A series of statements elicited from saffron groups about enforcing a beef ban in Goa has stirred the stew-pot in the coastal state ahead of at least two bye-elections, with politicians and sections of the media milking the controversy.

The slaughter of cows has been banned in Goa since 1978, but the single legal abattoir uses buffalos and bullocks, and beef is freely available.

In early April, a statement from BJP leader Subramanian Swamy on a television discussion made the front pages of The Herald newspaper in Goa, and reverberated online. Responding to questions about a beef ban in Goa in connection with calls to prohibit the consumption of beef across the nation, Swamy was quoted as saying: “Goa has a tradition, we have to change that.... It cannot be an exception”.

The BJP leads a coalition government in Goa that it formed in March.

Swamy’s statement became grist for the mill in the political arena in the coastal state, with the opposition Congress calling his statement “irresponsible” and “monstrous”. Both the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party called for the Manohar Parrikar-led coalition government in the state to condemn Swamy’s comments.

The BJP in Goa sought to distance itself from Swamy’s comments. A BJP spokesperson said that the statement was Swamy’s “personal stand” and not the BJP’s position on the issue. The spokesperson added: “I don’t think this is an issue at all in Goa. All communities live in harmony in Goa. It is probably his personal stand. It is not the party’s stand.”

Chief Minister Parrikar also did not issue a public clarification, telling one newspaper that he would not comment on stray personal observations.

The Congress feels the issue has been stage-managed to polarise people in the state ahead of two critical bye-elections – one to elect former Defence Minister Parrikar to the Goa Assembly, and the second in the Valpoi seat vacated by former Congressman Vishwajit Rane, who crossed sides to join the BJP-led government after the election results, and was handed the health portfolio.

Goa politics

In a cosmopolitan state that gave the BJP seven Christian legislators, or over half its elected strength, the party is seeking to edge out the Congress to occupy the middle ground, while also attempting to retain its traditional base. Personal differences over this strategy with the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh unit, caused a divide in the Sangh Parivar in Goa in the run up to the February Assembly elections, with a breakaway RSS faction backing the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party – a regional party – ahead of the elections.

(Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).

The BJP and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party have alternated between collaborating and competing with each other for the same votebank. In the recently-concluded elections, the regional party gained voteshare, but not seats, from its backing by the RSS.

With the BJP in power and silent on contentious beef politics, its coalition partner rushed to support RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s demand for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. More significantly the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, with three MLAs in the Legislative Assembly, called for the government-run abattoir, the Goa Meat Complex to be closed.

The Goa Forward Party, also part of the coalition with three MLAs, said the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s demand was “unthinkable” and against the ethos of Goa.

Senior Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party minister Ramkrishna Dhavalikar later said that he was misquoted in the media. “Why will I make statements on issues which are already clear to people here?” he told the Hindustan Times. “ Cow slaughter is already banned in Goa.”

The story of beef

In 1978, Goa became one of the first states in India to ban cow slaughter under the Goa Daman and Diu Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act. But the slaughter of other bovine animals is permitted, though with riders. Under the Goa Animal Preservation Act, 1995, all bovines, including male buffaloes, need certificates from competent authorities declaring them fit for slaughter, which is only permitted legally at the government-run abattoir.

In all, officials say there is a daily demand for about 40 tonnes to 50 tonnes of beef in Goa. Christians and Muslims, who eat beef, comprise a third of the state’s population. However, fish is a staple for these communities, while meats supplement the diet. There is also a demand for beef from a floating tourist population in hotels and restaurants.

In 2013, cow vigilante groups objecting to violations of slaughter rules, were able to shut down the abattoir for almost two years. They also disrupted the transportation of cattle that are brought in from neighbouring Karnataka for slaughter, as there is not enough livestock in Goa. At that time, consumption demands were met by procuring meat from neighbouring states. Since then, transportation and slaughter operations have been streamlined in Goa, though prices of beef increased as a result.

Some 70 Qureshi traders operate in the fresh meat market in the state. They import livestock from Karnataka, use the meat complex’s facilities, and sell the meat in the local municipal markets under a licence.

VHP jumps in

Fuelled by media outfits, the circle of statements has stayed at the forefront of the political discourse in Goa. The latest statements on the issue came from a senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary, Acharya Radha Krishna Manori, who was in the state to build support for the construction of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.

Questioned by the media on the sidelines of a meeting on the mandir issue, Manori said: “[The] VHP will not require the help of any government to stop cow slaughter or consumption of beef as our Bajrang Dal [youth wing] and Durga Vahini [women’s outfit] are capable of doing it...I am pretty sure that in the next one or two years, cow slaughter and beef consumption will stop in Goa with our initiative.”

The Congress said that the VHP’s statements in Goa were part of the BJP and allied organisations’ strategy to polarise people along communal lines.

The Goa Forward Party, keen to accentuate its secular liberal positioning that took a tumble when it allied with the BJP to form the government in March, reacted sharply to the VHP leader’s comments.

“When the VHP speaks of its cadres to enforce the ban, they should not forget that Goa Forward also has its followers who will stop them,” said Vijai Sardessai, the Town and Country Planning minister and Goa Forward Party leader. “The radical elements do not have any place in Goan society.”

Sardessai added that the Goa government would ban anyone attempting to create disharmony in the state, as it had done with Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik in 2014.

On Wednesday, Parrikar accused the media of fanning the controversy and said that the government would follow the law.