Mumbai is now a city without beef. In its quest to appease religious sensibilities, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, signed into law on March 2, bans the slaughter of bulls and bullocks and  criminalises even the very possession of beef. With politics have failed them – both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress support the ban – the beef eaters of Mumbai are therefore turning to the courts for redressal.

Vishal Seth and Akshay Patil, both lawyers, and Shaina Sen, a college student, have filed a petition in the Bombay High Court arguing that as consumers of beef, this law takes away a source of nutrition in their diet and affects their quality of life, thus falling foul of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and liberty. Moreover, as a cultural minority within Hindus who eat beef, the law violates Article 29 which protects minority interests, the petition contends.

Similarly, Jogeshwari resident, Arif Kapadia has also filed a petition which questions whether the very act of consuming beef could be made illegal.

Earlier legal challenges

To be sure, this is hardly the first legal challenge to ban of cattle slaughter. Bans of this sort have existed in various North Indian states since the 1950s, put in place by the Congress, continuing with the its pre-independence programme of cow protection

In 1958, a group of butchers, directly affected in their profession because of these bans, moved the Supreme Court against cattle slaughter laws in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The court at the time decided that the state can only place a ban on “useful” cattle. “Useless” animals not capable of milch or draught could be slaughtered.
The country is in short supply  of milch  cattle, breeding bulls and working bullocks,  and  a total  ban on the slaughter of these which are essential  to the  national economy for the supply of milk, agricultural working power and manure is a reasonable restriction in the interests  of  the general public.  But a total ban  on the slaughter of useless cattle, which involves a wasteful drain on the nation's cattle feed which is itself in short  supply and  which  would deprive the useful cattle of much  needed nourishment,  cannot be justified as being in the  interests of the general public.

At the high noon of the Nehruvian age, the judgment also took into account the nutritional needs of the poor “who can hardly afford fruit or milk or ghee are likely to suffer from malnutrition if they are deprived of even one slice of beef or buffalo flesh which may sometimes be within their reach”.

India has malnutrition levels comparable to sub-Saharan Africa and beef being a cheap source of protein is crucial to the poor, particularly Dalits and Muslims.

This reasoned judgment greatly attenuated the scope of the various cow slaughter laws. Since milch and draught animals were hardly ever slaughtered anyway (they were worth far more to the farmer alive), this hardly made a difference to matters on the ground.

Dung is worth more than the Kohinoor

In 2005, this judgment was overturned while hearing a petition (also filed by butchers) against the cow slaughter ban from Gujarat passed by the government of Chief Minster Narendra Modi. This time a seven-judge bench headed by Justice Lahoti upheld the Gujarat law banning slaughter of all bovines, useful or not. Arguing that nutrition is not “necessarily associated with non-vegetarian diet” the judgment famously postulated that even the dung of single cow is worth “more than even the famous Kohinoor diamond”.

Once these valuations had been set, the ruling that even “useless” cattle deserved the protection of the state was inevitable.

The sections of the Maharashtra ban which criminalise slaughter are therefore on a strong wicket with the backing of the 2005 Supreme Court judgement. The chances of it getting overturned are small.

Right to steak

The Maharashtra law however also criminalise the very possession and, by extension, the eating of beef. This therefore not only impinges on the right of the butcher to practice his profession but also the right of a person to eat beef, if he should so want.

The two petitions mentioned earlier, target this specific point and have been filed from the point of view of beef eaters (while the 2005 judgment had butchers as the complainants) spoke to a number of lawyers who expressed the opinion that the ban on possession is weak from a legal point of view, being harsh in the extreme. Supreme Court lawyer, Gyanant Singh termed the provision “patently unconstitutional” since it infringes on a person’s right to chose his quality of life (Article 21) and the right to have his own culture (Article 29) .

Of course, if a legal challenge does go through, it will take time. In the meanwhile, the new law is already being implemented with an enthusiasm rarely displayed the police in India. The first arrests under the new rules were made on Thursday. The police apprehended two butchers, accusing them of cow slaughter in the communally sensitive town of Malegaon.