By Ram Puniyani
Over the last couple of years, too many atrocities have been committed against Dalits and Muslims, of which several have been making headlines. Some of these, like the case in Una (Gujarat, July 2016), have shaken the conscience of the country’s citizens. It occurred soon after the incident concerning Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh, June 2015), who was lynched on the grounds of killing a calf and eating beef.
Today, Narendra Modi seems to be sending the message that 80% of the so called gau rakshaks (cow protectors) are antisocial elements but looking back at 2014 elections, the Prime Ministerial candidate had used this issue as a polarizing factor. He had stated,“Rana Pratap dedicated his life to gau raksha (cow protection). He fought wars and sacrificed young men to protect the cow…”. Modi disparagingly referred to the export of beef as the ‘pink revolution’ and criticized the same. He also alleged that if the Congress were to come to power, cows would be slaughtered for the sake of exporting beef.
Provisions for Preservation of Cows
The recent incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, concealing the intense atmosphere of hate and hostility being created around this issue. Lately, cow-related violence has intensified, as cow vigilantes are aware that the central government and many BJP-ruled state governments are sympathetic to them and their cause.
At the same time, other incidents have come to light. One is that in the BJP-ruled Rajasthan, a ‘cow ministry’ with a minister-in-charge has been created for the first time. In the same state, in one of the gaushals (cow protection shed) in Hingonia, hundreds of cows died due to the neglect of the state machinery. Simultaneously, reports say that the budget for upkeep of cow shelters has been drastically reduced by the BJP-led NDA.
However, it is true that there are some constitutional provisions for the preservation of cows. “After much debate and deliberation in the constituent assembly and a demand from a few members of the assembly, to include a total ban on the slaughter of cows as part of fundamental rights in the Indian Constitution, a compromise was reached and the protection of the revered bovine found place in the Directive Principles of state policy, which incorporates this Hindu sentiment in a somewhat guarded and hesitant form.”
It is to be recalled that this was couched in secular language: “Organization of agriculture and animal husbandry: The State shall endeavor to organize 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.”
Although twenty four states in India already have some sort of law either prohibiting or limiting the slaughter of cows and other cattle, it is the more recent draconian acts passed by states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and more recently Maharashtra in 2015, criminalizing cow slaughter as a non-bailable offense, that need to be revisited and studied. Revision is required in terms of their constitutionality, the violation of fundamental rights of certain groups of people in the country, and being against the very secular spirit of the nation.
Clash of the Religious Beliefs
On one hand, the budget for cow shelters has been cut, and cow shelters have been neglected despite creating ‘cow ministries’, and on the other, violence has been instigated against Muslims and Dalits in the name of the cow.
The concept of ‘cow as mother’ is the ploy used by Hindu communalism, beginning from the late nineteenth century. At that time, there was a matching slogan of ‘pig as an object of hate’.
Occasionally, one has heard of beef in the temple being put in by Bajrang Dal activists. At a subconscious level, the issue of beef has been kept alive, and now it has been made more important as far as communal polarisation is concerned.
At the economic level, the cow has been an important part of the agricultural economy. Old bullocks and cows being used as food by large sections of society has been the norm – apart from Adivasis, sections of Dalits, Muslims, Christians and even upper caste Hindus consumed beef, as a cheap and rich source of protein.
Historically, it is interesting to note that beef was part of people’s food habits from the Vedic times. The cow was transformed into the ‘mother’ and a major tool of identity politics much later. Bhimrao Ambedkar in his celebrated essay “Did Hindus never eat beef?” demonstrates this very well. At a popular level Swami Vivekananda confirms this: “You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it.”
It is not that society cannot resolve the issue of contrasting food habits and faith in an amicable way. On the issue of eating beef, Gandhi said, “…beef is not their [Muslims] ordinary food. Their ordinary food is the same as that of the millions. What is true is that there are very few Muslims who are vegetarians from religious motive. Therefore, they will take meat, including beef, when they can get it. But during the greater part of the years, millions of Muslims, owing to poverty, go without meat of any kind. These are facts. But the theoretical question demands a clear answer…I maintain that Muslims should have full freedom to slaughter cows…”
By now, the notion of Muslims as ‘cow killers’ has been propagated so widely by communal forces that the efforts made by those wanting peace, tolerance and pluralism must be intensified to overcome the hate built around this propaganda.
Ram Puniyani is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.