This year, India’s government is asking citizens to spend Valentine’s Day snuggling up with a cow.
“Vedic traditions are almost on the verge of extinction due to the progress of [Western] culture,” the appeal reads. “The dazzle of Western civilization has made our physical culture and heritage almost forgotten.”
In Hinduism, cows are revered as sacred and sometimes associated with motherhood. Most Indian states, including Delhi, have banned cattle slaughter. The animal welfare department describes cattle as “the backbone of Indian culture” and says that hugging a cow on February 14 will bring “emotional richness and “increase our individual and collective happiness.”
Hindus make up almost 80 percent of India’s population, according to the Pew Research Center. About 14 percent are Muslim, while Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains make up most of the remaining 6 percent.
The rebranding of Valentine’s Day comes amid the rise of Hindu nationalism, which is “the idea that the Hindu faith and culture should shape the state and its policies,” per NPR’s Lauren Frayer. The current Hindu nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has sought to pursue this agenda.
In recent decades, young Indians have increasingly taken up Valentine’s Day, which originated as a Christian celebration. Like Americans, they “typically spend the holiday crowding parks and restaurants, exchanging gifts and holding parties to celebrate like any other Indian festival,” writes Ashok Sharma of the Associated Press (AP).
As the holiday’s popularity has grown, devout Hindus have opposed it. Per the Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen, critics tend to focus on women, arguing that Valentine’s Day “encourages female promiscuity and vulgar behavior.” Far-right vigilante groups have vandalized gift shops, burned cards and flowers, and targeted couples holding hands.
Recent years have also seen an increase in so-called “cow vigilantes” across India, who attack members of minority groups involved in the cattle trade. Between 2015 and 2018, cow vigilante mobs killed at least 44 people, including 36 Muslims, according to a 2019 report by Human Rights Watch.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, tells the AP that the introduction of Cow Hug Day “defies logic.”
“The unfortunate part is this has now official sanction,” he says. “This shows an [erasure] of one more line between the state and religion, which is very depressing. Now the state is doing what political and religious groups have been campaigning to do.”