Maharashtra’s beef ban shows how politicians manipulate Hindu sentiments around cow slaughter

Laws purportedly aimed at cow protection are actually used to instigate violence and gather votes.

Beef has been banned in Maharashtra. The Union government has given its assent to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, almost two decades after the state assembly had passed it under the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government in 1995.

Maharashtra had always banned the slaughter of cows but allowed the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and water buffalo. The new act will ban the slaughter of all cattle with the exception of water buffaloes. In fact, the very possession of beef – much like, say, cocaine – is now punishable with a prison sentence.

While this is a particularly harsh law, legal provisions for restricting or banning cow slaughter are rather common: 26 states in India have laws which either regulate or ban cow slaughter.

Livewire political topic

Clearly then, the cow is a livewire political topic. In his prime ministerial campaign, Narendra Modi used the emotive power of the cow to attack the United Progressive Alliance government. “It saddens me,” he wrote on his blog, “that present UPA Government led by Congress is promoting slaughtering of cows and exporting beef to bring ‘Pink Revolution’”.

Of course, the “beef” that India exports is mostly buffalo and not cow meat but Modi couldn’t be bothered with such pedantic nuances (ironically, beef exports have risen since Modi came to power). The cow here was just a dog whistle with which to attack the Congress’ supposed "minority-appeasement", exploiting the age-old communal stereotype of associating Muslims with beef consumption.

Later on, Maneka Gandhi, a minister in Modi’s cabinet, would dispense with even the dog whistle and, in a remarkable leap of logic, claim that the profits from the beef industry were directly funding terrorism. The Rajasthan Bharatiya Janata Party government went beyond just talk and set up a separate ministry dedicated to bovine affairs. Even the Congress is not really all that different: remember, most of the state laws against cow slaughter were passed by Congress governments.

Historical roots

The political relevance of the cow has deep historical roots, an obvious outcome of the animal’s importance in Hinduism since the medieval age. Babur is supposed to have advised his son and crown-prince Humayun to ensure that cow slaughter was banned in Mughal territories. Akbar continued this tradition with a firman in 1586. Cow slaughter was also banned in the Sikh and Maratha empires and Haider Ali of Mysore threatened to chop of anyone’s hands as punishment. During the Rebellion of 1857, in a surprising show of spine, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar made cow slaughter a crime punishable by death in order to present a united Hindu-Muslim front while facing the British sieging Delhi.

However, cow protection as a political issue really came into its own during the colonial period as Indians started to develop a collective consciousness based on their religious identity. “Hindu” and “Muslim” now became political groups. In this period of churning, Dayanand Saraswati, the grandfather of Hindu nationalism and the founder of the Arya Samaj, decided to take up cow protection as a core part of his agenda. In 1881, Saraswati published a pamphlet, Gokarunanidhi denouncing cow slaughter as an attack on Hinduism. The political mobilisation of people in favour of the cause was achieved via the formation of cow protection societies which were particularly active in current-day UP, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab. The situation was worsened by a ruling of a court in Allahabad, which held that cows were not sacred and killing them for meat was legal. All this culminated in India’s first large-scale riot driven by the issue of cow protection on Bakri Eid day in 1893 in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. So fierce was the violence that the British lost control of the area entirely for a few days.

After that, cow protection became a mainstream part of the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi took up the cause of cow protection but, characteristically, took great care to direct it against the British and not Muslims. The colonialists, Gandhi taunted, “cannot do without it [beef] for a single day”. In an essay in 1927, he advised untouchables to do away with “serious defects” such as uncleanliness, liquor, adultery and beef eating since “cow protection is the outward form of Hinduism”.

As a result, after Independence, cow protection found its way into the Constitution itself, as a Directive Principle of State Policy. Soon, states started to enact laws banning cow slaughter, overturning two centuries of colonial policy. Driven by religious passions, some of these laws were excessively harsh, even draconian. In Gujarat, the punishment for cow slaughter carries a seven-year jail sentence. Even more alarmingly, a number of states have laws that place the burden of proof on the accused. In the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi, among others, if you are arrested for cow slaughter, you are automatically held guilty until proven innocent, overturning a fundamental principle of criminal law. The law is more lenient if you happen to kill a human being, though: you are presumed innocent till you are proven you guilty.

Kafkaesque approach

Even more oddly, the only time the state or politicians get involved in the cattle value chain is at the time of slaughter. In Ahmedabad, where the police worked itself into a frenzy during Eid last year over cow slaughter – they even shot a man dead – the manufacture of cow leather takes place without incident. Like Maharashtra, Delhi also has strict provisions against all cow slaughter but posh restaurants in the city openly display what they call “beef” on their menus. Last year in Madhya Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party voted against a bill which sought to ban the sale of cow bones and fat. In a state where cow slaughter is banned, it takes a special Kafkaesque sense of the surreal to digest that trading in the animal’s body parts, however, is protected by law. And, of course, as the cherry on the cake: India’s favourite sport features a ball that is necessarily made out of the hide of the cow.

The special status of the cow in current-day Hindu culture and religion cannot be disputed. Given the large number of people who are affected by it, it is almost inevitable that a democratic state would take cognisance of the issue in some form or the other. However, it is also paradoxical that the state targets cow protection somewhat patchily, attacking only the act of slaughter when it is quite obvious that steak houses, tanneries or cricket ball manufacturers are as much to blame ‒ after all these industries, by definition, necessitate the killing of the cow.

This contradictory approach to the issue of cow protection shows that it is treated more as a political rather than religious matter. Cow protection sentiments are exploited by the state and politicians to mobilise people and catch votes, targeting poor Muslims and Dalits by accusing them of cow slaughter. Of course, since other factors are clean ignored (as a result of economic considerations), these laws do nothing to actually improve the lot of cattle in the country.

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