The recent row over the foolish and barbaric act of a few misguided young people, who slaughtered a calf publicly in Kerala to defy the government’s rules on cow slaughter and whose actions were quickly disowned by the Congress party, has obscured the larger problem with the issue.
The ruling dispensation’s relentless drive to promote its ideology of Hindutva has latched onto the cow as its current instrument of choice. Cow protection has become the façade for a broader agenda, and is being resisted precisely for that reason.
There is no doubt about the veneration of the cow across India, and the respect for it as a source of milk and nourishment for all – and, after its death, of meat and nourishment for some.
Gandhi Couldn’t Justify Imposing Hindu Vegetarianism on Others
Calls during the Constituent Assembly deliberations to ban cow slaughter, opposed by a vocal minority, were finally reduced to a “directive principle” anchored in economics and not religion: Article 48 of the Constitution says that "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." So this “endeavour” (stopping well short of a ban) was related specifically to the needs of agriculture and animal husbandry, not of worship.
Gandhiji himself said that though he did not eat meat and was personally opposed to cow slaughter, in a multi-religious country like India, he could not justify imposing his Hindu views on the many who did not share his faith. Many Hindus feel the same way; I am a vegetarian myself, and abhor the idea of consuming the corpses of animals, but I do not judge those who, for cultural or other personal reasons, do so.
I only ask that animals be treated decently and without cruelty, and that even their slaughter, for purposes of consumption, be conducted humanely and with minimal pain and suffering for the poor creatures.
The furore that accompanied the new Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2016, rolled out by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, polarised opinion across the country, especially in beef-eating states like Kerala.
There it produced a strong reaction from an indignant chief minister, invited condemnation across the local political spectrum, forced the state to drag the Centre to court, united warring student union factions to organise beef festivals across the state and even gave Twitterati a field day with #PoMoneModi (Go Away Modi) – used last when the prime minister compared Kerala to the African nation of Somalia – resurfacing as a popular hashtag.
Though the new rules do not directly impose a beef ban, they contrive to make cow slaughter all but impossible through the backdoor, by making it impossible to transport or sell cattle for slaughter.
In the process, they have raised fundamental questions the government cannot escape, even as it tries to shift the focus to the misbehaviour of a few young men.
Some Fundamental Questions
The first issue is constitutional – the decision to institute the full prohibition of cow slaughter is a prerogative of the states, not the government at the Centre. Entry 15 of the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution provides for the "Preservation, protection and improvement of stock and prevention of animal diseases, veterinary training and practice", empowering state legislatures to legislate prevention of slaughter and preservation of cattle.
Different states have different approaches to cow welfare. Some states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have strict laws while others such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland etc have milder rules or no rules governing the welfare of cows. The blanket new rule is clearly an infringement on the rights of the states, undermining the federal rights guaranteed by our Constitution.
The second objection is practical. The Constitution rightly speaks of milch and draught cattle. Cows produce milk for about eight years, at which point they are too old for either milch or draught purposes. But they go on to live another eight years. Farmers have to spend at least Rs 60 a day on the food and fodder requirements and other maintenance costs of a cow. That is Rs 22,000 a year, or Rs 1,76,000 for eight years, as the minimum expenditure for a poor farmer on a non-productive investment, which is a fortune for farmers who often live barely above subsistence level. This is why they sell non-lactating cows, normally for slaughter.
Even our highest courts, despite their variety of views on the matter, have recognised that “a total ban on cattle slaughter was unreasonable if, under economic conditions, keeping useless bulls or bullocks be a burden on the society and therefore not in the public interest.”
From an Economic Point of View
India is already home to nearly 512 million cows, according to the 19th National Livestock Census 2012. Aside from maintaining them decently, India would also have to deal with deforestation and overgrazing, as well as the problems caused by abandoned cattle, who stray onto the streets and in many cases die of malnutrition in their old age. The previous policy recognised that banning cow slaughter would impose an economic burden on farmers, who, given the paucity of resources at their disposal, would struggle to maintain these animals.
As a result, we are also the largest exporter of buffalo meat in the world – a multibillion-dollar business. Since the sale and transfer of animals is integral to keep this going, the new rules are likely to severely cripple the meat export, dairy, leather and other allied businesses, which provide employment for over 1 million individuals within the country, mainly from minority communities.
The state of Maharashtra’s 2015 beef ban had already destroyed the livelihoods of a million Muslim butchers and truckers in that state; a nationwide ban would push more people into poverty who are currently leading economically productive lives.
Where beef was legally available, it was consumed not just by Muslims and other minorities, but also by many poorer Hindus, as a vital source of protein for those who cannot afford other kinds of meat.
More Than 12.5 Million Hindus Consume Beef
Statistics suggest that just 2 percent of the Hindu population consume beef, but this 2 percent translates to 12.5 million individuals, making them the second largest consumers of beef in the country. And, in reality, many others who do so do not admit to the practice. Scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST) comprise the overwhelming majority (more than 70 percent) of the beef-eating Hindu population, while 21 percent hail from the OBC community. The government decision is therefore socially discriminatory, since it specifically and disproportionately harms the poorer and less privileged sections of Indian society.
But the real concern about the government’s rules is not just about beef or the welfare of the cow, but about freedom. For most of India’s existence, the default approach has essentially been “live and let live” – make your own choice about beef, and let others do the same. Like many Hindus, I have never considered it my business what others eat.
Indians have generally felt free to be themselves, within our dynamic and diverse society. It is that freedom that the BJP’s followers are challenging today.
Our government has given voice to a peculiar kind of Hindu chauvinism, one that embraces the activist assertion of a narrowly constructed version of the faith. It cannot be described as “fundamentalism,” for Hinduism is a religion singularly devoid of fundamentals: It lacks a single sacred book, a single version of divinity, and even the equivalent of a Sabbath day.
In fact, Hindus who eat beef can, like those who abjure it, find support for their beliefs in the religion’s ancient texts and scripture. (Many a WhatsApp forward has provided chapters and verses from the ancient texts supporting cow slaughter and beef consumption.)
Rather, what Modi’s government has fostered is a form of subjective intolerance, with supporters, emboldened by the BJP’s absolute majority, imposing their particular view of what India should be, regardless of whom it hurts. This is why the reaction has been so visceral, even from non-beef eaters like myself. Our resistance is to the way India is being changed into something it never was – an intolerant majoritarian society.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)