Storm over move to ban cow
By Praful Bidwai
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.