The Good, The Bad And The Bovine
It would be comic if it wasn’t so insidious. Karnataka proposes to pass into law the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill. This isn’t just to ensure the health of livestock (it does exactly the reverse) or control slaughter-houses. It targets specific communities and groups, particularly the poor, Dalits and Muslims.
The bill was introduced into the legislature in 2010, quickly withdrawn by a bumbling government, and then slipped back in. The 2010 bill supplants an earlier — and fairly innocuous — 1964 bill but goes well beyond: it expands the definition of cattle to include all bovines and bans their killing regardless of age and fitness as for draught, breeding or milk. Worse yet: the 2010 act puts beef on par with crystal meth and cocaine — the mere possession of it is to be a criminal offence. Transporting cattle for slaughter is also a crime and if you’re heading in the direction of a slaughter house — which is pretty much in any direction — your vehicle can be confiscated. The penalties in this Bill defy every standard in law and trespass on common sense. Seven years for cattle slaughter; a cognisable offence. But causing death by negligence, as this paper pointed out last week, only invites two years’ jail time— as we learned from the Bhopal verdict. Karnataka cows are truly holier than thou.
The now-beleaguered Yedurappa offered a bedazzling explanation. “Cow slaughter ban is in force in Cuba and Iran,” he said in 2010, and went on, with all the emphasis at his considerable command, to outline the therapeutic advantages of a daily quaff of a holy cow’s micturition; divine bovine urine.
This is not about dietary preference, the conditions in which abattoirs function under the blind eyes and open palms of licensing authorities, or of smuggling and illegality. Governments are notoriously lethargic in implementing animal welfare laws, and a law that sets stricter standards and better supervision would be reasonable. But to selectively choose one and ignore others — there is no similar act about sheep, goats, fish or fowl — is less about animal rights than right-wingery and reactionary politics. It is a surreptitious destruction of entire communities by undermining their lives. Beef is food to many; not coincidentally, Dalits and Muslims. Cattle are also livelihood in many other ways: leather, for one, but also other non-obvious uses such as film, nail varnish, candles and buttons. In fact, it’s the leather industry, with exports estimated well to the north of Rs.8000 crores annually, that most extensively depends on cattle produce. That the Karnataka bill was always aimed at non-Hindus became clear when the Home Minister proclaimed that the bill was “in tune with the sentiments of the majority community”, and followed the BJP’s election manifesto. Yet we do not see these right-wing demagogues roaming around unshod, unbelted or unbuttoned (though far too many are unvarnished).
It’s true that anti-cattle slaughter legal regimes exist elsewhere. 23 states have some sort of anti-cattle-slaughter legislation. Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan have total bans. Some states have severe penalties, though none as heavy as Karnataka. And Article 48 of the Constitution sets out a peculiar “directive principle” of State policy: to take steps for, among other things, prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle. The Karnataka Bill zooms into the legislative stratosphere and joins Gujarat there when it makes mere possession an offence; but the Karnataka Bill’s penalties seem harshest.
The bill claims support from the 2002 Report of the National Commission on Cattle, another peculiar document. It quotes Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave and starts by saying the Commission sought benediction from the Kanchipuram Shankaracharya (twice).1 A foregone conclusion, the Commission’s recommendations included extensive bans and even the inclusion of such bans as fundamental rights.2 This bizarre proposal went through despite the fact that one of those who responded to the Commission’s questionnaire was a then sitting judge of the Bombay High Court, with a dissertation on the cow as a Vedic symbol, and who, while generally in support, pointed out that any such proposal was anti-secular and therefore unconstitutional.
Back in 1958, considering a Gujarat proposal, the Supreme Court said a complete ban was unconstitutional. Mohd. Hanif Quareshi upheld a butcher’s fundamental right to ply his trade or follow his occupation, and did not permit a ban on slaughter after cattle ceased to be capable of milk production, use as draught animals or for breeding. In a 2005 decision, State Of Gujarat vs Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab, a 7-judge Bench of the Supreme Court upheld a complete ban, reversing its earlier position. The reasons range from an examination of constitutional provisions and amendments to the report of a farm scientist.
All the cases before the Supreme Court — there were three different Quareshi cases and several others as well — seem to have been pitched on the argument of a butcher’s fundamental right to do his job. No one seems to have argued that these restrictions affect personal, individual rights. It is one thing to urge that the agricultural or animal husbandry needs of a particular state demand such protection; it is quite another to even ban imports of beef or cattle products. That exposes the reactionary, anti-secular underbelly of such legislations and blurs the line between law and politics. Implicit in the defence of all these legislations is the notion of cows as symbols of religious identity.
The agriculture argument fails simply because there can be no uniform, across-the-board policy of agricultural needs irrespective of local conditions. If Karnataka and Gujarat believe that cow protection is an agricultural necessity, then, equally, one must look to other areas where there is no such necessity (Kerala, for instance) to see if this argument is at all rational. Cattle demand huge amounts of fodder, and looking after cattle — particularly ensuring they don’t consume incredible amounts of plastic in urban environments only to die agonising deaths — is a difficult and expensive business.
Neither the Commission nor any law adequately deals with the problem caused by an aggressive promotion of breeding. Nobody in his or her right mind could support the factory-farming of cattle or the non-humane way they are killed. But it is preposterous to advocate more cattle breeding and yet not provide measures to put them down when they are old, infirm, sick and become a burden rather than an asset. Keeping cattle is expensive, and many of the old hill forts in Maharashtra — Sinhagad is one — have huge populations of abandoned cattle along their highest reaches, left out in all seasons and uncared for.
And let’s not even get started on the problems of climate change caused by such vast amount of methane production (80 million tons per year globally from the world’s 1.2 billion large ruminants). If the hole in the ozone layer reopens over India, we’ll know why.
Recommendation 1: “1. The Prohibition for slaughter of cow and its progeny, which would include bull, bullocks, etc., should be included in Fundamental Rights or as a Constitutional Mandate anywhere else, as an Article of the Constitution. It should not be kept only in the Directive Principles or Fundamental duties as neither of these are enforceable by the courts.” ↩