The Indian Government’s prohibition of the sale of cattle for slaughter has serious implications for the country’s secular democracy, Radha Sarkar writes.
The Government of India recently introduced a special clause to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, prohibiting the sale of cattle intended for slaughter at livestock markets.
The prohibition of the slaughter of cows and other cattle is hardly new to India – legislation to this effect has existed for several decades across the majority of Indian states, and anti-slaughter laws have been strengthened across several Indian states since 2015. But whereas animal husbandry, and consequently cow slaughter, were previously the subjects of State regulation (as opposed to Central regulation), the current ban has been enacted by the Central Government in the name of animal welfare.
By invoking the imperative of animal welfare, a Constitutional prerogative of the Central Government, the Delhi administration has effectively intervened in issues of cow slaughter that previously varied by, and were implemented at, the State level.
This seemingly innocuous ban bears troubling implications for Indian politics, secularism, and democracy.
The current ban has been widely interpreted as a concerted effort by the Central government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to promote the politics of Hindutva across the entirety of India.
Hindutva is a modern, Brahmanical form of Hinduism that combines religious injunctions inferred from Hindu scripture, a substantial degree of myth-making, and political expediency. Among the most salient tenets of Hindutva is the absolute proscription of cow slaughter, for the inviolable sanctity of the cow as the fulcrum of Hindu faith is a Hindutva invention.
Throughout the history of Hinduism, the cow has been revered, yet it has also been sacrificed and eaten – customs common among pastoral peoples the world over. Indeed, a variety of sacred Hindu texts ranging from the Vedas to works on Ayurveda (a medicinal tradition of ancient India) describe the pleasures and curative properties of consuming beef. Contrary to what today’s proponents of cow protection would have us believe, the cow has hardly been synonymous with Hinduism since time immemorial.
Instead, the current anti-slaughter agenda advances a Hindutva-inspired conception of Hinduism. The BJP itself is the political front of a much larger body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which remains largely in the background. The RSS is a Hindu nationalist organisation that first gained force in the early 1920s, and operates under a strong anti-Muslim agenda. The RSS conditioned its support for Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial campaign in 2014 partially on the party’s implementation of strong anti-beef legislation. The BJP-led Central government’s current ban thus is a realisation of the RSS’ long-cherished goal.
The ban challenges the secular and democratic foundations of Indian statehood, attempting as it does to assert a singular belief system across culturally diverse peoples. In the name of animal welfare, the ban will regulate the dietary, occupational, and ritual practices of Dalits (India’s erstwhile “untouchables”), Muslims, tribal groups, and other minority communities.
Muslims and Dalits constitute the bulk of the workforce in the beef and leather industries, and poorer rural households of all faiths earn much-needed additional income by selling ageing cattle to abattoirs. Where the Indian constitution guarantees the right of moral and material prosperity to all citizens, anti-slaughter legislation threatens to further impoverish the economically worst-off sections of the Indian population.
The ban also represents an effort to coercively homogenise the religious and cultural practices of diverse groups, consequently undermining the secular principles of the Indian Constitution that guarantee equal treatment to those of all faiths and those of no faith.
Indeed, the ban is indefensible even on the very grounds on which it was passed – namely, public health. As sociologist Amita Baviskar points out, “To the extent that this ban on cattle slaughter justifies itself by speaking of ‘unfit and infected cattle’, it seems to invoke public health, but then stops short of not banning the sale of goats, sheep and chicken as well, which are consumed more widely than beef in India.” As Baviskar suggests, an argument for public health would lead to stricter regulation such as examining animals for diseases, and more hygienic slaughter and storage of meat, rather than a blanket ban.
So what are the possible implications of the ban?
One likely consequence of particular concern is a rise in vigilantism. Regardless of how diligently it is enforced at the State level, the ban will likely embolden vigilante groups acting in the supposed defence of the cow, and who portray themselves as defending the law and carrying out the will of the ‘Hindu people.’
We only need to look to the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh, who in 2015 was killed over rumours that he had been consuming beef, or the death of Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan, who just this year was beaten by cow vigilantes for simply owning and transporting a cow, to see the potential ramifications of this policy. In these and other cases, the victims are often Muslims, a religious community easily targeted for its consumption of the cow.
Perhaps the ban will serve to invigorate and unite opposition to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda. Regional parties – in West Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu – have denounced the ban as a move by the central government to assert a Hindutva identity at the national level. They have rightly argued that the central government cannot deny nutrition and tradition to a diverse population. If the cow has become a rallying point of the BJP, then beef has become an axis of opposition.