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    South Asia
     Jan 6, 2012

Indians split over cow ban
By Neeta Lal

NEW DELHI - Rarely, if ever, has an animal and its meat been the object of such dissonance as the cow has been in India. Referred to reverentially as kamdhenu (one who fulfills all needs), the animal occupies a prime place in Hindu religious rituals and customs.

The issue of its slaughter thus invariably kindles strong passions across the socio-political spectrum. While the far-right Hindutva groups oppose the cows' butchering, liberals are vehement that what kind of meat one eats ought to be a matter of personal choice in a democracy.

Against such a contentious backdrop, the ban by the government of the Hindu nationalist right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on cow slaughter in the central state of Madhya Pradesh - with an

exceptionally stringent law - has resurrected the age-old debate.

The Gau-Vansh Vadh Pratishedh (Sanshodhan) Act, which has already received the presidential stamp, makes cow slaughter a serious offence punishable by up to seven years in jail. The law will also trigger punitive action to varying degrees against those who transport cows to slaughter or store beef.

The new legislation, say critics, is basically the old bugbear of "cow politics" masquerading as a matter of "public interest and communal harmony". It could have serious societal ramifications, too, considering it will permit an authority to randomly inspect homes and eateries on the pretext of seeking "evidence".

This is tricky territory - apart from stoking religious sentiments, such "inspections" may well encourage abuse or harassment amounting to an infringement of human rights. More so as the onus, under this act, is on the accused to prove his or her innocence.

A special symbol
The cow has dominated the Indian political matrix for decades. As far back as 1966, Delhi witnessed an outbreak of a massive agitation on the issue of a ban of cow slaughter.

Almost all Indian communal political parties organized a massive demonstration - attended by thousands of people - in support of a national ban on cow slaughter. It climaxed in violent rioting in front of parliament, resulting in the death of eight persons and injury to hundreds.

In April 1979, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, considered a spiritual heir to Mahatma Gandhi, went on a hunger strike to pressurize the central government to prohibit cow slaughter throughout the country. Bhave terminated his fast after five days when the then-prime minister Morarji Desai assured him that his government would try to implement the anti-slaughter legislation expeditiously.
Interestingly, according to some Brahmanical texts, the killing of animals and eating of beef was common during Vedic times. Even now, many Hindus or even cattle owners do not want cow-slaughter banned. Historian D N Jha writes in his book, Paradox of the Indian Cow: Attitudes to Beef Eating in Early India, that "traditional Hindu religious heritage carries the load of the misconception that his ancestors, especially the Vedic Aryans, attached great importance to the cow on account of its inherent sacredness".

The "sacred" cow has come to be considered a symbol of community identity of Hindus whose cultural tradition is often imagined as threatened by Muslims who are thought of as "beefeaters", writes Jha. And adds, "The sanctity of the cow has, therefore, been wrongly traced back to the Vedas, which are supposedly ... the fountainhead of all knowledge and wisdom."

In other words, Jha concludes, sections of Indian society have traced back the concept of the sacred cow to the very period when it was sacrificed and its flesh was eaten.

Cow slaughter is currently banned in many states - Gujarat passed the Animal Preservation Act in October 2011 that prohibits killing of cows along with buying, selling and transport of beef. Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states allow butchering of cattle other than cows if the animal carries a "fit-for-slaughter" certificate. In West Bengal and Kerala, consumption of beef is not deemed an offence.

However, what complicates the cow dynamic further is the fact that the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution specify that the state must take steps for "... prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves ..."

At the same time, legal eagles point out that banning cow slaughter violates two fundamental rights at the heart of India's constitution - the freedom to live and act (and eat) as one wishes (provided that doesn't infringe other people's rights), and the right to "carry on any occupation, trade or business".

The ban, feel the opponents, thus strikes at the very root of India's pluralistic and multi-religious society under the bogus pretext of respecting the "religious sentiments" of a community.

A sizeable number of Hindus eat beef, nor do their scriptures prohibit its consumption. In southern Kerala, for instance, beef accounts for nearly half of all meat consumed by all communities, including Hindus.

Sociologists attribute another reason to the widespread consumption of cow meat in India - it is a far cheaper source of animal protein for the poor than lamb or chicken, which retail at double the price. Small wonder, India's beef consumption post-independence in 1947 has witnessed a much faster upward spiral than any other kind of meat.

"If the real objective is to prevent cruelty to animals," say liberals, "then why single out the cow when hundreds of other animals are maltreated?"

Already, the management of cattle resources across India has been a deeply contentious issue with animal-rights activists. It is a common practice for farmers, they say, to brutally beat bullocks that plough their fields. Circus owners are notorious for maltreating the very animals that provide them their livelihood. Horses and camels, that entertain tourists on Indian beaches, are often brought to hospitals with profuse bleedings and injuries.

In face of such a grim reality, the new law smacks of hypocrisy. "Cow slaughter has become a political tool in the hand of those who base their politics on religious identities," says political analyst Ashok Pandit. "The MP [Madhya Pradesh] government's sudden love for a hapless animal is basically the invention of a remote control to manipulate religious minorities."

Besides, observers point out, in states where demands for a ban on cow slaughter is opposed on religious lines, it is not so much for religion, but because the issue is projected as a matter of "identity".

The Hindu nationalist right-wing BJP - known to resort to issues of identity and the politics of symbols - has often ignited the cow issue to stoke religious sentiments. In March 2010, the BJP-dominated assembly in the southern state of Karnataka (the last Indian state to pass the cow protection bill) faced vehement protests from Muslims.

The cow slaughter issue often drives the BJP's agenda, say political observers, because it relies on the Hindu vote bank for its main support. The party has also advocated stringent cow rights legislation across the country.

Critics say the law deliberately targets Muslims who tend to be meat traders or butchers, to fuel religious tension. In 2010, a Muslim butcher in Himachal Pradesh killed a cow in a fit of rage after it had failed to give milk for more than three years, triggering violence. Hindu protesters vandalized two mosques in an unsavory backlash, setting one of one of them on fire.

Ironically, the ban on cow slaughter has done something worse - it has driven the beef business underground. Ergo, it is still available to those who love this meat and have the "right" contacts.

Neeta Lal is a widely published writer/commentator who contributes to many reputed national and international print and Internet publications.

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