Amid protests from the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka, on Wednesday, 9 December, passed the controversial Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, 2020, in the Assembly. The Bill has enforced an “almost blanket ban” on beef in the southern state.
The Bill widens the definition of “cattle” to include “cow, calf of a cow and bull, bullock and he or she buffalo” as well as beef as the meat of cattle.
Before tabling the Bill, Karnataka Animal Husbandry Minister Prabhu Chavan travelled to Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat to study and gather information on how to formulate the "most stringent" anti-cow slaughter legislation.
While the BJP is celebrating the Bill as historic, experts say the new law is problematic. The Quint spoke with several experts to understand the problems with the Bill and its implications.
The Quantum of Punishment
Among other things, the controversial Bill provides for a rigorous punishment for those held guilty of slaughtering, smuggling or illegally transporting cattle with 3-7 years of imprisonment along with steep fines, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakh or both.
Maitreyi Krishnan, a Bengaluru-based lawyer, said that the offence is cognizable, which means the arrest can take place without a warrant. The abetment of the offence is the same punishment.
“Just to put the penalties in context, Section 304A provides for death caused due to rash negligence as 2 years and this is for human beings, whereas the sale of cattle has a minimum punishment of 3 years. And it is in this context that we really need to understand that the penalty has been so dramatically increased,” she said.
Bill Gives a Free Hand to the Police
The second aspect flagged by experts is that the powers given to the police to raid and seize any property on mere “suspicion” could lead to harassment, they fear.
“Law completely invades the right to privacy as it allows for search and seizure by a police officer, not below the rank of a sub-inspector, or a competent authority – a tahsildar or a veterinary officer, who has 'reasons to believe an offence has been committed'. This term is, of course, very vague. With the history of vigilantism, one can only imagine the manner in which the basic right to privacy is going to be violated by such a provision,” Krishnan added.
Is the Bill Anti-Farmer?
The problems with the Bill are not limited to just to the legal aspects. The Bill is also deemed anti-farmer by activists and the Opposition, as it does not appear to have taken measures to protect farmers.
A farmer, who is unable to bear the cost of maintaining his cattle, now doesn’t have the option to sell it. Cattle that can’t be sold would be abandoned. A farmer’s inability to sell cattle means that he may also not have the funds to buy new cattle.
One of the many who opposed the Bill was former Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, who in a series of tweets said: “… the Bill forces farmers to nurture them. But it is highly impossible as the hybrid varieties like HF cattle need a minimum of Rs 200 a day for maintenance. This is highly impractical.”
Karnataka Law Minister Madhu Swamy had said that the government will open gaushalas to take care of abandoned cows. However, this requires a long process of permissions from understaffed veterinary offices and the government has not allocated any funds to build enough shelters for stray cattle.
In 2018, Uttar Pradesh had also faced issues with stray cattle after introducing the cow slaughter bill, forcing them to convert hospitals and schools to cow shelters.
Denial of Nutrition
The Supreme Court in 1955 noted that beef is one of the cheapest sources of nutrition for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, many of whom have low incomes. Dr Sylvia Karpagam, who is a public health doctor and researcher, said that the Bill has denied many lower-income groups access to cheap nutrition and their decades-old eating practices.
“Statistics show that 15 percent of Indians consume beef. In Karnataka, that translates to about nine lakh people, and this is a huge number. The government is taking away a source of nutrition, that people are used to eating culturally, and not replacing it. Is the government going to subsidise mutton? Is it going to provide lamb at the same cost as beef? So, it is an attack on people’s cultural rights and nutritional rights," she said.
One of the biggest concerns is that the Bill will increase incidents of cow vigilantism in the state, especially in the coastal region. At a time when there has been a marked rise in cases of cow vigilantism over mere suspicion of beef consumption and illegal cattle transportation, does this law abet cow vigilantism?
Talking on this aspect, Maitreyi Krishnan said: “The murder of Mohammad Akhlaq, the manner in which four Dalit men were beaten and stripped in Una, in 2017... in Karnataka, in Kundapura; in Udupi, a marriage party of the Kuruga community was stopped, family members were stopped, beaten, assaulted over the allegation that they had beef.”
“So, one can only imagine the way in which lives can be destroyed by this kind of unbridled power and the unimaginable havoc caused by it. These provisions also need to be seen with another provision, which provides that any action taken in good faith in furtherance of the act would be protected. Which means, you can have a complete violation of the most basic right of privacy and the actions of such a person would be protected under this law. This is absolutely dangerous,” she added.
Why Did the BJP Pass the Bill in a Hurry?
More than a legislation, the Bill was a political message, according to political analyst A Narayana.
“The BJP wanted a big show, it was not just the bill, but the optics of it, which mattered to them as much as content. You must have noticed that a Gau Pooja was performed outside the Vidhan Soudha. All the BJP leaders were clad in saffron. Then chanted Jai Shri Ram. This is not how a Bill in generally passed,” he explained.
Moreover, the Bill was passed without debate or providing MLAs a copy of the legislation. The Bill is currently awaiting approval from the Legislative Council.