I’ve put my name to a PIL filed in the Bombay High Court against Maharashtra’s criminalisation of beef consumption, but the state’s ban on cattle slaughter is unlikely to be rolled back even if possession of beef (presumably imported) is decriminalised. I am unhappy with the beef ban on personal, philosophical and utilitarian grounds. I enjoy eating beef, but I’d object to the law even if I were vegetarian because, contrary to the spirit of democracy, it privileges the views of caste Hindus over those of other communities. Beef is a cheap meat, a rich source of complete protein for the poor in a nation whose diet is seriously protein deficient.

Bans on cow and bull slaughter,which have been enacted by several states, withstand legal challenges thanks to Article 48 of the Indian Constitution, which reads, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” It is a curious and self-contradictory clause, not atypical of a tract that I described a few columns ago as “a compromised document of middling quality”. Curious because it evades the religious motivation behind the proscription, and self-contradictory because it replaces that religious motivation with a spurious scientific one, resulting in a sentence whose two halves are at war with each other.

The text of the Constitution was energetically debated in sessions of the Constituent Assembly, where bovines received their fair share of attention. Conservative caste Hindus had asked for a complete ban on cattle slaughter, demanding it be included in the fundamental rights, despite those rights being conventionally reserved for humans. Ambedkar and Nehru, keen on keeping religion out of the Constitution but not powerful enough to overrule the Hindu lobby entirely, dreamt up a flawed settlement and stuck it in an unenforceable section of the Constitution called the directive principles of state policy. This fudge drew immediate fire. ZH Lari of the United Provinces pleaded for a clear prohibition, if there was to be a prohibition at all. Contributing to the Constituent Assembly debate, Lari said:
 “Mussalmans of India have been, and are, under the impression that they can, without violence to the principles which govern the State, sacrifice cows and other animals on the occasion of Bakrid… The result has been, as I know in my own Province on the occasion of the last Bakr Id, so many orders under Section 144 in various places, districts and cities. The consequence has been the arrests of many, molestation of even more, and imprisonment of some. Therefore, if the House is of the opinion that slaughter of cows should be prohibited, let it be prohibited in clear, definite and unambiguous words. In the interests of good-will in the country and of cordial relations between the different communities I submit that this is the proper occasion when the majority should express itself clearly and definitely.”

The real motivation

Syed Muhammad Sa’adullah of Assam, stated, “I do not also want to obstruct the framers of our Constitution, I mean the Constituent Assembly if they come out in the open and say directly: ‘This is part of our religion. The cow should be protected from slaughter and therefore we want its provision either in the Fundamental Rights or in the Directive Principles.’ But, those who put it on the economic front, as the honourable Member who spoke before me said, do create a suspicion in the minds of many that the ingrained Hindu feeling against cow slaughter is being satisfied by the backdoor.” Sa’adullah then went on to undercut the economic argument for cow slaughter.

It is as clear to me as it was to Lari and Sa’adullah that the only reason to ban beef is religious. From a practical perspective, it makes no sense to prevent the killing of cows and bulls but not of buffaloes which do all the things cows and bulls do, providing milk to drink, dung for fuel, and muscle power on farms. Thanks to Article 48, Hindu nationalist parties have been able to cloak their religious aims in the language of logic and technological progress. Their economic argument for cow protection, however, suffers a fundamental flaw. It misunderstands the effect of livestock slaughter on livestock population. Outlining the Maharashtra government’s position in court, Chitrakala Suryawanshi, of the state animal husbandry department, made a familiar argument about the value of milk and dung, even adding cow urine for its supposed medicinal value.

This line has been taken repeatedly in courts by state governments, from the time the Supreme Court first ruled on the matter back in 1958, and it’s time to bury it. I’m sure the animal husbandry department would agree that it isn’t the milk, dung or urine of any one particular cow that is crucial for the state’s economy so much as the aggregate amount of milk, dung and urine produced by all the cows in the state. If cow slaughter does not reduce the total number of cows in a state, there remains no economic argument against it. For all these decades, it has simply been taken for granted that allowing cow slaughter will cut the cow population without any evidence for this assumption being provided. It does seem logical that the more animals we slaughter, the fewer of them we’d have. The equation applies perfectly to wild animals: Each chimpanzee shot for bush meat takes the species a small step closer to extinction. With livestock and poultry, on the other hand, the equation is usually reversed; the more animals we kill, the more there are to be killed, as the figures available on this website reveal.

The Chinese situation

In 1975, the average Chinese consumed 7.7 kilos of pork annually. By 2013, that figure was 39.2 kilograms per person per year. Despite the greatly increased slaughter of pigs, the number of pigs in China grew from 264 million to 472 million in that period, a massive increase, though one that didn’t match growth in demand. A similar pattern of increased consumption going hand in hand with increased availability, can be observed in different nations for chickens, cows, and sheep.

India, where the majority venerates cows, only has 0.15 cows per capita, far fewer than even Ethiopia. Meanwhile Brazil, Argentina and Australia have more cows than people. Obviously, we can’t compare Argentina and India without accounting for the different demography, climate, availability of arable land, forest cover, and so on, but the comparison does retain a residual significance.

Looking at the Indian picture, where few cows are bred exclusively for meat, should a farmer who has milked a cow for years, finding her barren, have the option of selling her to a butcher, it makes his original investment a little more profitable, and increases the likelihood he will buy a cow in the future. The same is true for a farmer who has used a bull on his farm and now finds him too old for the plough. The farmer’s interest in buying a cow and bull encourages breeders and helps boost the cattle population. Protecting cattle has the opposite effect. For 65 years, India’s parliamentarians and judges have based their analyses of bans on cow slaughter on fundamentally incorrect assumptions.