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

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

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

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

(Inter Press Service) 


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