In a Hindu majority country like India, where there are such strong sentiments about cow-slaughter, legal prohibitions on cow-slaughter are inevitable. But whether we can continue to have a working democracy and a healthy society is an entirely different question.
Cow-protection-related violence and riots in India date back to the Mughal era and also continued during the colonial rule as far back as the 1700s. However, a new era of cow vigilantism dawned under the rule of the current dispensation. The gory lynchings of men transporting cattle, or any animal meat suspected to be beef, at the hands of vigilantes are well known, and have become India’s international shame.
‘Impossible’ To Get Bail In Cow-Related ‘Crimes’ – And Presumption Of Guilt
The men dealing with cattle or meat apprehended by the police in different states undergo another kind of ordeal. Vaguely worded FIRs are registered against such men. There is no proper investigation into whether or not they had proper authorisation to transport the cattle. The samples of the meat confiscated from them are not sent to labs for analysis on time. Pending confirmation of whether they were cattle thieves or unauthorised to transport or sell cattle, or whether the meat found in their possession was ‘beef’, they remain jailed, deprived of legal representation and denied bail on some or the other pretext. This period of judicial detention can easily last for months, which it does in most cases.
Most of the men falling prey to the vigilantes or the law enforcement personnel are Muslims from economically weak backgrounds, whose livelihoods depend on slaughterhouses.
Even so, there is frustration in the BJP-led state governments that seek to further tighten the noose. Many states have amended their respective local legislations banning cow slaughter, and further criminalised the sale and transport of cattle/beef as well as mere possession of beef, whether it is intended for sale or not. These amendments have also increased the quantum of punishment for the said offences, and made it nigh impossible to get bail pending trial/investigation as the offences have been made non-bailable. To achieve this, in many state laws, there is a presumption of guilt, and the onus of proving innocence is on the accused.
India’s Double Standards On ‘Cow Protection’
In stark contrast to the saffron agenda, India is the second largest exporter of buffalo meat, fifth largest producer and the seventh largest consumer in the world. Almost half of all beef produced is consumed domestically. There is no ban on importing canned beef.
The central government also seems keen on doubling the size of the Indian leather industry – the production, import and export of cow leather has not been objected to by the saffron brigade.
All this while India has remained under fire by PETA which has made it clear that India’s treatment of cows is among the cruellest in the world, and that laws prohibiting slaughter of healthy bovines are routinely and openly flouted even today. Framing and enforcement of guidelines regarding humane conditions of shelter and proper treatment of animals on farms, in animal shelters, dairies, slaughterhouses or during transportation has never been prioritised.
Bovine deaths are reported by the thousands due to mismanagement, starvation of animals, and inadequate medical facilities in state-run animal shelters in states like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In states like Uttar Pradesh (9261 cattle deaths in 2019), the budget for cow welfare exceeds 600 crores, with Rs 450 crores allocated only for construction and upkeep of cattle shelters; but the requirement of fodder, workers and veterinarians is neither understood nor fulfilled on site.
No Effective Oversight To Protect Cows, No Major Crackdown On Cross-Border Cattle Smuggling
There are no official figures for bovine deaths released as of date, no effective oversight and hardly any officers are held accountable. And this discussion is important because, if the question truly relates to the welfare of an animal that is revered as holy, then the entire issue is one requiring good governance and sound policy. Instead, the BJP governments, at all levels, make use of tools of criminal law. The lacunae caused by bad governance are sought to be filled with penal laws. This is akin to starting a war with a neighbouring country as a cure for people dying due to famine within our own borders.
It is seldom highlighted that the crime of cattle theft within India (including smuggling cattle from one state to another) had already plummeted between 1953 and 2014 as per NCRB reports. Meanwhile, there has been no significant crackdown on cattle smuggling across the border to Bangladesh.
In June 2017, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed the state police to take action against cow slaughter and cattle smuggling under the National Security Act and the Gangster Act. As a result, the draconian National Security Act (NSA) has been invoked in about 76 cow slaughter cases so far. The NSA has also been invoked in hundreds of cases in UP as well as other states, with a shocking and unprecedented frequency, in alleged cow-slaughter cases, against anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors, journalists, political opponents and critics of the government in general.
There Can Be No Law Or System That Cannot Be Misused
Edmund Burke said, “Bad laws are the worst form of tyranny.” But law codes have no life in and of themselves. Laws are nothing. Will is everything.
Laws relating to sedition, house arrests and preventive detention, Sec 144 (CrPC), UAPA, National Security Act, and the UP Gangsters Act, et., have been on the books for a long time. They are well intended and necessary in the right context for the prescribed objectives. Yet, it is only now that we speak about the misuse of these laws.
In these strange times, all objectives not expressly prohibited in writing are sought to be accomplished indirectly through legislative tools. The might of the State is being channelised for objectives that decent people, including the Founding Fathers, believed it shall never be used for, and this belief, or assumption, was simply based on an unspoken code of honour. No legislator can codify everything.
Those hoping to restore sanity to our way of life in the country look to the Courts with shining eyes. But even the judicial system is being expected to do something it was never designed to achieve.
There can be no law, system, knowledge or institution that cannot be misused. Laws are nothing, will is everything. The will to good. The will to peace. The will to harmony. The will to co-exist.
This battle for the ‘idea’ of India did not start with law books, and so it cannot end in the Courts of Law. We must look to the unspoken, unwritten codes that can govern us and guide us to deploy our laws towards a future of harmony and inclusiveness.
(The author is a graduate from Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow, and an advocate practicing in courts across Lucknow Judgship. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)