India urges citizens to ‘hug a cow’ on Valentine’s Day

The Indian government has urged people to set aside the “western” traditions of Valentine’s Day and instead celebrate the occasion by cuddling up with the country’s sacred cows.

In a new appeal, 14 February has been declared Cow Hug Day, when people are encouraged to take the animals into an embrace. Cows are holy within Hinduism, the majority religion in India, and are considered sacred animals across the country.

According to the government statement, hugging a cow “will bring emotional richness” and “will increase our individual and collective happiness”.

The newly declared Cow Hug Day is intended to offset the “dazzle of western civilisation”, which the government said had come at the cost of the older traditions of India.

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Over the past decade, as India’s economy has opened up, Valentine’s Day – which originated as a Christian feast day – has become an increasingly popular occasion among young people, boosted by vigorous mass marketing campaigns featuring bouquets of flowers, teddy bears, heart-shaped gifts and flamboyant romantic gestures.

But as a more muscular form of Hindu nationalist politics has taken hold in India, westernised holidays and traditions such as Valentine’s Day have increasingly drawn a backlash for promoting “corrupt” values.

Rightwing vigilante groups, who have often engaged in the moral policing of women, have attacked shops selling Valentine’s cards and decorations and targeted couples seen holding hands. Much of the anti-Valentine’s rhetoric has been targeted at women, alleging that the holiday encourages female promiscuity and vulgar behaviour.

Cow Hug Day is the latest initiative by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government, led by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to make reverence of the cow a nationwide policy. Most states in India ban the slaughter of cows, and selling and eating beef is banned in many places across the country, including the capital, Delhi.

A proposed national exam on the subject of “cow science”, devised by the National Cow Commission as part of the BJP’s revised curriculum, was postponed in 2021 after it was accused of promoting religious pseudoscience about India’s cows.

Among the textbook material were questionable claims that Indian cows have more emotions than their foreign counterparts, that their humps contain magical powers and that their dung could prevent radiation.