A Constituent Assembly of India meeting in 1950. BR Ambedkar can be seen seated top-right. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)
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Beef Ban and the Constitution: Economics vs Religious Sentiments

There is a new soundtrack to Indian politics. And it goes moo!

Over the last year, the cow has become a part of our politics, laws, public debates and even election campaigns. Maharashtra and Haryana have passed stringent laws banning beef and cow slaughter this year, debates around intolerance brought up the murder of Mohd Akhlaq over alleged beef consumption and cows formed a major part of campaign rhetoric during the Bihar election campaign.

Article 48: Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry: The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.

Curbing the slaughter of cows is a Directive Principle of State Policy. But what was the motivation behind this provision? Was it a sop to Hindu sentiments, a bid to protect the ‘sacred’ animal? Or did the framers of India’s Constitution have a more prosaic motive for making the ban on cow slaughter something future legislatures should strive for?

Protect the Cow for Dharma or Artha?

The debate around the inclusion of cow slaughter centred on the need for a robust animal husbandry sector, almost as much as it did on religion. Yes, there were many references to the sacred status of the cow for Hindus, but most of the arguments relied on the usefulness of cows as providers of milk and the need for bulls in cultivation.



A farmer walks with his hungry cow through a parched paddy field in Tripura. Cattle are an integral part of the agricultural ecosystem in India. (Photo: Reuters)
A farmer walks with his hungry cow through a parched paddy field in Tripura. Cattle are an integral part of the agricultural ecosystem in India. (Photo: Reuters)
This country is predominantly agricultural in character. I would give some figures here regarding the position of our cattle wealth. In 1935, there were 119,491,000 heads of cattle. In 1940, their number came down to 115,610,000 and in 1945, it further came down to 111, 900,000. While on one hand our population is increasing, on the other, our cattle wealth is decreasing. Our government is carrying on a ‘Grow More Food’ Campaign. This campaign cannot succeed so long as we do not preserve the cows. There is huge infantile mortality in this country. Children are dying like dogs and cats. How can they be saved without milk?
Seth Govind Das in the Constituent Assembly, November 24, 1948

However, along with economic considerations, the religious sentiments of Hindus did play a part in the debate.

These sentiments, which were expressed thousands of years ago, still ring in the hearts of tens of millions of this land. My friends tell me that it is an economic question, that Muslim kings have supported the preservation of cows and banned the killing of cows. That is all right. But when we attain freedom, freedom to express ourselves in every form and manner – our Preamble says, ‘There shall be liberty of expression’ – is that merely expression of thought or is that the expression of our being? This country evolved a civilisation, in that civilization we gave prominent place to what we call Ahimsa or non-killing and non-injury, not merely of human beings but also of the animal kingdom. Brahma hatya and go hatya – the killing of the learned man, the scientist, the philosopher or the sage and the killing of a cow are on a par.
Dr Ragu Vira in the Constituent Assembly, November 24, 1948

In fact, some members wanted the ban on cow slaughter to be part of the Fundamental Rights in the Constitution, which are enforceable in courts of law. However, it was argued by Dr Ambedkar and others that Fundamental Rights protect only human beings and the bovine, no matter how sacred, cannot be placed at par with humans.

Members from minority communities too had some reservations about the clause, but chose not to veto it.

I know that the vast majority of the Hindu nation revere the cow as their goddess and therefore, they cannot brook the idea of seeing it slaughtered. I am a Muslim as everyone knows. In my religious book, the Holy Quran, there is an injunction to the Muslims saying, “La Ikraba fid Din”, or there ought to be no compulsion in the name of religion. I, therefore, do not like to use my veto when my Hindu brethren want to place this matter in our Constitution from the religious point of view.
Syed Muhammad Sa’adulla, in the Constituent Assembly, November 24, 1948

Should the Current Debate Follow the Old One?

(Photo: Reuters)
(Photo: Reuters)

Back in 1948, decent people spoke about important things. Even though the holy cow was important to people, the members of the constituent assembly didn’t let religion and prejudice become the only factors in the debate on cow slaughter.

The rationale given was primarily an economic one. A young, food dependent country without mechanised agriculture needed cattle to sustain itself.

The big question now is whether we are capable of doing what our forefathers did.