One can’t accuse Subramanian Swamy of running out of causes to champion. If it isn’t yelling at Arnab Goswami over the Sri Lanka issue, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader is busy attempting to bring down Tamil Nadu politicians or criticising the Congress. Now, Swamy has taken up another controversial hardline demand: a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows.

"I am surprised to find that a large number of cattle are being smuggled from Odisha to Bangladesh via West Bengal," Swamy told reporters in Bhubaneswar on Sunday. “I urge the state to stop the illegal practice. Their protection is considered sacred for Hinduism."

But, would a nationwide ban on cow slaughter actually have any impact? In fact, further legislation would do little to curb the practice because it already illegal in most Indian states. Moreover, some even believe that the illegal trade that has sprung up because of anti-cow slaughter laws is endangering the lives of those on the border.

For a country known to consider the cow holy, it usually comes as a surprise that India is the second-largest exporter of beef in the world and also the fifth-largest producer. But most of this meat comes from buffaloes, not cows. This comes from a belief that the cow holds a special place in Indian culture, so much that even the Constitution calls for its protection and preservation.

Widespread bans

As a result, cow slaughter is already illegal across much of the country.  Up to 24 out of 29 states currently have various regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows.

Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest producers of buffalo meat but the slaughter, sale and consumption of cows is banned. Similar bans exist in states like Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab where people can serve beef in restaurants only when they can prove that it was sourced from a state where cow slaughter and sale of cow beef is legal. The regulations are complex enough to discourage people from even attempting to source or sell cow beef.

This situation means that much of the cow meat that is being sold in the country is either delivered illegally or sent across the border to Bangladesh, which has a shortage of cattle.

The cattle trade across the border is in response to rising demand from Bangladesh for beef and also a source of income for the villages involved in the trade near the border.

Border trade

The high demand for cattle meat in Muslim majority country fetches a higher price for the smugglers willing to cross the border. “A cattle head which fetches Rs 500 to Rs 3,000 in India gets as much as Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 in Bangladesh,” a report published by the Observer Research Foundation in 2013 pointed out.

This cattle smuggling is not only illegal but often cruel as well. India’s border with Bangladesh is both porous and dotted with rivers for up to 500 km, making it hard for the Border Security Force to police it.

“The smugglers merely float the cattle in the water sometimes with a courier who swims across with them,” BD Sharma, additional director general of the Border Security Forces told The Hindu in 2012. "Their counterparts on the other side will merely pull the animals out of the water."

Legalisation ineffective

Armed forces on both the sides, hence, find it hard to tackle the trade and many lose lives in the process. According to Odhikar, a non governmental organisation from Bangladesh, the BSF killed 38, injured 90 and abducted 64 Bangladeshi nationals on the border in the same year. The violence isn’t only affecting civilians: the BSF is paying the price too. The Observer Research Foundation report said that up to 150 BSF personnel were injured in attacks by in 2012.

Although some of this might not be directly related to cattle smuggling, experts including former BSF chief UK Bansal have insisted that the illegal trade plays a role in the violence on the border. In 2012, Bansal called for the legalisation of the cattle trade to reduce the menace. “It is not a problem that can be solved by policing,” he is quoted as saying by The Times of India.

“The most effective, and pragmatic, step would be to lift the export ban,” the report by the Observer Research Foundation said. The legal trade will facilitate health check ups of animals and stop needless deaths on the border, it added.