Four important narratives are apparent in the discourse on the ban on cow slaughter: first, moral discourse, second, religious discourse, third, cultural and finally, communal. In the first case moralists advocate the ban on the ground of cruelty, violence, ill-treatment to animals, particularly cattle. This argument is being advanced within the larger framework of animal ethics and animal rights. Animal rights activists and peace activists are the protagonists of this position. On the contrary, those who advocate the ban from the religious point of view try to construct the argument that cow slaughtering as well as consumption of beef is against religious beliefs as well as basic principles of religious texts. This is advocated by communitarians and far rightists. In fact it is strange that arguments of animal rights activists and the communitarians overlap on the issue of violence on cattle, particularly the cow. Interestingly, culturalists argue that “holy cow” represent great Indian tradition and culture. Finally, the communal argument looks at cow slaughter as the basis for recurring communal riots in India.
Nonetheless, the debate on cow protection as well cow slaughter is not a new one: it is as old as the Vedic period, and found mention in the nationalist movement in the recent past. Constituent assembly also deliberated on the issue of cow protection in a passionate manner and ultimately settled to include the same in the Directive Principle of State policy. This does not mean every state has implemented the law to ban cow slaughter. Kerala and West Bengal for example, are still to adopt a law.
In fact it has given rise to couple of myths. One of the important myths is that the issue revolves around two communities and that it has created binary oppositions: counterpoising minority over majority and vice versa. In other words there is an attempt to reduce the debate to two neat communities - Hindus versus Muslims. Such reductionism overlooks the fact that there are other categories such as Dalits, Christians and tribals who are also equally opposing the ban as it would affect their culture of food habit. Meat eating, to these communities is a part of their historical legacy and cultural practice. It is not that cow is always venerated in these communities. There are tribal communities which venerate bulls more than cows. This reminds the importance received by bulls during the period of Indus civilization.
However, the logic that the population which depends upon cow meat for their daily needs is in absolute minority is a misnomer and logically wrong. In fact they constitute near majority, given the fact that it is being opposed by Dalits, Muslims, Christians etc. Any democratic country to become vibrant requires the zeal to recognise the presence of cultural practice and historical legacy of communities. Non-recognition leads to what Charles Taylor, one of the leading linguistic philosophers argues, “marginalisation of communities”.
It is true that the agrarian economy is under tremendous pressure and crisis both from within and without. In this context any attempt to keep unproductive domestic animals, including cattle, would add to their woes. The same animals once were the basic unit of agricultural production, after land - they provided labour, fertiliser etc. The same is now being replaced by chemical industries, tractors, tillers. Foreign capital has already entered the rural economy through the means of fertilisers, seeds, patents etc. Any further crisis would help the global capital to enter the domain of agriculture. Global capitalists are more happy about the passage of anti-slaughter bill than the farmers.
The labour-intensive leather and tannery would be the other industries adversely hit. Leather industry has linked the local market with the larger national and international markets. The bill will delink such historical linkages between domestic industry, job opportunity and market. One of the arguments advocated to justify the ban is that it will bridge social distancing between communities. More than bridging the social distancing, this bill will sharpen the social crisis for consumption and livelihood.
Given the galloping nature of inflation, the bill in due course will make the situation worse for the poor and the marginalised to look for alternatives. Already the per capita food availability to the poor has come down - from 1,735 Kg during 1989-90 to 1,599 Kg during 2000-01. In the absence of cheap alternative economy for consumption, no wonder social crisis might translate into “food riots” of 1970s in urban centres. Paradoxically, this bill is being adopted when our economy is in deep crisis. More than that, it is being adopted without much debate in the legislature. This is the tragedy of our politics too.
(The writer is a political scientist based at University of Mysore and a Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar.)