Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Cow in the Communal Cauldron

Rumors of beef consumption and cow slaughter are being used to polarize society. If any govt is serious about a total ban, will it invest in cow welfare and have a uniform law on bovine slaughter?

By Ajith Pillai

Politicians will not publicly admit it. But in private they tell you that there are two curious aspects of the politics that is linked to the cow. One, that demanding a blanket ban on the slaughter and consumption of the species Bos taurus (which includes cows and bulls) is a shrewd card to play when a political party is in the opposition. But when in power, implementing any ban is not a very viable proposition. Secondly, any political and communal milking of the issue is only possible when the legal position is not uniform and is suitably vague.

That’s how it is today. Take a look at the cow ban map of India and you will find parts of the country where there is no ban (Kerala, West Bengal, Mizoram, Arunachal Pra-desh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim). In some states like Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, bulls can be slaughtered, provided fit-for-slaughter certificates are issued. In Tamil Nadu, slaughter and consumption of economically unviable animals is allowed. In Punjab, culling of animals is allowed for export. In Karnataka, possession of beef is not a crime and slaughter of older animals is permissible. In several states, including Delhi, the cow’s poorer cousin, buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) can be killed for its meat. In Uttar Pradesh, imported beef in sealed containers can be served to foreigners and buffaloes can be slaughtered.

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There is no uniform law and several shades of grey. Added to this is the fact that buffalo meat is not banned and can easily and conveniently be mistaken for beef. We now know that only a forensic test can conclusively ascertain the origin of the animal from which any meat is obtained.

The unfortunate killing of Mohammed Akhlaq and the mob attack on his family in Dadri, outside Delhi, for allegedly cooking beef at their home has taught us just that. The UP police sent the meat sample to a Mathura lab, where it was finally confirmed that it was mutton. 

While a blanket ban on slaughtering of bovine animals is what right-wing Hindutva groups have been demanding, there is reluctance to implement such a sweeping nation-wide law. The reason cited is that 25 percent of the population (as per the 2011 census) is SC/ST and they consume beef or buffalo meat as do the states in the North-east, making such a ban impractical.

But the unstated reason is that a ban—like the one in operation varying from state to state—makes cow protection a reason to target minority communities. Rumors of beef consumption and cattle slaughter can be used as a political tool without the state taking on the responsibility of tending to old and unproductive animals.
Devdutt Pattanaik, who writes on Indian mythology, makes this telling observation in The Hindu where he analyzes why the present status quo vis-a-vis cow ban is most convenient to politicians: “It allows them (Hin-dutva groups) to terrorize and dominate Muslims and liberals. It gives them global attention and makes them the focus of a controversy-hungry media. It is this rather than cow protection that the go-rakshaks really seek.” Pattanaik also observes that the cow has become politicized to meet vested interests and that the consumption of beef in Vedic times is a well-recognized fact, though contested by sections of the Hindu right.

According to the 2014 livestock census of the Ministry of Agriculture, there are 118 million milch animals in the country. A cow is usu-ally considered economically useful so long as it produces milk. This varies from five to eight years, although dairy farmers say that after a few cycles of pregnancy, the output usually declines, rendering the animal a liability. What do they do with the animal? It is usually sent for slaughter for its meat and commercial exploitation of its hide, etc. Otherwise, it has to be tended to for the rest of its life which could extend up to 15 years (internationally recognized lifespan) or more. Any recovery of cost for its upkeep from sale of its urine and dung would cover only a small fraction of the money involved, since even by the most conservative estimates, an ageing animal will require at least `30 a day for just basic feed.
As things stand, cattle owners prefer to get rid of animals once they have passed their milk yielding years. In fact, even when a cow is not in lactation, it is let loose on the streets of cities to fend for itself. In Delhi, one can see such cattle feeding at refuse dumps and consuming whatever comes its way, including plastic bags and stale food.  

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VHP activists protest against cow slaughter in Bangalore

But should the state take responsibility of tending to cattle throughout its life when it would require a huge budgetary allocation? According to sources in the Ministry of Agriculture, seed amount of at least `10,000 crore would be required to set up gaushalas and infrastructure across the country for the welfare of cattle discarded by farmers.

An official told India Legal: “The cost involved will be enormous. An entire workforce will have to be created and maintained to tend to the animals in retirement. It will be difficult to sustain such a program even though voluntary organizations may come forward to help. It will require consistent financial support and will necessitate an annual budgetary allocation. Where will this input come from?”
But then, other questions will still remain. What happens to the bull which has a key role in the biological process that gives birth to a cow? Will it be left to slaughter? And what of the buffalo which also produces milk? And which agency will police cattle farms to ensure that all animals past their prime are sent off to welfare homes and not disposed off otherwise? Will there be a cow police created which will be tasked with this responsibility?

According to the official the only other viable alternative is through the setting up of centers where animals, which have lived out their usefulness, can be put to sleep through administration of suitable medication. But this formula may not find favor with those who would want a natural death for the revered cow and not assisted killing.
There is also another economic dimension. The meat export industry has been doing impressive business and earned over $5 billion in the last fiscal. It has grown by over 20 percent in recent years, making it a sunrise industry. Its primary export has been packaged beef dominated by buffalo meat. Will a total ban on cattle slaughter impact the business and the thousands employed by the meat processing industry?

Perhaps, finance minister Arun Jaitley may have had this in mind as well as the bad press over the Dadri lynching when he made a statement in New York at the Columbia University condemning the incident. He said: “India is a mature society. We need to rise above these kinds of incidents because they certainly don’t give a good name as far as the country is concerned. I have also said they can amount to policy diversions in that context, so it is the responsibility of every Indian in his actions or comments to stay clear of unfortunate and condemnable instances like this.”   

That cow protection is being used to polarize society along religious and caste lines is very evident. If one looks back, there are several Dadri-like instances where the animal has been used as a convenient excuse to unleash violence. Last year Santosh Kumar, a Valmiki, was reportedly attacked by men on motorcycles outside Delhi for carrying carcasses of cows in his tempo. He had been contracted by the South Delhi Muni-cipal Corporation to cremate the dead cows. Similarly, five Dalits were set upon by a VHP mob in Jhajjar, Haryana, for carrying carcasses they were authorized to carry for cremation. In February, Uttar Pradesh animal husbandry minister Raj Kishor Singh told the state assembly that over 13,000 FIRs were filed in UP between 2012-2014 involving cases of illegal slaughtering.

At the end of the day, it is easy to see why no government wants to end the cow crisis by investing money in long-term cow welfare and protection. For a start, it simply does not marry well with all the push towards fiscal discipline. When the welfare state for humans is being made to fade out, old age homes for the cow may not exactly look good in the balance books and may not find favor with international monetary agencies.

But keeping the communal cauldron boiling in the name of the animal makes a lot of sense when it comes to playing divisive politics.  


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