Cows are sacred in India. Critics say a new national exam politicizes the animal

Hindu devotees from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) worship cows on the outskirts of Amritsar on November 22, 2020.

(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.

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.

    Clean and clever

    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.