I'm vegan, I work for animal rights and I oppose Maharashtra's beef ban

By N. Surabhi

I have spent the last ten years fighting animal abuse. It’s been both a personal campaign as well as a professional career. I’ve travelled across India and beyond to understand the circumstances in which animals are mistreated and why there’s so much apathy towards suffering in the land of ahimsa. I have witnessed and documented the agony that animals experience right from the time they are bred, bought, transported and killed – usually in the most horrific of conditions, all to be ‘used’ in various industries.

Considering my experiences, you’d think I’d be among those who would be happy about the recently imposed beef ban in Maharashtra, but I’m not. I’m an animal rights’ advocate, have been vegan for over a decade and I oppose the beef ban. I am also deeply disturbed by the support and call for support by some stalwarts of the animal protection community.Why? Because vegetarianism fuelled by religion is very different from making an informed choice on animal welfare.

For most in India, vegetarianism does not stem from any kind of ethical belief about how animals are being treated or should be treated. The time that I have spent working in this field has taught me that cow protection, an animal welfare issue, is mostly linked to religious one-upmanship in India. The beef ban is an excellent example. The rationale governing the ban is ostensibly this: the cow, considered sacred by Hindus, deserves ‘protection’ because of its special religious status.

Yet, if you look at the Vedas, the cow was revered but at the same time, beef was relished by all classes and castes of society, including the upper castes.

In ‘Untouchability, The Dead Cow And The Brahmin‘, Dr. BR Ambedkar wrote that the texts suggest Hindus were indeed a beef-eating lot and that the ousting of beef from the Hindu diet was a result of the attempt at hegemony by the Brahmins over the Buddhists. The Buddhists were the ones who opposed animal slaughter and when they started gathering popularity, the Hindu vanguard responded by appropriating some aspects of Buddhism. And so, despite the Hindus’ supposed proclivity for beef, the cow came to occupy a venerable position in Hinduism and cow-killing became sacrilege.

In the 20th and 21st century, the issue of cow protection vis-à-vis slaughter has been used to deepen the fault lines between the non beef-eating Hindu majority and those that eat beef (religious minorities as well as members of “lower” castes). The ban in Maharashtra is an instrument of power play in the hands of the country’s political class and it makes a joke of the real issue of cattle welfare.

If the beef ban has been imposed for ethical reasons – that is, to prevent the suffering of animals – then how is a cow different from a chicken or a goat or even its close relative buffalo? Why aren’t other animals included within the ambit of this law? If your argument is that chicken and mutton comprise a vital part of people’s diets, here is a fact for you to chew on. Beef, which was half the price of mutton, was a cheap source of protein for India’s poor. Simple economics tells us that pulling beef off the shelves will lead to an increase in the prices and demand for other meat especially chicken, which will in turn increase the suffering of countless animals. There’s nothing ethical about the conditions in which most chicken are raised, incidentally. I would argue that of all the animals raised for food, hens and chickens suffer the most.

Proponents of the ban point to the alleged atrocities by the meat industry and the cruelty of slaughter. However, if the cow is sacred because of her milk, her suffering is because of that milk too.

Most cows in India are reared for use in the dairy industry. Those that are fit for milk production are constantly impregnated, separated from their calves and pumped with hormones in order to keep up milk production. Male calves are either abandoned at birth or sold to slaughterhouses. Some may be used as working animals on farmland while selected bulls are used for breeding. However, once these cows and bulls lose their productive value, these ‘spent’ animals are either abandoned or slaughtered for use in the beef and other industries.

If the point of the ban is to uphold the sanctity of the cow and ensure its welfare, then the problem is far from solved. India is the world’s largest producer of milk. In a growing economy, consumption of dairy is bound to increase, which means more cruelty to cattle both during and after their use.

Abandoned cattle are commonplace in India and with a ban on slaughter, this number will only shoot up. In the course of my work, I have visited many gaushalas (independent organisations that take in abandoned/stray cattle). I have found that often the upkeep of these animals is dismal, either because of lack of funds and infrastructure to provide adequate care or because of apathy towards to the plight of these animals. Don’t be surprised if the situation of abandoned cattle gets significantly worse and more cattle show up on the streets in Maharashtra.

I am not the only one to have seen countless cattle die painful deaths on the roadside because they ingested plastic from the garbage we discard thoughtlessly. Many have had more than 20kgs of plastic removed from their stomachs. These ‘stray’ cattle risk being transported illegally to other states where slaughter isn’t banned. This means enduring horrible journeys. Cattle are cramped into the back of trucks. Often, they’re so tightly packed that they their tails break at the joints. The animals are kept hungry, suffer fatigue and face the risk of disease.

Simply put, everyone who is holding a glass of milk is responsible for the slaughter of the holy cow.

Animal welfare is more than just animal rescue and worship. It’s a fact that our sustenance is derived from the environment, which includes animals. Welfare needs to encompass empathy for these creatures by negating the suffering that we may bring upon them, to the least possible extent. Ethics and moral compass is not a political ordinance. They should guide us to build a society that privileges non-violence – the same ahimsa that we tote internationally – rather than a society divided by religion. If the interests of cattle are indeed our concern, it requires a comprehensive overhaul of the systems that govern industries that depend on cattle; stringent enforcement of animal welfare laws; and most importantly, individual lifestyle changes. All this requires the individual and collective exercise of our will.

This hollow ban on beef does nothing for cattle in India. If anything, it hurts more than it helps because it’s more about a regressive conservatism and politics. Why support a ban that affects only minority communities? Because it serves a political and religious agenda. And if it turns out that the state government will relax the stipulations and allow beef to be imported into Maharashtra, then there might even be an economic agenda.

Sadly, the state of the cow’s affairs, however, is the least of anyone’s concerns.

N Surabhi is an animal rights advocate and has worked in several animal welfare projects all over India.