On the same day a man died after being beaten by a cow protection gang, senior Union minister Venkaiah Naidu made a curious statement painting the eating of certain meats as unconstitutional. “One can eat his food of choice, but avoid eating that food which is prohibited as per our Constitution,” Naidu was quoted as saying on Tuesday.

Naidu was responding to the news that a Bharatiya Janata Party politician had promised a regular supply of “good quality” beef in Kerala if elected. This was being done even as the BJP-controlled state government in Gujarat had recently made cow slaughter an act punishable by life imprisonment.

Painted into a corner, Naidu responded with his remark about the Constitution, unmindful of the fact that the Indian Constitution does not prohibit any sort of food. In fact, the document does not even outlaw the killing of cows.

Factually wrong

The Constitution does, however, mention the cow in article 48 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”

However, article 48, as every Indian students who has studied his civics should know, is part of India’s Directive Principles of State Policy which are non-enforceable and exist solely as a guide to India’s leaders. The prohibition of alcohol is also a directive principle and other than in a handful of states with explicit laws, drinking is perfectly constitutional across the Indian Union. Similarly, in states like West Bengal and Kerala, there is no prohibition on the slaughter of cows and beef is easily available.

Moreover, even if we set aside the fact that Naidu does not know that article 48 is not enforceable, this statement still makes little sense. The text of article 48 only talks of curbs on slaughter. The act of eating beef itself is not mentioned. In fact, far from certain meats being unconstitutional, successive court judgements have held that legal curbs on food itself as unconstitutional. As recently as January 2017, the Bombay High court held that while cow slaughter could be banned, the act of, say, eating a beef steak itself could not be criminalised since it is a violation of the Right to Life, a fundamental right in the Indian Constitution.

Right propaganda

That Naidu was factually wrong is, therefore, hardly in contention. There is simply nothing in the constitution that prevents someone from eating beef. Of course, if put through a fact test, much of the gau raksha argument will fall through. Hindutva ideologues often back up their stand by either using incorrect statistics (anti-slaughter laws are negatively correlated with cow population) or pseudo science (cow urine and faeces do not have special medicinal properties).

In spite of this, cow protection movements have gained in strength. This is, of course, simply because cow reverence is an article of faith with a large number of Hindus and, like all matters of religion, exists independent of facts.

Naidu’s statement is thus better seen as simple propaganda. Eating beef might not be unconstitutional but the illegality that Naidu’s statement speaks of will surely feed into the religious morals of many BJP supporters, helping provide a seemingly rational cover to what is essentially an article of faith.

Constituent Assembly

Naidu is not first person to play this card. The genesis of Article 48 itself is a compromise between theological sentiment and supposed rationality. While the text of the article supposedly makes an economic argument for preventing cow slaughter (“preserving and improving breeds”) the Constituent Assembly debates make it quite clear that religious taboo on cow slaughter was the main mover behind the directive principle. As constitutional scholar Granville Austin writes:

In the days of the British Raj, many Hindu revivalists had promised themselves that with Independence cow killing would stop. Those of this persuasion in the [Constituent] Assembly believed that the time for action was ripe and, as a result of agreement in the Congress Assembly Party meeting, the measure passed without opposition. No one would have quarrelled with the need to modernise agriculture, but many may have found the reference to cow-killing distasteful. There is good evidence that Nehru did. Generally speaking, however, Hindu feeling ran high on the subject, and one may surmise that those who opposed the anti-cow-killing cause bent with the wind, believing the issue not sufficiently important to warrant a firm stand against it. As various provisions of the Irish Constitution show that Ireland is a Roman Catholic nation, so Article 48 shows that Hindu sentiment predominated in the Constituent Assembly

Like Naidu’s statement on Tuesday, the attempt by the Constituent Assembly to cloak a religious taboo against cow slaughter under the garb of rationalism was easily seen through at the time. Muhammad Saadullah, former prime minister of Assam (as the head of a province’s government was known in British India) shot back: “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 back door”.

In the courts

This strategy has been picked up by India’s judiciary too. In 2005, the Supreme Court upheld a law passed by the Gujarat government of Chief Minister Narendra Modi, which banned the slaughter of all cows in the state. Till then, as per a 1958 judgement, the state could only ban the slaughter of unproductive bovines not capable of functioning as milch or draught animals. The 2005 judgement, however, held that all cattle slaughter could be banned since even the dung of a single cow is worth “more than even the famous Kohinoor diamond”.

Of course, like Naidu’s “unconstitutional” argument, the economic one is pseudo-rationalistic. On the ground, cow slaughter actually makes perfect economic sense. In fact, states with cow slaughter laws have seen their cow populations drop compared to buffaloes, which can be legally culled.

Preventing cow slaughter or the eating of beef has neither economic nor constitutional backing. It must be recognised for what it is: a religious demand that has taken centre stage in Indian politics of the 21st century.