India downplays romance, asks people to hug cows on Valentine’s Day

India’s government-run animal welfare department has appealed to citizens to mark Valentine’s Day this year not as a celebration of romance but as “Cow Hug Day” to better promote Hindu values.

The Animal Welfare Board of India said on Wednesday that “hugging cows will bring emotional richness and increase individual and collective happiness.”

Devout Hindus, who worship cows as holy, say the Western holiday goes against traditional Indian values.

In recent years, Hindu hardliners have raided shops in Indian cities, burned cards and gifts, and chased hand-holding couples out of restaurants and parks, saying that Valentine’s Day promotes promiscuity. Hardline political groups like Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal say such actions pave the way to reassert Hindu identity.

Young educated Indians irrespective of their religion typically spend the holiday crowding parks and restaurants, exchanging gifts and holding parties to celebrate like any other Indian festival, especially since India began the process of economic liberalization in the early 1990s.

The Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing a Hindu agenda seeking supremacy of the religion at the expense of a secular nation known for its diversity. Hindus comprise nearly 80 percent of its nearly 1.4 billion people. Muslims account for 14 percent, while Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains account for most of the remaining 6 percent.

The cow has long been embedded in the Hindu psyche and is deeply respected by many similar to one’s mother. Most states in India have banned cow slaughter. The animal welfare board’s appeal asks people to go out and physically hug cows on February 14.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst, said the message is “absolutely crazy. It defies logic.”

“The unfortunate part is this has now official sanction,” he added.

“This shows an eraser 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.”

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