Ignorance can be condoned and remedied. Bigotry and prejudice as has been displayed by the Haryana Chief Minister in his open threats to the Muslim community under the guise of protection of the cow should come under provisions of hate speech and be dealt with by the law.

Such statements by leaders have a direct impact on the actions of their supporters. The hate campaign in the name of prevention of cow slaughter has taken its toll of another young Muslim life in Himachal Pradesh. This follows the attacks on cattle traders in Mainpuri. In response to a question after the lynching in Dadri, the Prime Minister had replied, “What has the Central Government to do with it? It is for the State Government to respond.”

This is like an arsonist blaming the fire services for not coming in time to douse the fire he has lit.

When Cabinet Ministers or Members of Parliament belonging to the ruling party make inflammatory statements which have direct consequences in inciting violence against the Muslim community, the Centre has everything to do with it. Removing them from their posts would, for example, have an immediate and salutary impact in preventing others from making such statements, but this is not the preferred path because of the larger more fundamental agenda of the Hindutva forces of polarizing  India on religious lines, with which the Prime Minister clearly agrees.

This is not to say that State Governments have no responsibility. Certainly, the Uttar Pradesh government is answerable for its failure in preventing the spread of communal feelings by the RSS and its cohorts. It is equally responsible for the provocative statements made by serial offenders like minister Azam Khan against whom action should be taken.

The snowballing impact of the Hindutva offensive on the issue of cow slaughter was felt last week when the Himachal Pradesh High Court in a questionable judgement asked the Central Government to “consider to enact the law prohibiting slaughtering of cow/calf, import or export of cow/calf, selling of beef or beef products, in its own wisdom at the national level, within a period of three months”…It also gave a directive to the Central Government “to provide funds for the upkeep of stray cattle.”

Not surprisingly, this has immediately been picked up by the Vishwa Hindu Praishad to demand such a national law. There is a deliberate attempt to whip up a feeling  that cow slaughter is rampant because of weak laws.

The 2012 cattle census shows that there has been an increase in the number of cows in India by 6.2 per cent compared to the previous census in 2007 whereas the numbers of sheep, goats and pigs declined. This hardly points to rampant slaughter of cows. Secondly, most states in India, with the exception of the North Eastern states already have laws prohibiting the slaughter of cows and their progeny. However, most of these states allow the slaughter of draught animals including bulls and bullocks if the cattle are found to be “unfit for work or for breeding” and certified to be fit for slaughter.

According to the website of the Animal Husbandry Department of the Government of India, such states which permit slaughter of “useless cattle” include Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal. The procedures and standards for slaughter may differ – such as the age of the animal which can vary from 10 years in Kerala to 15 years in Madhya Pradesh. In some states such as Bengal and Tamil Nadu and Kerala, dry cows can also be slaughtered.

This is quite in tune with Article 48 of the Directive Principles of the Constitution, which gave special protection to the cow not for religious reasons but on grounds of “scientific agriculture” and for “taking steps for preserving and improving the breed and for prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” Of course this Article itself was a compromise worked out with the proponents of a national ban on cow slaughter by Dr Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, who was opposed to such a ban.

But with the advent of the Modi regime, the Hindutva right wing wants to reverse the compromise, change the legal provisions and extend it to a total ban removing the “fit for slaughter” provisions and also to link it with a ban on the consumption of beef. This has been done by the BJP Government in Maharashtra as well as Haryana this year and earlier by Gujarat in 2005.

However, the purpose is less for the protection of the cow than for targeting the Muslim community.  This agenda also requires the rewriting of history and the creation of a narrative that cow slaughter was introduced by Muslims. The National Commission on Cattle set up by the Vajpayee Government in 2002 asserts “Cow slaughter in India first started around 1000 AD when various Islamic invaders came to this country..” (introductory chapter, para 25). The works of eminent historians showing how beef was an integral part of the dietary preferences of ancient India are brushed aside as the “propaganda of Leftists.”

Swamy Vivekananda in a series of lectures published in volume 3 of his collected works had this to say: “You will be astonished if I tell you that according to the old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it…” Again: “There was a time in this very India without eating beef no Brahmin could remain a Brahmin…in time it was found that as we were an agricultural race, killing the best Bulls meant annihilation of the race. Therefore the practice was stopped and a voice was raised against the killing of cows…”

The rewriting of history goes along with falsehoods about the realities of the present. Khattar’s comments were deliberately aimed against Muslims when it is well known that more than Muslims or Christians in the North East, beef is the dietary preference of a substantial section of Hindus too. The Commission report also reluctantly admitted (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.” Clearly the issue of beef consumption also has a class and caste dimension.

But such is the power of the Goebbelsian lie that after Dadri, when Lalu Yadav said that Hindus too are beef eaters, he was so aggressively attacked by the BJP that he felt it was better to deny he had ever made such a comment!

The communal and divisive mobilisation also helps to conceal the utter hypocrisy of the anti cow slaughter campaign. The demand for a total ban on slaughter of all cattle even those who are legally “fit for slaughter” is in total contrast to the plight of such cattle.

According to the cattle census of 2012, there are 53 lakh stray cattle including cows, bullocks and bulls. These cattle have been turned out by the peasants who own them because it is not economically viable to look after them. On a conservative estimate, maintenance of a dry cow or useless cattle will cost a hundred rupees a day. This is precisely why in an earlier judgement the Supreme Court had held that a ” total ban on slaughter of useless cattle which involves a wasteful drain on the nation…cannot be justified.”

The plight of such stray cattle, including dry cows, slowly starving to death or dying because of ingestion of toxic wastes including plastic does not however move the Hindutva forces. In states, where they are in power such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the numbers of such stray cattle are large. At an all-India level, the minimum cost of feeding 53 lakh stray cattle would be around 20,000 crores rupees a year at 100 rupees per head. This is more than the entire amount allocated for the Scheduled Tribe Sub Plan in this year’s budget. But the concern for the cow does not stretch to finances. In Haryana, for example Mr. Khattar gives only 40 rupees per head of cattle to registered gaushalas. Since these gaushalas also include milch cattle which require a different more expensive diet, the useless cattle even in gaushalas starve to death.Such is the hypocrisy of the Hindutva right.

India does not need a national anti cow slaughter law. It does not require laws that determine dietary preferences of its citizens. It has other priorities it should be addressing such as being the country with the highest malnourished population in the world.

(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)