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