(CNN)India has introduced a nationwide "cow science" exam to "infuse curiosity" about the bovine, according to officials, in the latest promotional push by the country's Hindu-nationalist government that critics say politicizes the sacred animal.
Cows are sacred in India. Critics say a new national exam politicizes the animal
The optional exam will take place annually, primarily for school and university students, though the general public can also take it, said the country's Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), an agency established in 2012 for the protection of cows under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying.
"The science in cows must be explored," RKA Chairman Vallabhai Kathiria told a news conference Tuesday. "I am a cancer surgeon myself, so I can attest to that."
"Even if a cow doesn't give milk, cow dung and cow urine is so precious," he added.
A member of the opposition Indian National Congress Party, Priyank Kharge, criticized the move on Twitter.
"These jokers want to explore 'Cow Science' during pandemic & don't give a damn about scientific protocols to be followed by companies while vaccinating the entire population," said Karge, referring to India's emergency approval earlier this week of two coronavirus vaccines.
Cows are a contentious subject in India, and many among the country's majority Hindu population consider the animal to be sacred. Most states have banned their slaughter.
The political push to enforce these bans has increased since Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is strongly aligned with conservative Hindu nationalists -- came to power in 2014.
People suspected of killing cows, or even just eating beef, have been killed in violent attacks in the country. A large number of these people include Muslims. But cow vigilante crimes in India have been reportedly ignored or covered up by authorities since Modi's rise to power.
The RKA has released a 54-page exam study guide, which includes topics like "religious significance" and "medical significance" of cows.
"The cow is a living heritage not just of Hindus but of humanity," the document states. "In the world traditions the cow stands for fertility, prosperity and life, and is often called the mother-ancestor, perhaps for being the first mammal to be domesticated by man."
The document claims that large-scale abattoir activity leads to major earthquakes, an unproven claim that suggests that pain emitted by mass slaughter can generate enough stress to trigger a seismic reaction.
It also states that native (Indian) cows produce the best quality of milk on earth, compared to "exotic cows."
"The quality is not at all good, but the quantity is more," it says of the Jersey cow, a breed normally associated with high-quality, creamy milk.
According to the document, native cows are "clever enough not to sit at dirty places" and are also more emotive than Jersey cows. "Whenever any unknown person comes near desi (Indian) cow, she will immediately stand," the document states.
Photographer and activist Sujatro Ghosh, whose 2017 photo series of Indian women wearing cow masks went viral on social media, called the exam "another propaganda tool for the Hindu-national government."
"After the rise of the extreme right-wing government in India, the cow has become a political animal," said Ghosh. "The cow is used as a tool to divide people, and the exam is seen as a way of putting the cow on a pedestal. These politicians don't care about cows, they only care about politics."
During Modi's 2014 national election campaign, he made a promise to end a "pink revolution" -- a phrase he used to describe the slaughter of cattle across the country.
Other BJP lawmakers have taken it one step further.
"I had promised that I will break the hands and legs of those who do not consider cows their mother and kill them," said Vikram Saini, a legislator for the state of Uttar Pradesh, at an event in March 2017.