Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, the residents of virtually every Dalit settlement and many tribal villages in India have been living in fear. One of the reasons for this is India’s various cow protection laws.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates like the BJP are using cow protection laws as a weapon to attack Dalits, Muslims and Christians. These groups target people they want to attack on the pretext that they are beef eaters. It has ceased to matter if the person thus accused is in possession of buffalo or bullock meat, or even sheep or goat meat. An accusation that it is cow meat is enough for such groups to assault people across the country.

That is not all. Members of the Other Backward Classes, who traditionally rear cattle, and even eat beef sometimes, are facing enormous economic losses because of the unrelenting efforts of such groups to interfere in the lawful trade of cows and bulls on the pretext of cow protection.

An IndiaSpend analysis of cow protection laws found that as of March 2017, cow slaughter has been prohibited in 84% of India’s states and Union territories, which account for 99.38% of the country’s population. While some of these laws were enacted decades ago, the analysis said that India saw a series of new, more stringent laws being passed from 1994 onwards.

In states that do not have cow protection laws or have mild restrictions on the slaughter of cattle, Hindutva groups create a constant law and order problem around the issue deliberately to keep it on the boil, possibly for political dividend later. Kerala is a good example of this.

Dalits attacked

The latest attack on Dalits, in Chinna Kandukuru village in Telangana’s Yadadri district, by BJP activists, provides further evidence that Hindutva groups are using cow protection laws to attack Dalits, Adivasis and members of the Other Backward Classes.

When we visited the village on January 2, all castes of the village were unanimous that they did not want any interference in their food customs. They said: “We do not want this kind of food fascism and brutal attacks happening on our villages”. They said that Dalits were part of their community. The whole village came together and had “social lunch” in the Dalit settlement itself. It was heartening to see the support extended by all other castes to Dalits.

But then BJP activists stepped in.

On January 14, the Dalits of the village bought a bullock, got it butchered and distributed the meat among the settlement’s families. This was done to celebrate Makar Sankranti, the food and harvest festival, which fell on that day. The festival is observed in many parts of the country. Several communities in the two Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh serve beef as part of their festival feast.

According to the Dalits, that day, about 50 BJP activists rounded up from other villages attacked them. They beat up several men severely and seized all the food and drink from their homes. The activists also attacked the village women without any compunction. One of the Dalit families owned a young cow. The BJP activists seized this animal on the pretext that the family would butcher it too someday. They did not pay them even a rupee. A full investigation is necessary to ascertain what exactly happened. Such groups seem to have acquired the right to take possession of cattle from anyone on the pretext of saving cows. Any cow owner could be their next target.

The BJP-RSS have been very active in and around Chinna Kandukuru village as the nearby Yadagiri Gutta temple is in the midst of a massive development project. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi government has set aside at least 1,800 crores to give this hill temple a lavish makeover in an attempt to make it Telangana’s Tirupathi, in direct competition with the famous temple at Tirumala, which stayed with Andhra Pradesh when the state was bifurcated.

The BJP-RSS hold all their major meetings in this area. Whenever BJP president Amit Shah visits Telangana he makes it a point to visit the region too. This spotlight has led to the creation of tension around the cow in its neighbourhoods.

The vegetarian invasion

In many parts of India, entire towns are being forced to become vegetarian zones only because they fall in the vicinity of an important temple. This trend displays scant respect for the food customs of the majority of the population – India’s Shudras, Dalits and Adivasi communities – on the part of state authorities.

By prioritising the sentiments of a minority – Hindu priests and ascetics, and members of the conservative Brahmin, Bania communities – India’s diverse food culture is being systematically attacked. With the quiet consent of a section of society, Hindutva groups are treating the majority culture as uncivilised while projecting only pure vegetarianism as the real Indian food culture.

Law enforcement agencies are being forced to look the other way as these attacks continue. As is the case in other parts of India, in the Telangana village too, the police registered cases against Dalits who were attacked and not against those who attacked them. We have reached a stage in India in which cows are considered to be more important than human beings.

Beef as nutrition

India is a country of 1.3 billion people. It is surprising that the party that is ruling the Centre and the majority of states does not have the basic knowledge that beef is a cheap source of protien for millions of India’s poor. The government cannot starve people of nutrition on the basis of a belief that the cow is divine. This will have huge implications on the very health of the nation itself.

Nor should ruling party leaders remain silent when those suspected of eating beef are killed by their footsoldiers. The silence indicates that our rulers believe that those who eat beef deserve to die. BJP leaders like Subramanian Swamy are making the Dalit and Adivasi masses shiver by constantly making statements like, “those who kill cow should be given capital punishment”.

The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi should have been cautious about such political forces and, after the January 14 incident, should have taken a stand like the governments in Kerala and Goa have done previously.

There is no doubt that individuals have the right to worship the cow or any other animal. But at the same time, individuals also have the right to look at the cow as a source of food – of milk and meat. This is why India’s so-called cow protection laws must be repealed.

Opposition parties should make repealing these laws a campaign issue in the upcoming elections. The majority of India’s people are fed up with the BJP’s policies on cattle and cow protection. It is time that other parties take up the issue and save us all from this deadly problem.