Beating around the beef

Beating around the beef

Palate issues: BJP is likely to further hype the controversy in view of the upcoming state elections

Beating around the beef
Hardly a day has passed over the last few months without beef being in the news. And all for wrong reasons. Aggressive positioning by the BJP leaders and party-ruled state governments on beef consumption and cow slaughter have only added to the tension in many parts of the country. Is there a pattern to the controversy? Many say there is.

The cow has now come to occupy the centre stage in national debate. In the process, the animal, known for its genial manners, venerated and worshipped for its religious affiliation and highly valued for its life sustaining qualities of its products, has been invoked as a rationale, or the lack of it, for promoting hatred and aggression, leading to murderous lynching.

It is ironical that those who indulge in the brutality of killing a fellow human being do so in the name of protecting the life of an animal. The rationale is that cow is sacred to the Hindus and hence cannot be slaughtered.

There is no denying the importance of cow in human life, particularly in agrarian societies and the sanctity attributed to it in Hindu religious pantheon. All products of cow help sustain the life of a peasant - milk, meat, dung, urine, skin and bones. Article 48 recognised the all-embracing value of cattle when it provided for “the protection of cow and its progeny, because cows have been the backbone of agriculture and milk production”. In fact, the religious attitude towards the cow is an ideological expression of this economic reality.

Throughout the Indian history, two parallel attitudes seem to have existed towards cow and beef eating, from the Vedic times to the present. The cow was venerated and worshipped on the one hand and killed for food on the other. Several instances can be cited from the scriptures, Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas, to indicate that cow was looked upon as a sacred animal.

This is also true of the Muslim rulers like Babar and Akbar who gave instructions prohibiting the slaughter of milch cattle, which continued during the Mughal rule, except that of Aurangzeb who did not issue any specific orders. Bahadur Shah revived the practice of prohibiting cow slaughter. So did Haidar Ali in Mysore. That the Muslim rulers did not encourage the slaughter of cattle is significant. It goes against the communal argument that Muslims introduced beef eating in India.

The prohibition of cow slaughter, however, did not mean that beef eating was not in vogue during the ancient period. The Vedas, Puranas and Dharmasastras are abound in references to beef eating and that beef was a much sought after food. The vedic and post-vedic yagnas were invariably accompanied by animal sacrifices. In Mahabharata, there are references to the Pandavas partaking meat during their exile. In Ramayana, there are instances of Sita offering meat to the guests. The Yajnavalkya’s statement is a telling example of the addiction to beef: “I for one eat it, provided it is tender”.

The Buddhists did not refrain from eating beef either. There is no doubt, as Ambedkar had suggested, that “there was a time when Hindus, both Brahmins and non-Brahmins, not only ate flesh but also beef.” This fact is well documented by historians, indicating the differences in the attitude towards cattle according to the changing nature of the society.
 Despite the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, even if it is held that Aryans had abstained from eating beef, there is no justification for banning it now. The country should be guided by the needs and requirements of the present. According to the Survey of India, there are about 4,000 communities in the country following different dietary practices, patterns of dress and social customs.

For the members of a substantial number of these communities, animal flesh formed the most nutritional part of their food. It is estimated that more than 70 per cent Indians are non-vegetarians. Of that, a substantial section ate beef. According to one survey, 80 million people are beef eaters: 63.4 million Muslims and 12.5 million Hindus. This is not a small part of the population to whom their democratic right to eat the food of their choice cannot be denied.

Balanced diet

The ban on the slaughter of cattle cannot be divorced from the question of a balanced diet to the poor of all communities, be they Hindus, Muslims or Christians. The only source of protein they can afford is beef. Secondly, beef processing and sale is a big business. The actual number of people employed in this sector is not known. But the ban would throw out/has thrown out, a substantial number of people from their livelihood. Also, India is a front-runner in the export of beef. A ban would adversely affect this section of the population.

Despite historical evidence that traditionally beef formed a part of the Indian cuisine, regardless of caste and religious considerations, prejudice against beef eating has come to stay in society. The demand for the ban on beef has become increasingly loud. It is represented as an emotive issue, closely linked with religious sentiments. As a result, even those who approach the issue rationally are not able to raise their voice. After all, in 24 out of the 29 states, some form of prohibition on beef has come into force, which has not encountered much of an opposition. But in most of them, the slaughter of cows which have not passed their productive life is not permitted. The present agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to make it applicable to the cattle as a whole.

The Hindu communal forces are projecting that eating beef or even possessing it is a crime. The lynching of Mohd Aklakh at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh is only the latest example. Years ago in a Gujarat village, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister, a vegetable seller was attacked and maimed for allegedly carrying beef. Similar incidents have taken place in other regions as well. The Kerala House incident where the Delhi Police barged into its canteen is a foreboding to the intimidations that lays ahead. If a government institution is treated in such a fashion, what protection can ordinary citizens claim?

Beef has become a weapon of Hindu fundamentalism to appropriate the past of the nation and to stigmatise the outsider as enemy. The idea is circulated that beef eating was introduced in India by the Muslims. It is pertinent to recall the grievous results of the campaign by the Goraksha Samiti at the end of the 19th century which led to a series of communal riots in north India. The recent attempt to invoke the cow in the service of fundamentalism might have disastrous consequences.

The beef controversy has shown how intolerant the society has become. Not only intolerant, but also cruel and brutal. But why has this intolerance, brutality and cruelty become so assertive now, when India is supposedly marching towards modernity? Is the “new modernity” going to be a reassertion of religious obscurantism and fundamentalism?

(The writer is a noted author and an eminent historian)
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