NEW DELHI — Indian students were hitting the books hard in preparation for a big test on cows, reading that India’s cows have more emotions than foreign ones, and that their humps have special powers.
But facing widespread ridicule, this weekend the government abruptly postponed the first exam based on a new curriculum, pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
Students at public universities and public schools had been asked to bone up on material that scientists and others dismissed as baseless, accusing the government of promoting religious pseudoscience about cows, which Hinduism considers sacred, to unwitting students.
Critics said the curriculum, devised by the National Cow Commission set up by Mr. Modi’s government, was an especially bold move by his ruling party to push its ideology and undercut the secularism that is enshrined in India’s Constitution but seems to be increasingly imperiled with each passing day.
“This is very weird, this exam,” said Komal Srivastava, an official for the India Knowledge and Science Society, a nonprofit educational group. “They can say anything about cows: that radiation is reduced by its dung, which is unscientific. If we want to teach kids about cows, it has to be scientific knowledge and not mythology.”
India is 80 percent Hindu, but it is also home to large Muslim, Sikh, Christian and other religious minorities. Since Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, his party has embarked on a steady, intense and divisive campaign to make India more of an overtly Hindu state.
Government bodies have rewritten textbooks, lopping out sections on Muslim rulers. They have changed official place names to Hindu from Muslim. And a little more than a year ago, the Parliament passed a citizenship law that openly discriminated against Muslims, provoking searing nationwide protests that lasted until Covid-19 hit.
Cows have become a special flash point. Since Mr. Modi came to power, Hindu nationalist lynch mobs have killed dozens of people in the name of protecting cows. The victims are usually Muslims or other members of minorities, and the killers often get away.
Many academics see the fact that a government body tried to push a curriculum on cows — one that included many completely unsubstantiated claims — as evidence that the government has increasingly fallen under the sway of Hindu supremacist groups like the R.S.S., in which Mr. Modi and many top officials were once active.
In 2019, Mr. Modi’s government established the National Cow Commission with the express purpose of protecting cows. Its website lists, among other objectives, “proper implementation of laws with respect to prohibition of slaughter and/or cruelty to cows.” Many Indian states, but not all, ban the slaughter of cattle.
The study material in the new course was designed by the cow commission, which falls under the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, and was widely circulated online in several languages, including English. The first online exam was supposed to be Thursday.
The material has chapters on cow entrepreneurship and sayings from Hindu scriptures. The course delves into breed improvement, bioenergy from cow dung, pesticides, medicines from cow urine, the concept of promoting cow tourism, using cow dung instead of plaster of Paris for ecological reasons and the difference between Indian and foreign cows. The commission is headed by Vallabhbhai Kathiria, a surgeon and former member of Parliament from Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Indian cow, or zebu, does differ from the cow breeds familiar to the West. The zebu, easily recognized by its big shoulder hump and pronounced dewlap, is more tolerant of heat and drought, and more resistant to some diseases, though it produces less milk.
The material that students were asked to absorb for the exam, however, made baseless claims, like one that inside the hump of the Indian cow “there is a solar pulse which is known to absorb vitamin D from the sun’s rays and release it in its milk.” Hump-less “Jersey” cows, the material said, don’t have such powers.
Another part of the curriculum said that indigenous cows were “emotional toward humans and other living beings,” but that in foreign cows, “none of these feelings were exhibited.” Indian cows are “alert” and “strong,” the material said, but foreign cows are “lazy.”
The test was not made mandatory, but India’s University Grants Commission, a federal agency, encouraged students — in fact, all citizens — to study the material and take the exam as an extracurricular activity.
Critics across the country urged the cow commission to call off the exam, saying students would feel pressured by the government to take it. They said parents would urge their children to take the exam, because the government was planning to issue a certificate that could be helpful to the students’ future careers. The commission also dangled prize money for top scorers.
Pureesh Kumar, an official at the commission, said it wanted only “to educate people on cows’ benefits other than milk” and share its scientific findings.
He said any student was free to take the exam. Already, 500,000 people had registered, some from abroad, including the United States.
But on Saturday, the commission announced that it was postponing the exam, without providing a future date. Mr. Kumar said that it had been delayed for administrative reasons, and that the decision had nothing to do with the controversy.
Like those in many other countries, schools in India have been sucked into the nation’s ideological battles.
The government recently ordered publicly funded universities to get permission for holding online conferences if they discussed certain national security issues or those related to “internal matters,” which many professors said could mean just about anything. After this, too, set off intense criticism, some government officials indicated they were reconsidering the restrictions.
Nivedita Menon, a professor of political theory at one of India’s premier educational institutions, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the government was trying to “completely undo research and critical thinking.”