There is no cause to believe that the decisive defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)’s communal and caste politics in Bihar will mean an end to its vicious campaign against cow slaughter. The online threat from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) official’s twitter handle to retailers to stop selling goods made of cow hide is clear evidence.

Although the general campaign against cow slaughter targets Muslims, it is Hindus who will be most adversely affected if the Hindutva brigade has its way with a total ban on cattle slaughter.

Farmers, mainly Hindus, sell unproductive cattle to contractors. A blanket ban on slaughter means the farmer will have to pay for their upkeep which, at current prices, would amount to around Rs. 100 a day or Rs. 36,500 a year. Can farmers in the grip of an acute agrarian crisis afford this expense? Will the government give them a cattle subsidy? According to the cattle census, already there are 53 lakh stray cattle abandoned by their owners.

Industry choked

Along with farmers, the entire chain of the leather industry will be affected with a drastic fall in supply of raw material. According to the Council for Leather Exports, 2.5 million people, the majority of them scheduled castes, are employed in the industry. An estimated eight lakh Dalits earn a living through flaying the skin of dead cattle. This activity is within the law.

But with the vigilante actions by the Hindutva brigade, there is a growing fear among flayers, contractors, truck drivers, traders and others connected with the industry. A tannery owner in Kanpur said, “Now flaying or handling a cow hide is like having a tiger skin, which is totally illegal. Nobody wants to touch the skin of a dead cow; they are too scared.”

In one of the biggest hide markets, the Pesh Bagh Chamra Mandi in Kanpur, there used to be a daily traffic of around 150 trucks of cattle hide. This has come down to just three to four trucks a day. Tanneries and small-and medium-sized leather manufacturing units, which again employ mainly Dalits, are laying off workers because of the crunch in supplies. While lakhs of workers in the domestic hide industry stand to lose their livelihood, the government has allowed the import of cow/bull hide with zero per cent duty. Videshi is in, desi is out in this interesting inversion of ‘Make in India’.

False premise

Narendra Modi’s aggression against the so-called pink revolution, the bizarre description of “rampant slaughter of cows”, is falsely premised. He has deliberately concealed the fact that it is not cows but the meat of buffaloes and unproductive cattle that is mainly used for consumption and exports. As far as the cow is concerned, the 2012 cattle census shows that “the Female Cattle (Cows) Population has increased by 6.52 per cent over the previous census (2007) and the total number of female cattle in 2012 is 122.9 million numbers.” This hardly points to rampant slaughter of cows.

The hate campaign further says Muslims eat beef to deliberately insult Hindu sentiment. Lalu Prasad may have thought it politically prudent to withdraw his statement on Hindus eating beef, but he spoke the truth. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimated in 2011-12 that 5.2 crore people in the country eat beef/buffalo meat. Earlier, the National Commission on Cattle, set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government in 2002 to promote a ban on cow slaughter, also reluctantly admitted in a report (para 167) that “extreme poverty and customary practices in the coastal areas and among some sections of scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and other backward castes also make them beef eaters.” There is clearly a class and caste dimension to beef/buffalo eating. Imposition of an unacceptable food code also directly affects the nutrition of the poor.

The Sangh Parivar claims that cow slaughter takes place because of the lack of a legal framework. This is yet another lie. According to the website of the Department of Animal Husbandry, except for the States of the northeast, all other States have anti-cow slaughter laws in some form or the other.

But what angers the Sangh Parivar is that many States differentiate between useful and useless cattle in their laws. Once a cow or bull or bullock has crossed a certain age and can neither produce milk nor be useful in any agricultural work, such cattle can be slaughtered provided the authority concerned gives a “fit for slaughter” certificate.

Such laws are not peculiar to India. In the Punjab province of Pakistan there are strict regulations against the slaughter of milch animals and draught animals. Socialist Cuba, facing decades of economic blockade by America, has laws against the slaughter of milch cows to guarantee its social welfare programme of a litre of free milk to every child below seven years and free yoghurt to all children above seven. However, even in Cuba, cattle which become “unproductive” are “fit to slaughter.”

But in India, the Hindutva forces, from the time of the Constituent Assembly, do not accept an economic basis for the argument. Their argument is: if Pakistan bans pork on religious grounds then why should India not ban cow slaughter and the possession and consumption of beef? In other words, the attempt was to turn India into a theocratic Hindu Pakistan. At that time it was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who led the opposition to the demand made for a national ban on cow slaughter.

Dr. Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of the caste system and the Brahminical order contained an analysis of the grounds for untouchability practised against Dalits, one of which was consumption of the meat of dead cattle. He held that the demand for a ban on cow slaughter was a way of introducing Hindutva of the upper castes into what was to be a secular Constitution.

In the face of strongly divided opinion in the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar worked out a compromise for the inclusion of Article 48 in the Directive Principles rather than in the text of the Constitution.

Article 48 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 slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

The Hindutva right wing wants to reverse the Dr. Ambedkar formula, impose a total national ban by removing the “fit for slaughter” provisions, and link it with a ban on the consumption of beef. An opposition to this demand is not just a fight to defend minorities, not just a fight to protect the livelihoods of farmers, Dalits and the poor, it is also part of the fight to prevent India from being turned into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

(Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP.)