BJP’s Cow Politics: Why the Northeast Is a Different Animal
BJP is following the Congress’ playbook on cow politics in the Northeast, but it makes them appear two-faced.
Although the short-lived media-driven public memory of beef politics is being diverted, the attention, at least for the time being, is focused on the farmers’ unrest in the states – but the BJP’s enthusiasm for the cow has not been affected at all.
The much-hyped central notification on restrictions on the slaughter of bovines is being used by the party to establish cow, meat, and beef as the most popular and media-friendly issue.
In fact, the notification, which technically was sought to be implemented across India, including the poll-bound Northeast states (Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya), underlines a new phase of the BJP’s association with the political symbolism of cow and meat.
The new rules have been highly appreciated in north India by party leaders who described it as an ‘aggressive’ step towards the universalisation of cow slaughter legislation (especially with reference to the stringent rules the BJP recently introduced in UP and Gujarat).
But the reception of this notification was different in Northeast India.
Also Read: Decoded: Cattle Market Rules, ‘Beef Ban’
Notification’s Impact in Northeast
It triggered public debates, protests, and resignations of a number of BJP leaders in Meghalaya and other Northeastern states. These developments forced senior party leaders to change their ‘aggressive’ stand.
The BJP’s arguments in support of these regulations in different regions seem rather contradictory; but this intentional ambivalence is a reflection of a deeper politics of cow and meat which has played an important role in India’s competitive electoral politics.
Cow Politics in Gujarat & UP
Gujarat and UP have followed strict cow protection laws implemented by Congress governments in 1954 and 1955.
There has been a blanket ban on cow slaughter in Gujarat under The Gujarat Animal Preservation Act, 1954. The BJP government amended the existing Act (first in 2011) and recently in 2017 to mark its presence in the wake of the upcoming Assembly elections.
It reinforced the previous prohibitions that treat cow slaughter as a punishable and non-bailable offence, with stricter rules. Following these amendments, Gujarat is now among the states that have introduced strict laws to protect cows, bullocks, bulls and their progeny.
Likewise, UP follows cow slaughter prohibition since 1955 under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955. The Act not only prohibited the slaughter of milch cows completely but also restricted the slaughter of buffaloes for religious sacrifice. In fact, UP, along with Bihar and Madhya Pradesh were among the first states which enacted such legislations under Congress rule.
The BJP government amended the Act in 2002 and introduced new clauses for a blanket ban on cow slaughter. Today, the Yogi Adityanath government has imposed another set of rules and regulations on ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses and meat shops to stop smuggling and illegal slaughter of cows.
Experience of the Northeast States
The BJP-led North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) government did not implement any legislation related to cow slaughter in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur where it formed governments in December 2016 and March 2017, respectively, around the time when stricter rules were imposed in UP and Gujarat.
In terms of legislation till date, cow slaughter is partially restricted in Manipur under a proclamation by the then Maharaja in the Darbar Resolution of 1939.
Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Nagaland also enacted only a partial ban on cow slaughter in 1979, again under Congress rule, which has no relevance in practice. Beef is openly and ‘legally’ sold in cities like Shillong, Dimapur, and Churachandpur (Manipur).
Historically, this was an arrangement made by Congress governments in the Northeast states to secure power in a region which is highly diversified in terms of ethnicity and religion, with no possibilities of conventional polarisation on communal lines. In this sense, NEDA has only followed a design of cow politics set by the Congress.
North vs Northeast
The BJP, it seems, has taken recourse to ‘aggressive’ cow politics in northern states. The emergence of violent cow vigilante groups that quite ‘visibly’ adhere to Hindutva’s dominant ideological position is the main reason behind this aggression.
The party is benefiting from such operations as it establishes that it is committed to cow protection in Hindu-dominated India. But a close look at Congress’ attitude in this region unfolds a duplicitous version of cow politics.
Congress never associated itself ideologically with the ground level aggression and protests organised by the Hindu political groups like the Jan Sangh, the RSS and later the VHP, which started a cow protection movement soon after Independence.
At the national level, the party established itself as a saviour of regional cultures, religious practices, the country’s secular fabric and the Constitution that guarantees states liberty.
At the same time, it enacted stricter laws within two decades of its tenure in the ‘Hindu-dominated’ states of north India. The Congress appropriated the ‘Hindutva’ rhetoric that presented cow beef and carabeef (or buff meat) as a symbol of Hindu-Muslim antagonism in the communally sensitive states of north India.
However, a different politics evolved in the Northeast. Since the conventional Muslim-beef rhetoric had no significance in the Christian-populated hill districts, the party played the ‘politics of convenience’ to form favourable equations by allowing cow slaughter in these states. The BJP, in this sense, is only trying to follow the Congress in the Northeast.
The new notification on cattle slaughter is being sought to be appropriated in two different poll-bound political contexts – Gujarat and Northeast.
BJP’s New Approach
In such a scenario, the BJP has evidently shown signs of a new politics in the Northeast when it comes to cow politics.
BJP leaders have started arguing that the Northeast has a special status which cannot be undermined. In fact, some leaders have taken to outright denial on beef ban.
But will the party be able to win in the Northeast? Being a centrist party, it was easier for the Congress to make favourable equations in the Northeast by deploying duplicitous cow politics.
The Congress goes well with unity and diversity slogans. This is not the case with the BJP, which has quite visibly taken to communal politics in the name of cow and Hindu nationalism.
The BJP is trying to make cow protection a national issue, which the Congress did not do deliberately. In such a scenario, the BJP’s politics will appear more two-faced in the Northeast if it does not implement a modified version of the new notification.
In this sense, the flavour of the BJP’s version of cow politics in the Northeast will play a decisive role in defining ‘Hindutva’ politics as well as the status of these states in competitive politics of the future.
(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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