it mean to you?
Indrajit Roy: Hindutva has been interpreted in a number of ways. For some, Hindutva has an inclusive dimension, which suggests that everyone, irrespective of their caste, creed, language or, indeed, even religious affiliation, is Hindu. On reading some of the core Hindutva texts, however, and this is a view to which I have come to subscribe, increasingly, it’s quite clear that Hindutva is premised on the exclusion of religious minorities and people with different political ideas. One of the key Hindutva ideologues, says that Muslims, Christians, and communists cannot in fact be Indian.
Annabel Bligh: And how central has Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, been to the rise of Modi?
Indrajit Roy: Modi’s rise can be attributed to the coming together of three quite distinct groups, so to speak. One group which was supportive of economic development more broadly and thought Modi would deliver. This is not a group that was terribly taken in by Hindutva, though it could tolerate Hindutva if it meant bringing together economic growth. A group, a second constituency if you will, were those who believed Modi’s rise would lead to some sort of low caste emancipation, because of Modi’s own supposedly low-caste origins. A third group, and this answers your question, a third group that was quite key to Modi’s rise, were the Hindu nationalists, who believed that Modi would deliver some version of the Hindu nation.
Annabel Bligh: And it’s not just Modi’s political party, the BJP, which pursues this Hindu nationalist agenda. The BJP is part of a large collection of other organisations.
Indrajit Roy: Yes, this “family” of organisations, if you will, is called the Sangh Parivar. One of the most powerful organisations within this family is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which roughly means the national volunteer organisations. While the RSS is officially separate from the BJP, it wields considerable influence over the party’s politics. It was founded in 1925 by a man called Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.
Annabel Bligh: And Hedgewar was influenced by the idea of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism – and by the rise of fascism in Italy. Shalini Sharma explains more about its origins.
Shalini Sharma: His group of volunteers had to wear a uniform. They were very much identified as a Hindu group and influenced by Savarkar’s definition of what a Hindu was and what a Hindu needed to do, which was to become strong. It was a very sort of masculine movement. To take up arms. It identified against Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence, it was very much a military movement.
Indrajit Roy: After Hedgewar died in 1940, the RSS was taken up by a man called Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the gentleman to who I referred to earlier who made the comments about Muslims, Christians and Communists. Golwalkar stopped the RSS from becoming a political party. But the party was actually banned for a period in 1948, after the murder of the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, by a man called Nathuram Godse, who, it was claimed, was inspired by the RSS.
Annabel Bligh: Radha d’Souza, a reader in law at the University of Westminster and an expert in the Indian constitution, explains what happened next.
Radha d'Souza: There was a dispute and then the ban was lifted on the condition that the RSS would accept the Indian constitution and work within a legal framework. Because RSS said we are only a cultural organisation and what kind of democracy is this that bans cultural organisations? So Sardar Patel, who was the then-home minister, his condition was OK, we will lift the ban if you agree to work within the legal framework and have some constitution for your own organisation.
Annabel Bligh: But Radha says that while the RSS agreed to these two conditions, it has implemented neither of them. And one of the central reasons why the RSS opposed India’s new constitution was because it didn’t create India as a Hindu nation state.
Radha d'Souza: And the Constituent Assembly adopted a secular constitution and by secularism it was not just the state will refrain from supporting religions but state will be even handed with all religions. So will not privilege one religion over another, will be even handed, will allow equal freedoms to all religions. And that was in the Constitution and they never accepted that. They never accepted that. They have never accepted that even now.
Indrajit Roy: From the 1920s onwards, the politics of Hindutva were so effective, according to Shalini Sharma, because its affiliated organisations spread out, permeating different aspects of Indian society in different ways.
Shalini Sharma: So for example you know you could say that the RSS was simply a volunteering group. There are other strands to Hindutva, there’s something called the VHP which is a World Hindu Council. And also in 1951 there was there was born a political party of Hindutva which was the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, which in the 1980s became what we now know as the BJP.
Annabel Bligh: This is the party of prime minister Narendra Modi, which was elected to a landslide victory in 2014.
Indrajit Roy: At the centre of the ideas of Hindutva, that have influenced the politics of the BJP and its affiliates, is the idea that India is a country for the Hindus, at the exclusion of others. It’s an idea that has caused real violence against minority groups in India, particularly Muslims. But also against people, often Hindus, who have objected to this very, very exclusive understanding of Hindutva and of Indian nationalism.
Shalini Sharma explains that what has united various Hindu nationalist groups is the question “who are the enemies of Hindutva”?
Shalini Sharma: And these enemies are identified as these different religious groups, Christians and more importantly Muslims. And what you’ve seen happen is that the political wing of Hindutva, the BJP, from the 1980s onwards, latched on to what it called historic wrongs. And the main historic wrong was this idea that the Muslim invader had historically committed a lot of acts of barbarism against Hindus. And the most poignant of these wrongs was this idea that the Emperor Barbur in the 16th century had destroyed a Hindu temple which was built to commemorate the birth place of a Hindu god, Lord Ram, the Ram that Hindus celebrate during the festival of light, Diwali.
Annabel Bligh: This temple was in a place called Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Also known as UP, it’s the largest state in India – it has a population the same size as Brazil. And it’s at the centre of what’s called the Hindi belt. In the early 1990s, UP was controlled by the BJP. Here’s Shalini again.
Shalini Sharma: And what the BJP did from, especially from the late 80s, was begin to call for the the destruction of this mosque that was built atop the Hindu temple. And even though the the BJP leaders Lal Krishna Advani and Atul Vihari Vajpayee at the time claimed that they weren’t calling for the destruction of the mosque, in their mass mobilisations, in the fact that they were leading whole sort of movements of people in a in what they called a yatra, or large processions towards Ayohdya and garnering hundreds of thousands of people to sort of meet at Ayodhya at a certain time, for them they were saying that it was to actually offer prayers to the Lord Rama at this place. But this led to the destruction brick by brick of the mosque, while the the police and ministers of Uttar Pradesh, just looked on.
Indrajit Roy: The destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya happened on the 6th of December in 1992.
Shalini Sharma: And after that there were a number of I suppose you can call pogroms of Muslims especially in Bombay. And again nothing much happened, this was simply accepted. The Indian parliament which was Congress controlled at the time did condemn this, but again it was sort of complicit in that action wasn’t immediately taken against those who had perpetuated both this destruction of a 16th-century mosque as well as the actions against Muslims in Bombay in early 1993.
Annabel Bligh: So this violence, and the rise of groups like the cow protection squads that we heard about in part one, have led to growing fears that Hindu nationalism is built around intolerance of and violence towards minorities, particularly Muslims.
Indrajit Roy: Hindu nationalism has been premised, as we saw earlier, on the idea that Muslims and indeed people whose faiths did not or could not claim to be of Indian origin, weren’t really Indians. So the link between Hindu nationalism and violence against religious minorities isn’t difficult to seek.
Annabel Bligh: Debates rage on today about the site at Ayodhya. Hindu nationalist groups continue to call for a temple to be built on the site. Yet Uttar Pradesh has a large Muslim population, vehemently opposed to the plan.
Indrajit Roy: In early March 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled that a prolonged land dispute over the future of the site at Ayodhya should be settled by a secret mediation process.
Annabel Bligh: That’s eight weeks from early March. So a decision is expected in early May, in the middle of the national elections. Indrajit, do you think Ayodhya land dispute will be an election campaign issue?
Indrajit Roy: I’m sure the BJP will try and make it one. We had thought it would play a much bigger role than it has at the moment. However, the issue seems to have run out of steam, but you never know.
Annabel Bligh: It’s a contentious topic, right?
Indrajit Roy: Absolutely.
Annabel Bligh: Well, let’s take a closer look at the way Hindutva has become a political force in India. Modi’s election in 2014 wasn’t the first time the BJP, an openly Hindu nationalist party, came to power was it?
Indrajit Roy: No, you’re right the BJP has been a strong political force in India since the late 20th century. Its charismatic leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was prime minister from 1998 to 2004. He’d also briefly been prime minister for a few days in 1996. But Vajpayee’s BJP never had the majority in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, and ruled as a part of a coalition called the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, which was made up of regional parties with varying political orientations.
Annabel Bligh: But when the BJP came to power in 2014 it was a different story?
Indrajit Roy: Yes, in 2014, the BJP won a majority of seats for the first time. Modi still governs at the head of the NDA coalition, but the BJP itself won 282 out of 543 seats, giving them 10 seats more than they needed for an overall majority. This was a crushing victory.
Annabel Bligh: To understand the role that Hindutva politics played in Narendra Modi’s 2014 landslide, we called up somebody who has been studying the politics of the BJP and its rise.
Ajay Gudavarthy: I’m Ajay Gudavarthy, I’m associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in India.
Indrajit Roy: Ajay says the last ten years in India have witnessed an unprecedented rise of far-right wing groups, led by the RSS and the BJP.
Ajay Gudavarthy: And 2019 is extremely important because the last five years I think they have made some preparatory steps in terms of actualising their vision of realising what they refer to as the Hindu Rashtra. That is a religious theocratic majority and Hindu state. And RSS for long has had plans of amending the constitution and its various liberal progressive, secular, socialist provisions in terms of creating this theocratic state. If the BJP is to return to power in 2019 with a similar kind of a majority, my own understanding is that they will be moving very fast towards realising some of these majoritarian provisions, preparation for which I think has been made in the last four or five years in terms of creating a social consent and a social consensus for that kind of a theocratic vision.
Indrajit Roy: Various electoral surveys have shown a core Hindutva vote of around 20% to 25%.
Ajay Gudavarthy: That is a core committed Hindutva group which are convinced by the social vision of this Hindu Rashtra. Anything beyond that is something that the BJP builds depending on each election.
Annabel Bligh: Ajay says that back in 2014 the BJP also managed to win support from voters who may not have traditionally been drawn to the politics of Hindu nationalism – members of what are traditionally seen as lower-caste groups. To understand this, first we need to take a little detour to understand the role caste plays in the narrative of Hindu nationalism – and in Indian society today.
Annabel Bligh: Hindu nationalism emerged in India at a time when people stigmatised as lower caste were demanding more recognition. Historian Shalini Sharma explains.
Shalini Sharma: The constitution writers of India in the late 1940s were trying to tackle the historic wrong of the caste system. The caste system in Hinduism was such that there was a hierarchy and at right at the bottom were the so-called untouchables, or Dalits.
Indrajit Roy: An edict was written into the constitution that guarantees “reservations”, a form of positive discrimination, for Dalits, who have historically been oppressed as “untouchables”. This means a certain percentage of jobs, and places at universities, are reserved for Dalits.
Shalini Sharma: Now in the late 80s and early 90s at the same time as when the BJP was on the rise, some people say it was on the rise because low-caste groups were beginning to demand from their local governments, reservations. So to be seen as backward castes so that they would be able to have a way in to getting government jobs and places for their own for their children in universities.
Annabel Bligh: People from higher castes were not happy with this extension of positive discrimination to include this a group known as the Other Backward Classes or OBCs, which is a large group of people that are neither high caste or “untouchables”. The BJP latched onto this unhappiness.
Shalini Sharma: So in that sense it was the party of the higher castes, advocating their cause and trying to unite Hindus in other ways. So to say, let’s not be divided on the basis of caste. We need to be united against these other religions who are trying to break us up and that’s sort of you know feeds into and feeds from Hindutva ideology.
Indrajit Roy: To find out more about caste politics today, we called up Suryakant Waghmore, an associate professor at the Department of Humanity and Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. Suryakant says Hinduism and caste are closely linked.
Suryakant Waghmore: You cannot really purge caste from Hinduism. So caste is central to making one Hindu … Status and purity are intrinsically linked in caste hierarchies. And it is the untouchables who bear the brunt of being permanently impure, therefore untouchable.
Annabel Bligh: When people from other, so-called higher castes, such as Brahmins, touch something impure, they can perform a ritual to purify themselves. But Dalits, or the so-called untouchables, are seen as permanently impure.
Suryakant Waghmore: There are several reasons but one of the important reasons is said to be that because they ate beef, they consumed cow meat. And cow is supposed to be the ultimate form of purity and holy being.
Indrajit Roy: Suryakant has been doing some fascinating research on the ways in which caste is experienced differently in different parts of India, particularly different cities such as cosmopolitan Bombay (or Mumbai) compared to Ahmedabad, a smaller city in Gujarat.
Annabel Bligh: Part of what he studies is violence against Dalits – something he says has traditionally been seen as a problem in rural communities. But he’s finding just how much it’s taking places in cities too.
Suryakant Waghmore: So what we definitely see is there’s a general trend of increase in crimes against Dalits, across India.
Indrajit Roy: Suryakant says it would be misplaced to attribute this increase in violence totally to the rise of the BJP, and that it’s part of a much longer power struggle within Indian society.
Suryakant Waghmore: But what has definitely happened is that the confidence amongst the highest castes, you now, is definitely turning into, at times, into an arrogance.
Annabel Bligh: He points to a case in the city of Pune, involving a domestic worker who gave the impression to her employer that she was a high caste Brahmin, when actually she was a Maratha, who the Brahmins consider lower caste.
Suryakant Waghmore: She told the Brahmin lady that I am also Brahmin. However when the Brahmin employer got to know the caste of this Maratha woman, she went and filed a complaint in the police station saying that this woman has been part of the religious rituals in my house, and has lied to me that she is a Brahmin whereas she is a Maratha, and she has therefore, you know, hurt my religious sentiments. And the police actually filed this complaint. You know they took this complaint.
Annabel Bligh: Suryakant listed a couple of other examples of everyday violence against Dalits.
Suryakant Waghmore: There was this one case where a rickshaw driver who is supposed to be from an untouchable caste …
Annabel Bligh: So the rickshaw driver was Dalit, he overtakes a guy driving a small car, who it turns out is from a so-called higher caste – in this case it was a caste known as the warrior caste.
Suryakant Waghmore: … and asked him who are you? What is your caste? And when the rickshaw driver shared his caste, he immediately went to his car’s boot pulled out a knife, came back and kind of, you know, slashed his forehead.
Annabel Bligh: So what Suryakant is implying here Indrajit is that some supposedly higher caste Hindus feel they’ve been given a licence to try and reimpose these caste hierarchies. And while this is nothing new, it’s become more prominent under the BJP. How do you think the Modi government has dealt with caste?
Indrajit Roy: That’s an interesting question. So, in January 2019, the government announced it would introduce a 10% reservation policy aimed at the economically weak from the high castes …
… So SCs are what’s called scheduled castes, and the OBCs are the “other backward classes” – so these are the castes about whom we heard earlier for who certain jobs and university places have been reserved. But basically, this new policy means there will be quotas specifically for poor people from among the so-called high caste groups, such as the Brahmins for example.
Annabel Bligh: So this is something I found intriguing about caste differences. I think I always had a tendency to think of caste as similar to class that we have in the UK – so which is largely an economic thing. But, as Suryakant was saying, and as we’ve just heard, if you’re from a so-called high caste, you’re not necessarily well off and a lot of it’s to do with this idea of purity. So just how political is this move by the BJP to introduce a new reservations policy?
Indrajit Roy: Hah – it’s all politics. Lets take a step back and look at the populations that we’re talking about. We know from census data that the Scheduled Castes or the Dalits, as they are more popularly called, make up 16% of the population. There are regional variations, but they’re about 16% of the population. The scheduled tribes, the other group for whom “reservations” were introduced, are at approximately 8%. Beyond these figures, we just have lots of speculation.
In 2011, a caste census was conducted, but the data was never actually made available to the public. Various population projections however, have suggested that the Other Backward Classes, this large chunk in between the so-called high caste and the so-called untouchables, may be between 40 and 60% of the Indian population. Now that’s huge – 40-60% of the Indian population. And so if you look at the figures, the high-caste component of the Indian people is unlikely to exceed about 20%. Now Modi’s new reservations for the poor, as he puts it, aims to woo a significant chunk of this 20%. So, the BJP’s policy stems from a deep-seated opposition to caste quotas, which the party believes would undermine Hindu unity.
Annabel Bligh: We’ve heard a lot about the history and appeal of Hindu nationalist politics in India. Indrajit, has this kind of politics permeated the whole of the political system, or is Hindutva ideology largely the domain of the BJP and Modi?
Indrajit Roy: Ah, that is a really good question. So there’s a popular saying among Indians that what the BJP does by day, the Congress does by night.
Annabel Bligh: What does that mean?
Indrajit Roy: So the BJP of course has fashioned itself after a Hindutva ideology, suggesting that India is for the Hindus etc. etc, as we’ve heard. Now the Congress of course has always been secular, staunchly secular. But when it came to mobilising religion, for political ends, the Congress in some ways fashioned that art even better than the BJP has. So long before the BJP started mobilising and manipulating Hindu views, the Congress was an adept player at this game. The earliest Congress party symbols, would you believe it, what they were? Guess.
Annabel Bligh: I’m going to guess it’s something religious?
Indrajit Roy: It’s the cow.
Annabel Bligh: No?
Indrajit Roy: Yes. When the Congress fought its first elections*, its electoral symbol was the the cow and the idea was that, you now, religiously minded voters would vote for the Congress because it was a party that was sort of supportive of Hindu views. So in a sense, while it’s correct to say Hindutva as an ideology is certainly within the domain of the BJP, the Congress doesn’t speak the language of Hindutva, but when it comes to mobilising Hindu sentiments, the Congress has done that long before the BJP has. And in some ways the Congress continues to do that even now.
Annabel Bligh: So do all political parties subscribe to Hindutva?
Indrajit Roy: Not really. I wouldn’t say that all political parties subscribe to Hindutva or fan its flames. India has large number of parties that are specific to certain states, and these often tend to deliberately avoid Hindu nationalism. Some of the BJP’s own allies even avoid it, such as the Akali Dal in Punjab which is a Sikh denominational party. Leftist parties and parties espousing Dalit and low-caste emancipation such as Uttar Pradesh’s Bahujan Samaj Party, whose supremo Mayawati is a popular candidate for prime minister among many Dalits, also tend to distance themselves from Hindutva as a matter of principle. And of course, the most spectacular example of a state-level political party that has consistently taken a principled stand against Hindutva is Bihar’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by the firebrand Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Annabel Bligh: So we asked Ajay Gudavarthy what the best way would be to find another political narrative as appealing to the Indian electorate as Hindu nationalism. He said it was a question that the left, liberal parties in India should be applying their mind to.
Ajay Gudavarthy: What BJP and RSS have done is to bring in and understand social psychology of the electorate, very well. They have used cultural symbols local idioms, very strongly and much of the left liberal centrist parties, in that sense, do not have that kind of a connect with local idioms, cultural symbols, religious symbols. The big question for constitutional vision what should its link be with cultural and religious symbols? Can we have a more progressive, more secular, more inclusive kind of use of these religious symbols, local idioms, beyond merely using them for prejudice and polarisation.
Annabel Bligh: The BJP and RSS use local religious rituals as part of their politics. They use the cow, for example, which is a holy symbol for Hindus. Meanwhile, some Muslims and Dalit Hindus eat beef and others work in the leather industry. There are also those who collect the bodies of dead cows.
Indrajit Roy: And as we heard in the first episode of this series, fake news stories about cows have led to vigilante violence across India from groups of “cow protection” squads.
Annabel Bligh: Ajay says a robust debate is needed to pull polarising religious symbols such as the cow out of politics. Instead, he says what’s needed is to create an alternative political narrative, built around social welfare, and protections for both the middle and lower classes.
Ajay Gudavarthy: Hindutva’s cultural agenda has a political economy. There is an economic reasoning also behind it. This kind of an aggressive shift that we’re witnessing towards hate and rage, like the United States what happened with the rust belt, there’s something very similar in the Indian context on a much larger, massive scale. Where you know your public ethics takes a beating in terms of sharing values, collapse of common neighbourhoods, idea of aggressive competition. This massive anxiety and insecurity, so that kind of a social psychology, I think aids Hindutva.
Annabel Bligh: He points to the southern state of Kerala, which has a robust welfare system.
Ajay Gudavarthy: For instance Kerala, health system is free, education is subsidised, public transport is subsidised, food is subsidised. When you have schemes of that kind, I think the basic anxiety levels are moderated. Then you cannot very easily generate this kind of a very polarised narrative of hating the Muslims, hating the Christians, othering the Dalits so on and so forth. So I think welfare system, a strong welfare state will provide the first entry point for the liberal constitutional left political forces in India to actually check this kind of unabated rise of far right-wing aggression.
Annabel Bligh: Central to the politics of this aggressive far right Hindu nationalism is a dislike of the Indian constitution – its secular nature and the protections it contains for India’s minorities.
Indrajit Roy: Another major bone of contention is Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which the Hindu right believes offers preferential treatment to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Annabel Bligh: The history of Kashmir – and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan – is something we’re going to explore in our next episode.
Sita Bali: I think that there being a difficult situation with Pakistan or a tense situation with Pakistan where Modi can stand up to them and can look tough and look hard and so on, is very helpful to his election prospects.
Annabel Bligh: That’s part three of this series from The Anthill, India Tomorrow. Do subscribe so you don’t miss out. That’s it for this episode of The Anthill. A big thanks to my co-host Indrajit Roy.
Indrajit Roy: Thanks Annabel.
Annabel Bligh: You can hear and read more of The Conversation’s coverage of India by academics from around the world on theconversation.com or follow us on social media. If you’ve got any questions relating to what we’ve been discussing in this series, please do get in touch via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Twitter @anthillpod. We’ll be putting your questions about India to a panel of academics in an episode in the days after the election results in late May. And if you’re looking for a transcript of this episode, and other episodes in this series, it will also be available soon on theconversation.com.
A big thanks to all the academics who spoke to us for this episode and to the journalism department at City University for letting us use their studios. The Anthill is produced by Gemma Ware and me, Annabel Bligh. Sound editing by Alex Portfelix. And thanks to our intern Salome Pkhaladze for her editing help. Thanks for listening. Goodbye.
Indrajit Roy: Goodbye
*Clarification: It’s asserted in the podcast that when the Congress Party fought its first elections, its electoral symbol was the the cow. In fact the party’s symbol from 1959 to 1972 was two bullocks. After 1969, the faction led by Indira Ghandi used a symbol of a cow and suckling calf.