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Milking The Cow Politically

By Praful Bidwai

The News International, Pakistan
04 September, 2003

The Bharatiya Janata Party has so little to offer to the Indian
public by way of substantive policies and programmes that it
invariably falls back upon issues of identity and the politics of
symbols and gestures. The temptation to exploit identity symbols
grows within the BJP in the same proportion as its popular appeal,
dependent upon its (generally poor) performance in government,

Nothing highlights this better than the BJP's raking up of the
Ayodhya temple issue from time to time - against its agreement with
its own allies not to do so. But equally, if not even more gross, is
its playing politics with the icon of the Holy Cow by demanding a
blanket ban on cow-slaughter. This is an old agenda, one that led to
the storming of India's Parliament House by fanatical sadhus way back
in the mid-1960s. The party has again raised this issue by moving a
Bill in Parliament.

Reassuringly, the BJP's secular allies strongly opposed the Bill and
forced it to put it on hold. But its very drafting evoked defensive
reactions, including from the Congress party, and from some Muslim
intellectuals who argue that Muslims shouldn't oppose a cow-slaughter
ban because none of their holy scriptures says they ought to eat
beef. It is not a religious issue.

For the BJP, beef-eating is a religious issue. But it may be totally
mistaken to believe that most Hindus will support the
anti-cow-slaughter Bill. By pushing it, however, it will have
inflicted enormous damage upon Indian society and politics.

Banning the slaughter of cows will violate 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". This violation is all the more egregious because it
panders to a particular group in India's multi-cultural,
multi-religious society - under the false pretext of respecting the
"religious sentiments" of a community.

To start with, a cow-slaughter ban will impose a heavy economic
burden on society equivalent to more than half the grand total India
annually spends on primary education in all schools put together. If
the 10 million cows slaughtered each year are to be kept alive for
only five years (that is, 50 million for one year), they will need as
much additional pastureland as India currently has. If a paltry Rs 10
is spent on each animal daily, that will annually cost over Rs 18,000
crores! India's total primary education spending is Rs 35,00 crores.

Keeping economically useless, ailing, old cattle forcibly alive will
mount further pressure on land and people. Worse, the Bill imposes a
blanket ban on killing the cow and also its "progeny - including
bulls. This will compel farmers to keep alive a class of useless
animals, resulting in higher milk prices. There will be the
additional burden of over $1 billion from lost exports of leather and
meat products, mainly beef. Besides, at least 15 million people
associated with the bovine-livestock economy, from trade in animals
to leather-making, and trading in bones, will lose their livelihoods.
This means an annual value-addition loss of Rs 15,000 crores.

It is doubtful if either the Hindus as a whole, or those who own
cattle, want cow-slaughter banned. Many, but not all, Hindus believe
the cow is sacred in some sense. But that's not reflected in the way
it's treated. A look at the emaciated, half-starved, cows that roam
India's streets foraging for food and obstructing traffic should
convince the sceptic. Even more brutal is the treatment of bullocks,
who are mercilessly beaten to make them work beyond their capacity.

Most Hindus have the farmer's attitude to cattle. They sell them to
the butcher once their useful life is exhausted. The vast majority of
India's cattle-owners are Hindus. So the cow-slaughter issue is
related to intra-Hindu politics. Cattle-owners have even less
patience with the male calves of exotic breeds of cows (which cannot
serve as draught animals). They are butchered young.

Finally, it's wrong to claim that Hindus don't eat beef, and their
principal scriptures prohibit its consumption. Numerous Hindu
communities, especially the low castes and Dalits, regularly consume
beef, as do India's 180 million non-Hindus.

For instance, in Kerala, beef accounts for 40 percent of all meat,
and is consumed by four-fifths of the people. They include 72 Hindu
communities. In India, beef is at least twice cheaper than lamb or
chicken. It is the poor's preferred source of first-class protein.
Absence of beef will raise their food bill.

Surveys of butchers in different states show that three-fourths of
all beef is consumed by non-Muslims. India's beef production has been
rising at 7 percent a year, compared to 4 to 5 percent for mutton and

The proposed law is open to objection on two other grounds. It
originates in the mistaken belief that cow-slaughter was "brought" to
India by "invading" Muslims. But eminent Indian and European
historians have shown, citing contemporary accounts, that beef-eating
was integral to the dietary customs of ancient India. Animal
sacrifice, including the killing of cows, is prescribed in many
Indian texts, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Dharmashastras
and other scriptures.

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 major or 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 mobilisation by
right-wing Hindu communalists". Jha's book, released by a small
Indian publisher, was banned in 2001. When the ban was lifted, no
Indian publisher would print it. He had to get it published in

The Bill is utterly hypocritical in that it bans cow-slaughter on
animal rights grounds. If the real objective is to prevent cruelty to
animals, then why single out the cow when hundreds of other animals
are maltreated? Indian society is not particularly caring of animals.
Most cows consume rotten vegetables, meat, and above all, an enormous
amount of plastic bags from garbage-bins. Autopsies turn up literally
hundreds of plastic bags in each animal's stomach.

Many states have angrily protested against the Bill, which puts a
state-subject into a common ("Concurrent") federal-state list. For
instance, Meghalaya's chief minister says: "A particular diet may be
poison to one community, but food for another, as in the case of the
Northeast's hill people whose main diet is beef." Mizoram's chief
minister argues: "If the [Bill] is passed, it could set the ball
rolling for efforts to ban the slaughter of pigs. But both beef and
pork are part of our food habits".

Even Andhra Pradesh is against banning cow-slaughter. Some 3.5
million Andhras are dependent on it. Besides, India's two most
mechanised slaughter-houses, including Al-Kabeer, are located in
Andhra. Al-Kabeer, a big beef exporter, is owned by a Hindu!

The BJP has manufactured a Hindu "tradition", which it is trying to
ram down the throats of all Indians. This is pure, dangerous
majoritarianism. It sets a test for India's secularism: can it resist
the Hindu-communal onslaught?