Assam Cattle Preservation Bill and Colonialism's Communal Legacy

The Bill is inextricably linked to the colonial legacy that defined India as a battle ground of communal identities.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021 does exactly what it was expected to do politically.

It is introduced at the time when the Bakra-Eid celebration is round the corner to raise usual Hindu versus Muslim controversies. But, this time, there is something new, which is beyond the proposed official regulation of the meat industry. The bill is a replica of colonial administrative policies, which continue to haunt us with violent form of identity politics in South Asia.

The proposed restrictions on animal slaughter are not merely about regulating butchery and the consumption and transportation of cattle. The Bill is inextricably linked to the colonial political legacy that defined India as a battle ground of communal identities and must be read in relation to the long history of colonial legislations related to animal slaughter.


What Does the Bill Propose?

As per the proposed clauses, if passed, the law would ban the sale and purchase of beef and beef products in areas where Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and other non-beef-eating communities are in higher concentration. Also, the proposed bill would ban the sale of such products within a radius of five kms of any temple or ‘Sattra.’

The Chief Minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, had earlier pointed out that the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950 does not have sufficient legal provisions to regulate the slaughter, consumption, and transportation of cattle.

It should be noted that in the states where anti-slaughter laws are in place, there is no provision to exclude specific areas similar to what the Assam government has proposed. The bill would be the first to impose such restrictions in independent India.


Colonial Legacy of the Cattle Bill

The proposed restrictions are imposed on the colonial administrative policies that transformed the caste, class and profession identity-based traditional living pattern into communally demarcated residential pockets and laid the stone for the partition of the Indian sub-continent.

For instance, the East India Company provided a wider legal framework to its Governor General in the Punjab region to manage the conflicts emerging out of sacrificial slaughter of cows during festive occasions and to regulate slaughter, sale, and transportation of meat on day-to day basis. The rules were adopted with an intention to deal with such issues with a ‘neutral’ approach to maintain a balance between the rights of different communities.

These rules were known as 1849 Punjab Laws, which were later extended to Delhi and other north-Indian cities after the proper establishment of colonial rule.

The Punjab Laws provided a legal framework to ensure that no animal slaughter would be permitted within 300 yards (about 274.3 meters) of cities, towns or villages where the Hindu and Muslim population was mixed or living in close proximity.

It imposed several other restrictions ordering that demarcated spots were to be provided for shambles and butchers’ shops in every large town away from religious places of worship or fakirs’ huts. The Municipalities in the British India were instructed to perform ‘improvement’ tasks and manage conflicts over animal slaughter and public religious processions following the Punjab Laws.

This conflict management had two important aspects: the legalisation of the practice of animal slaughter through the demarcation of residential pockets, public roots, and community space and intensive policing. Later the Punjab Act, 1872 and the Municipal bye-laws of 1913 imposed further restrictions.


Meat and the Formation of Communal Geographies

Following this legal framework, the authorities identified residential areas on the basis of the religious association of communities that produced three official categories – ‘Hindu-dominated’, ‘Muslim-dominated’ and ‘combined’.

As a result, the municipal authorities removed meat shops situated in Hindu areas and shifted them to the meat markets. The only meat shops that were allowed to remain in the cities were situated in Muslim-dominated areas.

The public routes were mapped out for ‘safe’ religious processions and transportation of animals and meat. These routes were also identified on the bases of the religious configuration of areas to avoid the possibility of conflict between two major religious communities around the cities.

Finally, the colonial government drafted a number of police patrolling schemes called the Criminal Procedure Codes to circumvent and to control rioting situations during the festive occasions. It was to provide protection to the communities that were in minority and ‘weak’ in different areas.

This kind of legal restrictions, however, led to further conflicts between communities and resulted in crude communal geographies. Quite contrary to what the authorities expected, this demarcation made it highly probable for a communal conflict to emerge whenever such boundaries were crossed by communities living in close proximity or otherwise for meat business or religious processions.

Religious and regional festivals like Bakra-Eid, Diwali, Holi, and Dussehra, which are usually an extended social affaire celebrated over a period of few days with much cultural activities and fanfare also became communalised. A rioting situation occurred at sudden incidents of crossing ‘legally’ defined Hindu-Muslim geographical/cultural boundaries.


How Geographical Demarcations Led to Political Divide

This categorisation of space on communal lines got established as milestones in almost every sphere of social life, politics, and, economics. For instance, the debates on political representation concretised community boundaries as they became political constituencies. The political elite belonging to religious extremist organisations such as Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and RSS translated these administrative divisions to argue for their notion(s) of cultural nationalism.

These groups articulated claims and counter-claims on residential as well as public spaces in a political vocabulary. The issues like—who belongs where? Who represents whom? Or who should govern whom?—emerged as important questions of existence that created a dominant discourse of divisive politics in a larger sense. The politics after 1940s articulated such claims to demarcate space in larger sense.

The Indian subcontinent was divided on the basis of colonial official vocabulary - ‘Muslim majority region’ and ‘Hindu majority region’ in 1947.

The partition, as we know, witnessed the worst kind of communal violence in a century leaving millions displaced, raped, and murdered. Aftereffect of this kind of politics survived even after the making of two nations and have set the contours of politics in independent India.


How Assam Bill Carries Forward the Colonial Legacy

Politics of cow and animal preservation laws is one aspect of communal politics that continued to define social relations even after seventy years of independence.

The recent bill has a potential to replicate the colonial legacy by

  • converting the religious identity into an ‘official’ category to ‘legally’ demarcate Hindu-Muslim residential localities as concrete communal boundaries

  • making claims and counter-claims on residential and public space and legalise denials and/or allowance to access the demarcated cultural zones, and

  • to turn cultural Hindu-Muslim zones into contested spaces.

The bill has also criminalised animal transportation and meat-related economic activities as ‘illegal’ with a provision of jail and fine. This kind of demarcation of social boundaries will lead to religious bifurcations at all levels of culture, economy and politics in a society like Assam which represents a sizeable share of the two leading religious groups.


Proposed Cow Protection Bill Will Further Polarise Assam

Assam’s religious demography is very interesting. As per the 2011 census, there were around 61 per cent Hindus, 34 percent Muslims and around 4 percent Christians in the state. There is a sizeable Scheduled Tribe population in Assam (around 13 percent of which Bodos account for 40 percent). Followers of Christian faith are mainly found in Scheduled Tribes.

The consumers of carabeef can be found across religious communities and different classes. It is not possible to divide communities between beefeaters and non-beef eaters on religious grounds.

In terms of living patterns, Assam represents a mixed residential pattern other than a few concentrated Hindu-Muslim or ethnic communities’ pockets. The Census 2011 informs us that out of 27 districts of Assam, only nine districts (Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, Nagaon, Karimganj, Hailakandi, Darrang and Bongaigaon) are Muslim majority. Similarly, 18 out of 27 districts are Hindu-dominated. These districts are not completely homogenised in terms of religious, ethnic and cultural presence and associations of people. The Bill will lead to further polarisation of communities on religious lines and food habits.

This bill is a reflection of BJP’s communal design filled with larger political intentions to survive in power through divisive politics.

(Nazima Parveen is a PhD scholar at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Assam   Cow   Cattle Slaughter Ban 

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