The Union Territory of Lakshadweep has witnessed several protests in recent weeks after its administrator has attempted to introduce several new initiatives, among which is the Draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, that imposes a minimum punishment of seven years in jail for selling or buying beef products.

This has caused consternation in the Muslim-majority archipelago, where beef is an important source of nutrition.

This was only the latest instance in which the issue of cattle slaughter has made headlines. It is an emotional issue for those people who regard the cow as sacred.

History of cow protection

Indian lawmakers have long grappled with the issue of whether the state should make provisions for cow protection – and to what extent. Even before Independence, some legislators and advocates of cow protection wanted to bring a legal ban on cow slaughter. But their proposals and petitions remained unmet due to the purported policy of the colonial government of remaining neutral in religious affairs.

The establishment of the Constituent Assembly in December 1946 to frame a Constitution for the new nation and freedom from British rule the next year made this aspiration seem achievable.

When the Constitution-making process began, Mohandas Gandhi and many top leaders received letters and telegrams bearing requests for cattle slaughter to be made illegal. Gandhi was asked to persuade Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel to enact such laws. As he wrote in Harijan in August 1947:

“A large number of local Hindus have begun to believe in the superstition that the Union belongs to the Hindus and that, therefore, they should enforce their beliefs by law even among non-Hindus. Hence an emotional wave is sweeping the country, in order to secure legislation prohibiting the slaughter of cows within the Union. Let us at the outset realise that cow worship in the religious sense is largely confined to Gujarat, Marwar, the United Provinces and Bihar. It is obviously wrong legally to enforce one’s religious practice on those who do not share that religion...”

He asked these people not to waste their money on telegrams but use it constructively for the improvement of the condition of cows. Though Gandhi had hitherto supported the idea of cow protection, during this time he was dejected by the spread of communal violence and by Partition. He urged people not to insist upon anything that would create a further rift between people of different faiths.

Rajendra Prasad, the president of the Constituent Assembly, told Jawaharlal Nehru that he had received several letters on the subject and that the Congress should take a stand on the matter.

“The Hindu sentiment in favour of cow protection is old, widespread and deep-seated and it has taken no time to rouse at this moment to a pitch when it is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore it,” Prasad wrote. “I think that the matter does require consideration and we must take a decision.”

During the Constituent Assembly debates, Vishwambar Dayal Tripathi, a Congressman from United Provinces, urged the Assembly to make cow protection a “part of fundamental rights”, given its cultural and financial importance.

Seth Govind Das, another Congress member from Central Provinces and Berar, demanded that the slaughter of cow “should be declared an offence as a provision under the Constitution just like untouchability”.

Most of those in the Constituent Assembly who wanted cow killing to be banned based their arguments on the importance cow held for agriculture and the economy and not on any religious grounds. Anivesh Agrawal, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Cow and the Constitution

In the initial draft of the Constitution, which was presented before the Assembly in November 1948, there was no provision relating to cow protection or prohibiting cow slaughter.

Introducing an amendment for the addition of such a provision in the Directive Principles of State Policy on November 24, 1948, Thakurdas Bhargava, a Congress member from Punjab stated, “To my mind, it would have been much better if this could have been incorporated in the fundamental rights, but some of my Assembly friends differed and it is the desire of Dr Ambedkar [the Chair of Drafting Committee] that this matter, instead of being included in fundamental rights should be incorporated in the Directive Principles.”

Most of those in the Constituent Assembly who wanted cow slaughter to be banned based their arguments about the importance that cattle held for agriculture and the economy and not on religious grounds. This was pointed out by an Anglo-Indian member from Central Provinces and Berar, Frank Anthony, “Why bring in this provision in an indirect way?”

He added: “If it offends your religious susceptibilities, just as much as I expect you to respect my religious susceptibilities, I am prepared to respect yours. As I said, why bring it in, in this indirect way, as an afterthought into the Directive Principles?”

These debates and deliberations ultimately resulted in the genesis of Article 48 of the Indian Constitution that states, “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.”

This was the first time that any mention was made of the prohibition of cow slaughter in a legal document in India. Neither the Government of India Act, 1935, nor the penal or procedural codes had any such provision. This was despite the well-known fact that the Constitution was stated to be a secular document.

The Directive Principles under Part IV of the Constitution are not enforceable in a court of law but serve as mere guidelines for government action and policy. So, Article 48 could be made functional only after the passing of laws by legislatures. Various attempts were made in the 1950s in the Indian Parliament to secure legislation that would implement Article 48 on an all-India basis, for instance, the Indian Cattle Prevention Bill presented by Seth Govind Das in Lok Sabha in 1955.

It sought to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught cattle completely. While debating on this Bill, Prime Minister Nehru asserted that it was a matter for the state governments, not Parliament, to consider and declared that he was prepared to stake his prime ministership on this issue. The house rejected the Bill by a vote of 95 to 12.

1966 agitations

The cow question was once again debated in 1966 when an agitation for statutory cow protection was launched by Hindu Mahasabha, Ram Rajya Parishad (a small party dominated by Hindu ex princes), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, newly established Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bharat Sadhu Samaj (a representative body for the nation’s several hundred thousand Hindu religious ascetics), who came together and formed Sarvadaliya Gorasksha Maha-Abiyan Samiti.

On November 6, 1966, a huge procession was taken through the streets of Delhi and among the 1,00,000 marchers were many Sadhu brandishing tridents and spears. To douse this situation, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, set up a committee headed by a former chief justice of India, comprising Congress ministers, bureaucrats and nominees of Sarvadaliya Gorasksha Maha-Abiyan Samiti.

The Committee was deadlocked on important issues and Sarvadaliya Gorasksha Maha-Abiyan Samiti members eventually resigned and delivered its report in 1973, without much fanfare. From time to time, similar demands for pushing central legislation across the nation for banning cow slaughter have cropped up, but none exists yet. However, the Foreign Trade Policy of India prohibits the export of beef of cows, oxen and calves. But it allows buffalo meat to be exported.

Beef ban in states

The states, however, have made Article 48 functional after passing laws prohibiting cow slaughter. States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh ban completely the slaughter of cows while others like West Bengal allow it in case of old or unfit cows after the acquisition of “fit for slaughter” certificate.

Punishment for violation of these laws varies from state to state. As of today, only Kerala, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram have no laws prohibiting cow slaughter.

Given the special status of the cow for some sections of Indian society and politics, in some parts of the country, people could be sent jail for trading in beef, though in other parts this trade is perfectly legal.

Komal Deol is a PhD student at the Department of History at Panjab University.