There is much ado about meat nowadays. And the reason for this issue’s resurgence is political, religious and commercial. But is its ban wise? What does it do to India’s secular image?
By Kalyani Shankar
Should the state decide what one should eat or not eat? Can a minority community impose its wish on the majority community? These are the questions dogging the country after a beef ban was imposed by Maharashtra in March and a meat ban by the Mira-Bhayandar Municipal Corporation last month. Its echo was heard in Delhi’s backyard in Dadri (UP) on Septe-mber 28 when a Muslim ironsmith was dragged from his home and beaten to death by an angry mob after rumors that his family had been eating beef and storing it in their home. His son was seriously injured. The issue has now taken a communal color with political parties jumping into the fray.
With more states announcing similar bans, the issue has become contentious. Many are not opposed to a ban for a day or two, but a ban for four consecutive days and the wide publicity given to it, has created apprehensions. Jains who constitute a miniscule 0.37 percent of the Indian population are influencing the BJP on vegetarianism in most BJP-ruled states.
The meat ban has several angles apart from the role of the state. It has a legal angle (courts are examining it), a political angle (BJP versus the rest), a communal angle (Muslim versus Hindu), a class angle (weal-thy Jains versus the rest), a religious angle (Hindu versus Muslims), a health angle (nut-rition) and a community angle (Jain versus the rest).
It all started with a meat ban for four days during Paryushan, an annual Jain festival in Maharashtra, last month. The unrest was already there in the state after a beef ban in March, although only a small group of Brahmins and Jains eat vegetarian food.
Those who support the ban (read BJP) argue that this was not the first time it was imposed. Gujarat had imposed it in April 1960 when the state was created. Rajasthan had imposed it during Paryushan for many years. Haryana too imposed a meat ban on September 10 when its urban local bodies ordered all slaughter houses to remain non-operational during Paryushan. Cow slaughter is banned in MP and Chhattisgarh follows the same rules as MP since it was carved out of it in 2000. In Jammu and Kashmir, the high court had called for strict implementation of a long-forgotten law prohibiting slaughter of cows, oxen and buffaloes.
Then why is the uproar? Firstly, the Mira-Bhayandar Municipal Corporation had increased the duration of the meat ban. Secondly, it comes close on the heels of the beef ban imposed in BJP-ruled states. Thir-dly, it became a fight between wealthy Jains and others. Fourthly, Bihar elections are taking place and any communal or political issue polarizes the voters.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, which has always stood by the Jains, and its cousin MNS, oppose it for their turf war. The Congress accuses the BJP of majoritarianism after itself having banned it in state after state. The NCP, the AIMIM and the SP have joined the Sena in opposing the ban. Left parties, the SP, AIMIM, AAP and other parties are calling it an anti-Muslim stand. The TMC wants Prime Minister Modi to respond.
Why should the BJP oblige the Jains? First of all, the Jain community, a core voting block for the BJP, had been putting pressure on the party to increase the meat ban to eight days from two days during Paryushan. The BJP climbed down after protests and made it four days. The Jains are major funders of the BJP and an influential community. The Congress too had pampered the Jains by giving them minority status in 2014.
Secondly, it was a pre-poll promise and the BJP could not wriggle out of it. Did not the BJP stand by the beef ban earlier citing majoritarian sentiment as the deciding factor for protecting the cow? Thirdly, there is some merit that this was not the first time the ban was imposed. It was done way back in 1964 and then in 1994. Later, in 2003 and in 2013, there was a two-day ban.
Fourthly, the BJP wants to expand its influence well beyond the Mumbai suburb of Mira Bhayandar because in 2017, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) will go to the polls. The Shiv Sena has traditionally controlled the BMC. The BJP is getting ambitious and is contemplating fighting the corporation elections on its own.
Lastly, on the religious side, the Hindu majority consisting of about 80 percent of the 1.2 billion people regard cows as sacred. Muslims see this as an assault on secularism where the state is committed to supporting different religions equally.
While the minority Jain community’s sentiments should be respected, opponents of the meat ban ask whether the BJP would demonstrate the same level of compassion towards other minorities also. Secondly, the ban would affect thousands of people (mostly Muslims) depending on the meat business. It also provides livelihood to millions of people. Thirdly, there is also a health argument— meat is a source of nutrition. Since it is cheaper than chicken or mutton, it forms a staple diet for many Muslims, tribals and Dalits. Fourthly, no one is objecting to Jains following their religion or observing fasts but they can’t impose a ban that affects others.
The legal angle is quite interesting. Courts have been ruling on the cattle issue as far back as the fifties and sixties. In 1969, a five-judge constitutional bench held that hurting the feelings of a particular community or society cannot be a valid reason for a ban
The Jain Paryushan had reached the Supreme Court in 2008 when it upheld a decision of local authorities in Gujarat to close slaughter houses during the festival. Justice Markandey Katju observed: “If the Emperor Akbar could forbid meat-eating for six months in a year in Gujarat, is it unreasonable to abstain from meat for nine days in a year in Ahmedabad today?”
In 2009, the apex court upheld a Rishikesh Municipal Corporation decision to ban the sale of eggs in the holy town and held that the prohibition on trade would be ascertained as per the social and economic life of the community, falling back on Article 15A.
In the present case, “keeping in mind the sensitivity of the people of a section of the society”, the apex court refused to interfere in the Bombay High Court’s order to put on hold a meat ban. The bench observed: “These are not issues forced down the throat of anyone. A spirit of tolerance has to be inculcated.” The apex court also asked the high court to decide within six months whether the sale of meat should be banned during religious festivals. The high court had said that it was only going by law and not by sentiment and politics.
The basis for the meat ban and beef ban stems from the fact that cow protection has been a long-pending demand of the Sangh Parivar. President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to a law 19 years after the legislation was passed by the Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra in 1996.
Other states where cow slaughter is banned include Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Puducherry, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.
However, the implementation differs from state to state depending on the political climate.
On the economic side, the export of beef (meat of cow, oxen and calf) is prohibited as per the meat export policy of the government. While cows are sacred for Hindus, export of buffalo meat remains a huge industry. India is home to 300 million cattle and is the world’s largest beef exporter and the fifth-biggest consumer. Meat from India is in demand in at least 65 countries as it is 20 percent cheaper than from Brazil or other countries. Also, buyers in Islamic countries are assured it is halal meat. Glo-bal meat consumption is expected to double by 2050.
India being the top beef exporter is not something the saffron parties are proud of even though the meat is not of the cow or its progeny. India exports only buffalo meat, also called “carabeef”. Although Prime Minister Modi during the 2014 campaign decried this “pink revolution”, the $5 billion meat industry is growing with a 20 percent increase in registration of meat exporters last year.
In such situation, was the meat or beef ban a wise decision? Is not meat eating a personal choice? What business does the state have to interfere in what is cooking in your kitchen or what is kept in your refrigerator?
Politics and religion should be kept out and incidents such as Dadri should be condemned. No one has the right to become a moral policeman. Then and then only, will the social fabric of secular India remain intact.
—The writer is the former political editor of Hindustan Times