The Modi government marked its third year in office with a bang: it banned the sale of cows, buffaloes and camels for slaughter in animal markets. The move, in keeping with the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, will nevertheless end up crippling rural economies and give a fillip to violence by vigilante gau rakshaks that has gripped a large part of India for the past three years.
While the new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act do not technically ban cattle slaughter, they are so wide-ranging that the move will end up crippling the supply chains of beef and carabeef, thus bringing in a beef ban through the back door.
This de facto beef ban would then be a massive expansion of the powers of the Union government. Both livestock and the regulation of animal markets come under the powers of the state government. The Union, therefore, has no legal power to interfere with the sale of cattle or impose a de facto beef ban. Given that the BJP now controls most of the states of West and North India, there was little protest from their governments at this appropriation of their powers. However, the states in the South and East spoke up strongly.
States versus Union
The main charge was led by Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who proceeded to write a letter to all chief ministers asking them to “stand together and oppose this anti-federal, anti-democratic and anti-secular move”. Tripura also apposed the move along with nearly every other North Eastern state. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the move “unconstitutional” and said that the Centre’s decision was aimed at destroying India’s federal structure. In Karnataka, the Congress government also raised the issue of federalism claiming that the new rules were unconstitutional.
Even as political opposition to this move coalesces, what legal options do these dissenting states have? The first is to simply ignore the rules. K Siddaramaiah, the chief minister of Karnataka, laconically remarked on Tuesday that it is not mandatory to follow every notification issued by the Union government. This was backed up a day later by Tripura. “The new cattle trade and slaughter rules framed by the Central government are against the interests of the people,” said Tripura’s agriculture and animal resources minister Aghore Debbarma. “We will not implement them.”
While the legality of the new rules is yet to be decided by the judiciary, the possibility that the states will simply not implement them presents a significant problem for the Union government. No matter what New Delhi decides, the actual implementation of a Union law depends on the state government. Only the law and order apparatus of a state government can ensure that a law is adhered to. If Karnataka sticks to its threat, the Union government’s new rules would be a dead letter. One does not have to go too far to seek a precedent. In January, the Tamil Nadu government had ignored the Union government’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act in order to allow the Tamil sport of bull baiting or jallikattu to be conducted. Incidentally, the current cattle market rules are framed under the same Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
The other option open to states is to legally challenge the rules in court. West Bengal has indicated it will follow this course of action. A challenge would be on a strong wicket legally given that livestock does not come under the purview of the Union government. Also, while the Union government has justified the new rules by holding up the Supreme Court’s directives in the Gauri Maulekhi vs Union of India case, those directives pertain only to the smuggling of animals for the Gadhimal festival in Nepal. The new rules, on the other hand, outstrip the court’s directions in the Gauri Maulekhi case and will apply all across India.
While politics over the cow has handed the Bharatiya Janata Party handsome political dividends – the party won a landslide in Uttar Pradesh in March – the vehemence of the political opposition to its cattle slaughter rules has put the Union government on the back foot. On Wednesday, the TV channel CNN-News 18 quoted anonymous sources to report that the Prime Minister’s Office was “unhappy with the timing of the notification”. On Monday, a senior bureaucrat in the Union government spoke to the media about having a relook at the list of animals whose sale for slaughter would be banned. This could mean that the buffalo might be on its way out from the list. Given that cow slaughter is already banned in most states of the Union, removing buffaloes from the list would mean that the incremental impact of the new rules would be quite minimal.