Cows and the politics of slaughter

Cows and the politics of slaughter

By Aishwarya P. Sharma | 10 June, 2017
The cow issue has confused thousands of Indians. Is it a religious issue or purely an economic one?

It has been an interesting week for the country, a signal of the disturbing trends ahead. Salman Khan, actor-producer, recently gave a talk on the ill-effects of rash driving. Probably the hit and run case finally got the actor thinking. The Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh instructed the Superintendent of Police and Magistrates that those who slaughter the cow should be booked under the National Security Act or the Gangster Act. This is a little far-fetched, considering cow slaughter has been banned in many of the states since Independence. What is the issue then? Is this about law and order or about an over-zealous officer trying to pre-empt a problem simply when there isn’t any? The cow issue has confused thousands of Indians, for the diversity of voices with which the problem is being expressed. Is it a religious issue or purely an economic one? Is it about our beliefs or politicisation of the cow? The trends in UP are the most disturbing, with people worshipping a deformed face with human life features in Muzzafarnagar district as a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu—Gokaran. How should the nation analyse this? 

The beef fest and slaughter of the calf by Youth Congress workers in Kerala is a sign of institutionalisation of violence in the public sphere. It was in response to an equally stringent directive punishing cow slaughter in the most strictest and oddest manner. The UP government and other state governments in the country are competing with one another to showcase themselves to their constituents as the guardians of the cow, appropriately called the gau-mata. The fact that this narrative has become popular in UP, MP, Rajasthan and other North Indian states should not fool us to think that this madness is an all-India phenomenon. That the cow has been sacred for scores of Hindus since time immemorial, cannot be denied. In the colonial period, organisations such as the Arya Samaj were at the forefront of cow protection campaigns, of which many Congressmen were active participants. P.D. Tandon, Chaudhry Charan Singh, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, all senior Congressmen were leading these campaigns, which essentially started in Punjab and spread to other North Indian states. Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the founder of the Gita Press, in a letter dated 5 August 1947 to Acharya Kripalani, a senior Congressman who later went on to be elected from the Kisan Majdoor Praja party for four successive terms, wrote that Hindus were responsible for sending cows to slaughterhouses, and expressed his happiness that Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly had received thousands of letters calling for a ban on cow slaughter. To argue today that this demand is new is to ignore the fact that this movement garnered momentum in the aftermath of partition. Partition was, however, an extraordinary situation, where mobilisation along community and religious lines was at its peak. What is happening today is unprecedented. Gandhi, Nehru and other leaders received thousands of letters during August-September 1947, asking them to declare cow slaughter illegal and for punishment with transportation for life. 

However, the organisations making these demands were neither violent nor aggressive, where this demand was concerned. They demanded a ban, not death penalty and that is the fundamental difference. Stringent laws are bound to get a tougher response, the beef fest is an illustration of this. The directives of the UP government and its officers, especially senior police officers are setting a bad precedent. UP, a state known to be notorious, is vowing to protect cows with strict laws at a time when it is grappling with violence in the western districts. This raises fundamental questions that cannot be ignored. It is not a question of cow slaughter, but a question of the livelihood and criminalising thousands of poor and middle income farmers who rely on livestock to fill their stomach. Cow, mandir and masjid are not merely tools for the political class. The demand for a ban on cow slaughter all-India is growing by the day. It is being made by the man on the street, without going into the dynamics of the debate or the problem. The news of the arrest of 15 people in connection with injecting oxytocin in buffaloes for increasing milk production should be an eye-opener for gau-rakshaks. What about that thousands of farmers who dump cows and buffaloes on the roads and mandis when the bovines become economically unviable?

Many farmers and cattle traders in UP and Delhi have given up the trade or shut down slaughterhouses for want of licences, which are not available readily. They have already surrendered their space. That should be worrying enough, especially in UP, which grapples with economic and social backwardness of a different level. The violence exhibited by farmers in Madhya Pradesh against the district magistrate and senior district officers should worry us all. It is challenge to all forms of authority and order, which is a signal of the tough times ahead.

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