The BJP Chief minister of Chhattisgarh stated that he would hang anyone who harms a cow. Following this, the BJP Chief minister of Gujarat declared that cow protection is one of the most eminent principles to save the world from both moral and spiritual degradation. A similar response was given by a Minister of Rajasthan on the lynching of Pehlu Khan by cow vigilantes who suspected Khan’s consumption of beef. The Rajasthan minister subtly defended the violent mob by asking the police to act against both sides, those who indulge in illegal acts of cow slaughter and Gau rakshaks who violently condemn it.
The intended propaganda through these statements, surely, has fed into the morals and practices of several cow vigilantes. Moreover, the state has been using indirect means to promote the actions and ideologies of the Gau rakshaks. The alleged beef eaters or cow slaughterers were denied adequate medical care in state hospitals; this eventually led to the death of Pehlu Khan. But before analysing the impact of the success of the cow vigilantes to get the beef ban implemented, one needs to learn the legality and scope of the beef ban across India.
A senior Union minister, M Venkaiah Naidu, commented on a brutal murder of an alleged beef eater, stating that ‘One can eat his food of choice, but avoid eating that food which is prohibited as per our Constitution,’. However, this statement seems inconsistent with the Directive Principles of State Policy: ‘The State shall endeavor to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.’ This nonenforceable directive principle essentially lays down curbs on slaughter. Nowhere in the Constitution of India is there any prohibition on consuming beef.
Different states vary in prohibiting beef consumption and cow slaughter. Most of the northern and western states of India, including Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat have draconian laws on cow slaughter with severe punishment of 10 years along with a maximum fine of one lakh rupees. The southern and south eastern states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have a conditional ban. They allow cow slaughter with the condition of ‘fit for slaughter,’ meaning those cows and bulls that are unfit to breed or work. There is no ban in Bengal, Kerala and northeastern states such as Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim -- except Assam, where a ‘fit for slaughter’ certificate is required.
This diversity in laws among regions indicates the religious flavor of the beef ban. The Hindu dominated states in India’s north and west have a blanket ban with severe punishment as compared to a conditional or no ban in areas with a lesser Hindu population. It is interesting to see how the play of active religious sentiment can regard cow slaughter as a bigger crime than violent crimes against humans such as molestation, causing grievous harm and physical assault (all have sentences below 10 years’ imprisonment).
Cow vigilantes have been successful in getting the beef ban implemented in many populous regions of India. However, how congruent the effects of the ban are with the aim of cow protection is questionable. The vigilantes fail to realize that to enhance the cow population and protect the species, banning slaughter is not an effective means.
Cows and bulls are a source of livelihood for rural India through their use in the fields, for dairy products and for meat consumption. The beef ban has driven farmers to the verge of penury, creating severe economic distress in India’s agrarian society. The prices of cattle have fallen across the country, especially where there is a blanket ban on cow slaughter, leaving the farmers to suffer in poverty. It has also left millions of farmers, already reeling from bad harvests due to back-to-back droughts and unseasonal rains, struggling to sell animals they can no longer feed or water. The farmers have expressed their resentment towards the BJP government, questioning whether they want the farmers’ or the cattle’s existence. The beef ban has not only been anti-rural Indians but also anti-cow population itself. This causes one to question whether Gautankwad, which claimed to protect the depletion of the cow population through a forced beef ban, has been successful in its goals.
As per 2016 statistics, there has been an increase in the cow population in areas where there is no ban on cow slaughter, such as north-eastern India. Slaughter of cattle is mostly of the bulls (male). It’s only the old, diseased, unproductive females that may end up being slaughtered. There seems to be a declining utility of the bull for farmers due to more sophisticated mechanisms of agriculture. The blanket ban on beef has further discouraged the agrarian societies from rearing bulls.
Cows (female cattle) are reared carefully to produce large number of future generations. Once old, sick and infertile, they are sold for slaughter. They refrain from slaughtering young, healthy, agile cows which are available for milking and reproduction. However, after the imposition of the ban, the resale value of the slaughter-house-bound cattle has diminished. Large stocks of old and weak cows are unable to provide any other service like milk production or ploughing. They merely act as a poor investment without any resale value.
The primary use of cows was the multiplication of the cattle stock for further resale value which is no more possible in states pursuing the beef ban. The ban on the usual slaughter for food and hide for the leather industry acts as a disincentive for the farmers to raise them.
The blanket ban on beef should be relaxed by the northern and western states to accommodate the interests of not only the rural community but for cow population itself.
The writers are, respectively, a third-year student and a Professor of Law at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.