In September 2015, as India undergoes a digital makeover under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rumour that Mohammad Akhlaq and his family had eaten beef and had stocked some in their refrigerator is said to have so enraged the residents of a village in Dadri town, next door to Delhi, they decided to lynch him. It is more evidence, if any was needed, of how rumours about beef consumption have long been used to terrorise Muslims.
It is ironic that Muslims have been the sole target of the proponents of the anti-cow slaughter movement from its inception in the late 19th century. As such, a large number of communities in India consume beef in India – Christians, Dalits, groups in the North East, among them.
The targeting of Muslims on the issue of beef is ironic also because it was one of their representatives in the Constituent Assembly who had declared their approval for a ban on cow-slaughter in the 1940s. The only condition he suggested was that the Constitution should specifically mention that the ban had been imposed to uphold the religious sentiments of Hindus – and not because of economic reasons, all of which they claimed were dubious and difficult to sustain logically.
This plea arose from two types of arguments cited by the votaries of the cow protection movement. There was the religious argument – that the cow shouldn’t be slaughtered because it was an object of veneration among the Hindus from time immemorial, which is why beef was a taboo food item for them. This myth has been punctured through several scholarly studies over the years, not least by BR Ambedkar’s 1948 work, The Untouchable and Why They Became Untouchables? Ambedkar linked the status of Untouchables to their eating the meat of the dead cow.
The economic argument spoke of the multifarious roles the cow plays in the agrarian economy, from providing milk to pulling the plough, to being a source of cheap fuel, to the therapeutic value of its urine, to being a symbol of wealth. Thus, it was said, Hindus considered the cow holy because of the many economic benefits accruing from it. Yet, in many senses, the economic argument was merely an attempt to dress the religious sentiment in the garb of rationality.
The more exuberant members of the Hindu Right not only wanted the Constitution to explicitly ban cow-slaughter but also have such a provision to be incorporated in its chapter on the Fundamental Rights. In a fascinating essay, Negotiating the ‘Sacred’ Cow: Cow Slaughter and the Regulations of Difference in India, researcher Shraddha Chigateri notes, tongue-in-cheek, “This unique constitutional protection would have meant that the protection of the cow would have been treated on par with other human fundamental rights such as right to life, right to equality, etc…”
In the debate in the Constituent Assembly, Pandit Thakur Dass Bhargava and Seth Govind Das proffered economic reasons to demand the ban on cow slaughter. Bhargava said,
“To grow more food and to improve agriculture and the cattle breed are all inter-dependent and are two sides of the same coin. [ ...] The best way of increasing the production is to improve the health of human beings and breed of cattle, whose milk and manure and labour are most essential for growing food. [...] From both points of view, of agriculture and food, protection of the cow becomes necessary.”
However, Das referred to the religious argument in his submission to the Assembly: “... Cow protection is not only a matter of religion with us; it is also a cultural and economic question.” The cow had, by then, already become an incendiary issue dividing Hindus and Muslims, largely because Gaurakshini (cow protection) Sabhas had already mushroomed in large parts of North India. The activism of the Sabha members triggered riots in several towns in the last decade of 19th century. During the Khilafat movement of 1919, the Hindu Right offered their support to Muslim leaders in return for them supporting the ban on cow-slaughter, Mukul notes.
The hypocritical tendency to cloak the religious demand in economic arguments inspired a Muslim member from the United Provinces, ZA Lari, to say, “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.” He went on to suggest to the Assembly, “If the House is of the opinion that slaughter of cows should be prohibited, let it be prohibited in clear, definite and unambiguous words.”
Cutting thorugh the clutter
What could those unambiguous words be? Syed Muhammad Sa’adulla, a Muslim member from Assam, was forthright in declaring,
“I do not want to obstruct the framers of our Constitution ... 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 ... do create a suspicion in the minds of many that the ingrained Hindu feeling against cow slaughter is being satisfied by the backdoor.”
Sa’adulla said there were thousands of Muslims who did not eat beef, and that cattle for the agriculturists among them were as useful for them as they were for their Hindu counterparts. To quote Chigateri,
“Syed Sa’adulla questioned the argument that Hindu reverence for the cow was always reflected through a taboo on slaughter, arguing that in Assam, when there was a shortage of cattle and a prohibition on the slaughter of milch or draught cattle, it was Hindus who resorted to slaughtering cows with the argument that the cattle were unserviceable and ‘dead weight’.”
But at the dawn of a new era, India wanted to hide from the world the irrationality that had a pull on its citizens and their leaders. It chose the language of rationality to introduce cow-protection in the chapter on the Directive Principle of State Policy. Call it a classic example of India’s penchant to find the middle path. Nevertheless, Ambedkar is mostly credited for saving India the blushes of becoming the only country in the world to extend the fundamental right to an animal.
Cloak of rationalism
Thus came into existence Article 48, which still 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 other milch and draught cattle.” But this compromise did not satisfy the Hindu Right, which wanted a total ban on cattle-slaughter.
It soon found a reason to feel aggrieved on account of the model bill on cow slaughter that the Centre had circulated among the States. This was because the model bill allowed the slaughter of cows above 14 years and those unable to conceive. Mukul quotes an editorial of Kalyan to portray the Hindu Right’s dismay, “…. Kalyan (published by the Gita Press) asked, if this was the treatment meted out to old cows, would the same be done to old people who had ceased to be useful?”
Nevertheless, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh enacted laws banning cow-slaughter. That the Congress was in power in these four states suggests the Hindu Right did, even under Nehru, occupy substantial space in the party. As expected, the cow became a matter of court dispute.
The Supreme Court has upheld the notion that the cow was held in reverence by the Hindus, prompting legal luminaries, such as Upendra Baxi, to say the judges perhaps hadn’t been rigorous in examining this sweeping proposition. However, the Supreme Court has also ruled that a ban on the slaughter of bullocks and bulls, despite being old age and no longer economically useful, amounted to imposing unreasonable restrictions on the butchers – and was, therefore, ultra vires of the Constitution.
Attack on Parliament
Unwilling to dilute their position from a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter, various cow-protection groups united to stage a massive protest before Parliament on November 7, 1966. Provocative speeches instigated the crowd to attack Parliament, leading to lathi-charge by the police. In the ensuing violence eight people died. It prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to sack Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda, who subsequently became a member of the anti-cow slaughter movement.
The cow was back to grazing the political pasture in 2005, courtesy the Supreme Court’s judgement upholding the decision of the Gujarat government to impose a total ban on cattle slaughter, regardless of whether the bovine is useless or not. The judgement said bullocks and bulls are useful, as Chigateri notes, “past a certain age, in terms of added benefits of urine, dung – manure and biogas, especially in this age of alternate sources of energy”.
In other words, the hypocrisy displayed in the Constituent Assembly has persisted nearly seven decades later. Both Maharashtra and Haryana have followed suit, the latter imposing an incredible 10 years of imprisonment to anyone found guilty of slaughtering a cow, a bull or an oxen, or even caught carrying or consuming beef. However, the ban has also stoked suspicions that Muslims are slaughtering cattle clandestinely, leading to police cases being filed against them.
The killing of Akhlaq near Delhi testifies that the cow-protectionists will never forego the weapon of rumour about beef eating because it can be tellingly used to foment hatred against Muslims and to paper over caste divisions among Hindus.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.