The nationwide ban on selling cattle for slaughter at animal markets has raised a storm across India, but the Centre has defended the rules, saying they were prompted by the orders of the Supreme Court.

This is only partially true, documents seen by reveal.

In 2014, in response to a petition filed by animal rights activists, the Supreme Court had asked the government to set up a committee to address the problem of cattle smuggling on the border of India and Nepal. In 2015, the committee recommended the framing of new rules to regulate cattle markets, so that healthy cattle are sold only for legally authorised purposes.

But the central government subsequently replaced the term “legally authorised purposes” with “not been brought to market for sale for slaughter”.

This has serious implications. Since states frame laws to define legally authorised purposes, under the committee’s recommendation, in states where cattle slaughter is legal, cattle could still be sold for slaughter in animals markets.

But the Centre’s modification of the committee’s recommendation has resulted in a blanket ban on the sale and purchase of all cattle – including buffaloes and camels – at animal markets for the purpose of slaughter, even in states where cattle slaughter is allowed.

It began with a PIL

On May 23, the Centre notified the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, ostensibly to regulate animal markets in the country and prevent cruelty inflicted on cattle during transportation, sale or auctioning. But under Rule 22 of the new regulation, cattle traders will have to furnish a declaration stating that cattle have been brought to the market for “agriculture purposes” and not slaughter. Even the purchaser of the cattle cannot resell them further for slaughter.

In the wake of rising violence by cow protection vigilantes, these “regulation of livestock markets” rules are being seen as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to introduce a backdoor ban on cattle slaughter and beef across the country. The rules have triggered a wave of protests in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and other states where beef has traditionally been eaten.

The genesis of these rules was in a 2014 writ petition filed in the Supreme Court by animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, against the cruelty involved in the rampant smuggling of Indian buffaloes into Nepal for the Gadhimai festival every five years.

Once every five years, lakhs of Indian buffaloes are smuggled into Nepal – under allegedly inhumane transport conditions – to be sacrificed for the goddess Gadhimai. In 2014, Gauri Maulekhi, a trustee of People for Animals, a group headed by Menaka Gandhi, BJP leader and Minister of Women and Child Development, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court against this cross-border smuggling.

In October 2014, the Court directed the Sashastra Seema Bal (the body governing the Indo-Nepal border), the governments of the bordering states and other Central government ministries to put a stop to the export of live cattle and buffaloes into Nepal. To arrive at a more long-term solution to the problem, the Court also called for the formation of a committee, under the chairmanship of the director general of the Sashastra Seema Bal.

This committee, comprising the chief secretaries of various state governments, the Animal Welfare Board of India and other respondents, held its first meetings in March and April 2015. “That is when we realised that the matter was a lot more complicated,” said Jayasimha Nuggehalli, a lawyer representing Maulekhi who was, at the time, a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India. According to Nuggehalli, the cross-border cattle smuggling was just the tip of an iceberg that involved a wide network of cattle trading and auctioning in India, during which a range of animal cruelty laws were being violated.

An Uttarakhand rule, with a twist

The committee’s recommendations included framing rules to regulate cattle markets, so that healthy cattle are sold only for legally authorised purposes. This recommendation – the first expression of what would become the Regulation of Livestock Markets rules – is based on a government order issued by the Uttarakhand state in 2010.

“Uttarakhand, Gujarat and some other states where cow slaughter is banned had already been implementing this rule for a while,” said Nuggehalli, who added that he didn’t know what motivated the Uttarakhand government to bring in a rule against the sale of animals for legally unauthorised purposes. “The committee was considering various mechanisms that would be most effective for stopping smuggling, and they looked at the Uttarakhand rule as a reference.”

There is a significant difference, however, between the recommendation of the committee and Rule 22 of the regulations that were eventually notified this month. Under the committee’s recommendation of allowing cattle sale only for “legally authorised purposes”, states where cattle slaughter is legal would still be able to sell cattle for slaughter in animal markets.

But the new Central government rules have moved away from “legally authorised purposes” to explicitly ban the sale of cattle “for slaughter” in animal markets, even if some states may otherwise permit cattle slaughter.

This change might be the result of the original case starting with Gadhimai, where only buffaloes and not cows are slaughtered. The Uttarakhand rule, on which the Centre’s rule was based, only referred to gauvansh – cows, bulls, calves – and prevented the sale of those animals for slaughter. Implementing that nationwide would do nothing to stop the Gadhimai trade, which is what the Supreme Court was looking into. So, in order to stop the trade of buffaloes on the Nepal border, the Centre issued rules that would affect lives and economies as far as Kerala, where it is legal to sell and slaughter not just buffaloes but cows too.

The committee recommendations do also include an undertaking from farmers to only buy the animals for agricultural purposes and not for slaughter. But in the recommendations, this only applies to case property animals, which have been seized by the authorities on or near the border, and are being sold back to farmers. It does not make similar suggestions for all cattle sales.

Bangladesh enters the scene

In late 2015, when government agencies failed to implement the recommendations of the committee, Maulekhi filed a contempt notice to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.

Around the same time, the Akhil Bharat Krishi Gowseva Sangh – a non-profit cow protection organisation in Maharashtra – filed a separate writ petition in the Supreme Court against the widespread illegal smuggling of cattle into Bangladesh. The Court merged this case with Maulekhi’s, and ordered the constitution of another committee to frame comprehensive solutions.

All through 2016, the committee – comprising the additional secretary of the home ministry, animal husbandry departments of several states as well as other Central government bodies – held several meetings with various stakeholders. In the meetings, the committee found that cattle seized at the Indo-Bangladesh border had been auctioned multiple times, repeatedly loaded, unloaded and transported from one place to another in cruel conditions. To prevent them from reaching the border, the committee felt that their movements had to be curbed at the source itself, said Nuggehalli.

The general consensus at these meetings, he added, was that animal markets and case property animals needed to be regulated.

The report submitted by the second committee did not make any further recommendations for sales at animal markets. It asked for a ban on auctions at animal shelter homes called Kanji houses and the use of Cow Identity tags to prevent further re-sale.

In February 2017, the environment ministry released a draft of the new rules, which included Rule 22 which imposed a blanket ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets. After four months of seeking public suggestions and objections, the rule was finally notified last week.

Defining animal markets

As a former member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, Nuggehalli had helped draft the new rules in its initial stages. While drafting the rules, he said, the committee had considered defining “animal markets” with reference to the size of the market, and exempting small village haats or bazaars where small numbers of cattle are locally traded.

“But we realised that people could misinterpret this exemption and find loopholes in the definition of haats,” said Nuggehalli. Eventually, the committee decided to let district-level monitoring committees decide on a local definition of haats that would be exempt from the rules. “All of it comes down to how things are implemented.”