On July 3, Lok Sabha member Badruddin Ajmal made an appeal to people celebrating Eid ul Adha in Assam this year: avoid sacrificing cows for the festival.

“Since the sentiments of the majority are attached to cows, sacrificing an alternative animal is welcome,” said Ajmal, who heads Assam’s Jamiat Ulama, a socio-religious organisation, as well as the All India United Democratic Front, a political party.

Ajmal’s comments have been prompted by the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, passed in August last year. While the consumption of beef is not illegal in Assam, the new law makes it near impossible. It places a blanket ban on cow slaughter and severe restrictions on cattle trade.

For the first time, qurbani – the ritual sacrifice done for Eid – may not include cows. Yet, traditionally, many poor and middle-class Muslims in Assam have sacrificed cows for Eid. The new law may mean they will not be able to afford qurbani this year.

“Cows are economically viable for middle class and poor people like us,” said Sofiur Rahman, a 28-year-old farmer in Hatipota village in Lower Assam’s Dhubri district. “Earlier, seven people used to sacrifice one cow. It cut down the cost and allowed everyone to have a share.”

The cattle protection law has also hit the rural economy hard. Cattle traders who rely on the spike in sales before Eid are staring at huge losses.

A political shift

The state assembly passed the Assam Cattle Preservation Act in August last year.

The law prohibits the sale and purchase of beef and beef products in areas “predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and other non-beef eating communities” or within five kilometres of a temple or a sattra, a Vaishnavite monastery. It places tight restriction on cattle transportation. It has also mandated a blanket ban on cow slaughter while other cattle need a “fit for slaughter” certificate. This may be granted if the cattle are over 14 years old or have injuries or deformities.

The 1950 law that the new legislation replaced had allowed exemptions in the slaughter of cattle for religious purposes. The 2021 law is silent on the matter.

The law also gives the police more teeth and puts the burden of proof on the accused.

It has been read as a ban on the sale and consumption of beef as there are hardly any areas that are not within five kilometres of a temple or a sattra.

About 34% of Assam’s population is Muslim, most of whom have traditionally eaten beef. However, Ajmal, whose party is seen as representing the interests of Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam, has cautioned against it this Eid.

On Thursday, Ajmal reiterated his appeal as he urged Muslims to follow the cattle preservation law. “You will not die if you don’t eat cows for one day on Eid,” said Ajmal, speaking to the press in Guwahati. “Rather, we celebrate it with Hindu brothers. Our forefathers were all Hindus. They came to Islam because it has special qualities. That is to respect the sentiments of other religions.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the state government that passed the law and has been vocal in its opposition to cow slaughter, was unmoved.

Badruddin Ajmal (centre), flaked by the late Tarun Gogoi, Congress leader and former chief minister of Assam. Photo: Twitter/@ripunbora

“This kind of comment is made to get media attention,” said Pabitra Margherita, a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha and political secretary to chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. “We don’t feel there is any genuine honesty behind Ajmal’s appeal. It is a politically designed comment.”

As he appealed against cow slaughter on Thursday, Ajmal also said forces like the Hindu rightwing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh could not disrupt Hindu-Muslim unity.

But that has not stopped conspiracy theories suggesting there is a political understanding between the Hindu rightwing BJP and Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front.

“It seems Ajmal is being remote controlled by Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma,” said Assam Congress president Bhupen Kumar Borah. “Before elections, the BJP made many allegations against Ajmal. After coming to power, the government is silent on Ajmal and has not taken any action against him.”

Borah also claimed Sarma himself had softened his stand against cow slaughter as cattle traders from tribal communities in Upper Assam had protested against the new law, fearing business would be hit. These are communities that the BJP has consistently wooed in election time.

Farmers lose out

Farmers and cattle traders in other parts of the state are also reeling from the economic impact of the law.

Behora Cow Market in Assam’s Golaghat district is one of the largest cow markets in the state. Not only has the volume of sales gone down but cattle rearing farmers are also not able to get a good price.

“The farmers who sell the cows have been affected adversely as the law brings down the price of the cattle,” said Zumma Khan, an official at the market. “A cow which was sold at Rs 40,000, is now being sold at Rs 15,000 by the farmers. The buyers don’t pay the correct price, citing the restrictions imposed by the new law. Only the third parties are benefiting,” said Khan, referring to middle-men who allegedly sold cattle at exorbitant prices.

Before the law was passed, about 2,000 cows were sold daily at the market, Khan said. “Now, hardly 200 cows are being sold,” he continued. “The restrictions on cow slaughter for qurbani make things worse for the farmers as cows are most sought after for Qurbani in Assam and Eid is the best season for cattle traders.”

While farmers in Assam find it difficult to sell cows, the new law places restrictions on inter-state transport of cattle, which has dried up beef supplies to the neighbouring states of Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Beef is a major part of the diet in these Christian-majority states.

The poor hit hardest

As many point out, low income Muslim families have been hit the hardest by the new law. While the new law does not speak of a blanket ban on buffalo slaughter, it is not an alternative for most families.

Sofiur Rahman, the farmer from Hatipota village, said a cow costs Rs 15,000-25,000 while a buffalo costs more than three times the amount.

“It is impossible for us to buy a buffalo,” he said, adding that goat and sheep were not easily available. Neither are cows. Rahman said the nearby cow markets in Dhubri had been shut.

The new cattle law prohibits the inter-district transportation of cattle from the border districts like Dhubri, which shares a boundary with Bangladesh.

In Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district, there have been negotiations between the local Idgah committee and the district administration, which has told everyone to follow the cattle protection law. The Idgah committee met the administration on June 29 to ask for exemptions, because cows, or large bovines, are usually offered as qurbani by the poor.

Rofiur Rahman, secretary of district Jamiat Ulama, who was present at the meeting, explained that a goat or a sheep can only suffice for one family. Many families cannot afford to buy a whole animal themselves.

“Cows are also not as costly as other animals, such as goats, buffaloes and sheep,” he said. “Camels are not found here. Only cow slaughter is disallowed under the law. We asked for some relaxation and wanted them to allow oxen and bulls for sacrifice. But they did not allow it.”

Dibrugarh deputy commissioner Biswajit Pegu corroborated that they had told the idgah committee to follow the cattle law and sacrifice other animals. “If they need exemptions, they have to write to the state government,” Pegu said.

While the law imposes a blanket ban on cow slaughter, Zunaid Khalid, a Guwahati High Court advocate, felt there was room for interpretation when it came to the ritual sacrifice of other cattle. He said that while the 1950 cattle protection law spelt out exemptions for cattle slaughter for religious purposes, the 2021 merely stayed silent on the matter.

“The legal presumption is that it is allowed until and unless it is prohibited,” Khalid said.

But Muslims who have bought other kinds of cattle are afraid. “I bought a bull for qurbani and there is no temple or sattra within five kilometres of my house,” said a 45-year-old resident of Bilasipara in Dhubri. “But I have been receiving videos where a rightwing leader is seen threatening people and warning against cow sacrifice. I am still not sure whether we will be able to do qurbani.”

Border Security Forces use boats to patrol the Brahmaputra river close to the Bangladesh border in Dhubri district. Inter-district cattle transport is prohibited in border districts such as Dhubri. Photo: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Other resentments

Meanwhile, Muslims in Assam reacted sharply to Ajmal’s statements, accusing him for not speaking up for minority rights and for toeing the BJP’s majoritarian line.

“What I should eat and what I should wear shouldn’t be dictated by the government,” said 30-year-old T Ahmed, who lives in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia district and whose family has traditionally sacrificed a cow for qurbani. “Biassed laws that curb the food habits of thousands, disrupt the rural economy, which heavily relies on cattle, and overlook the sentiments of the minority to appease the majority can only be called state authoritarianism.”

In Hatipota village, uncertainty hangs over qurbani. Sofiur Rahman feels the religious rights of Muslims are being trampled on by the majority, especially after the BJP came to power at the Centre.

“There are no rights for Muslims after this government came to power in 2014,” he said. “Gaumata is a political issue for them.”

His neighbour, Masud Ahmed, was more resigned. If the government did not encourage cow sacrifice, it was better not to do so. “We will have to live according to the atmosphere and the wishes of the ruling party,” he said.

The restrictions on qurbani have surfaced other resentments. “Do you have the right to freedom of speech?” he asked. “If you post something on social media against the ruling BJP, you will be arrested immediately. But no action has been taken against BJP supporters Satya Ranjan Bora and Nupur Sharma for their hate speech. This is an anti-Muslim government and we should refrain from cow sacrifice.”

Several police complaints were filed against Bora, a Hindutva leader, for derogatory social media posts against the minority and the Prophet Mohammad. Bora also campaigned for the anti-cow slaughter law to be implemented strictly on Eid.

Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma was also booked in several police complaints after her remarks about the Prophet Mohammad, made on prime time television on May 26, went viral. While Sharma has been suspended from the party, she is yet to be apprehended by the police.

Masud Ahmad added that there had been a BJP government at the Centre before, but without such repercussions on the minority. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee also ran the government but such things never happened when he was prime minister,” he said.