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COMMENTARY
Storm over move to ban cow killings
By Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI - Faced with uncertain prospects in elections to five state legislatures due within three months, India's pro-Hindu coalition is bringing in a bill in the national parliament to ban the killing of cows and win the sympathies and votes of Hindus, but this is likely to stir a hornet's nest.

To start with, it means pandering to a particular religious group - many but by no means all groups of Hindus consider the cow a sacred animal - in India's multi-cultural, multi-religious society.

Indeed, the preamble to the bill exhibits a strong religious bias - unprecedented for parliamentary legislation in India. It says that "the cow is the embodiment of divine virtues like love, compassion, benevolence, tolerance and non-violence", and that it commands reverence and cultural sanctity.

This is not universally true, even of the Hindus, who form a little over four-fifths of India's billion-strong population. Many Hindus, who keep cows as milch and draught animals and use bullock power in agriculture, sell them once their economic life is exhausted.

India has a sixth of the world's cows and 57 percent of the world's buffaloes. Apart from slaughtering millions of cows and buffaloes for domestic consumption, India also exports over US$200 million worth of meat, mainly beef.

Bringing in a national law on a subject that falls within the domain of India's 32 states and territories is itself a highly questionable move. More than a quarter of these states, including Kerala in the south, West Bengal in the east and some Christian-majority states of the northeast, and Jammu and Kashmir, permit cows to be killed for their meat.

Some of the states have registered an angry protest against the proposed bill. For instance, the deputy chief minister of north Meghalaya says, "A particular diet may be poison to one community, but food for another, as in the case of hill people in the northeast whose main diet is beef." Neighboring Mizoram state's chief minister argues, "If a bill banning cow slaughter is passed, it could set the ball rolling for efforts to ban the slaughter of pigs. But both beef and pork are part of the food habits of the people."

Kerala agriculture minister K R Gowri, herself a Hindu, has termed the proposed bill "detrimental to the interests of Kerala". In Kerala, beef accounts for an estimated 40 percent of all meat consumed. Some 80 percent of Kerala's people regularly eat beef. They include 72 Hindu communities, besides Muslim, Christian and indigenous people.

Even more undemocratic is the government's crude attempt to regulate, dictate and censor the dietary habits of Indians. Banning cow slaughter involves preventing people from choosing what they eat. Permitting it would not impose a particular diet on an individual or group.

A blanket ban on the killing of cows, bulls and calves, irrespective of age, utility or health status, is a draconian measure that will inflict a heavy burden on the peasant-owners of such animals, besides increasing the proportion of unhealthy bovines in the total population.

Animal husbandry experts have often warned against the overpopulation of cattle in India and the emaciated state of a high proportion of cows. K R Ramaswamy, a former director of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, has argued that India must cull half its bovine population, which is extremely unhealthy and cannot be looked after.

There is yet another economic angle to cow slaughter. Beef in India costs less than half the price of lamb or chicken. It is the preferred source of first-class protein for the poor, who constitute a majority of India's population. The absence of beef will raise the food bill for the underprivileged.

Even more important, surveys of butchers in different states show that three-fourths of all beef is consumed by non-Muslims, largely Hindus. A higher proportion of the sellers of cattle are Hindus.

Abstinence from beef-eating is largely a caste or class question among Hindus. The low castes prefer beef to other meat for reasons of taste and habit too.

Yet, to impose this ban on cow slaughter, the government, led by the Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, has conjured up, of all things, an ecological and animal rights argument. The bill seeks to shift the constitutional subject matter from the purview of the states to items common to both national and state legislatures under measures for prevention of cruelty against animals.

This is patently duplicitous. If the real objective is to prevent cruelty to animals, then why single out the cow? Why not extend the law to hundreds of other animals and birds that are maltreated or vulnerable to abuse?

It is not as if Indian society is particularly caring of animals. One can see thousands of ill-fed, sick cows roaming the streets of Indian cities, including the capital. Most are left to forage through garbage. They end up consuming rotten vegetables, meat, and above all, an enormous amount of plastic bags.

India is notorious for its overconsumption and unsafe disposal of recycled, ugly plastic carry-bags, which are not required to be separated from biodegradable matter. Autopsies on cows turn up literally hundreds of plastic bags in their stomachs. Indian cows suffer from a range of ailments, including foot-and-mouth disease. The bill is hypocritical in evading issues at the center of the professed concern for the welfare of the cow.

The proposed law is open to objection on two other grounds too. It originates in the mistaken belief that cow slaughter was "brought" to India by invading Muslims in the Middle Ages, and that Hindu scriptures unanimously proscribe cow slaughter.

In reality, eminent Indian and European historians have conclusively shown, on the basis of contemporary accounts, that beef eating was an integral part of the dietary customs in ancient India. Animal sacrifice, including the killing of cows, was the prescribed ritual in many Indian traditions. Non-Hindu cultures, including that of the indigenous people or even Buddhists, permitted beef-eating.

Rich evidence of this is found in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Dharmashastras and other Hindu scriptures. For Vedic Aryans, cows were an important form of wealth. They were gifted to the priestly class of Brahmins as fees. Cows were defined as "food" in these texts.

There is evidence that in a later period, many Brahmins stopped eating beef. But they formed less than 5 percent of the population. In no major scripture, says Professor D N Jha of Delhi University and author of The Myth of the Holy Cow, "is killing a cow described as a grave sin, unlike drinking liquor or killing a Brahmin".

"It is only in the 19th century that the demand for banning cow slaughter emerged as a tool of mass political mobilization by right-wing Hindu communalists, out to isolate Muslims by aggressively challenging their dietary practices as 'alien'," says Jha.

(Inter Press Service)
 
Aug 19, 2003




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