Milking the cow, politically, in India

So why is the BJP-led central government pushing for a nation-wide ban? In one word: politics, writes Rashmi Saksena for South Asia Monitor

Jun 10, 2017
By Rashmi Saksena
Right wing politicians in India have started to milk the cow again, after five decades. On November 7, 1966, a Member of Parliament from the Bhartiya Jana Sangh (precursor of the Bhartiya Janata Party) collected hundreds of sadhus (Hindu ascetics) and laid siege on Parliament. Their demand was a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The agitation turned violent and seven people died in police firing in New Delhi. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sacked her Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda.
Indira Gandhi later constituted a committee to study the demand to end cow slaughter in India. M S Golwalkar, who then headed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological father of the BJP, was a member of the committee. Interestingly the committee never submitted its recommendations on the ban proposal and was finally wound up around 12 years later.
The scenario today is completely different from what it was when the sadhus surrounded Parliament. Now the BJP is in power. It leads the National Democratic Alliance government. 
On May 23 the government issued a notification banning sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets. The states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Tripura and Meghalaya have refused to accept the notification. Incidentally, slaughtering a cow for meat for food is banned, or permitted with strict riders, in all except those five states of India.
So why is the BJP-led central government pushing for a nation-wide ban? In one word: politics. The ban on cow slaughter meshes with BJP’s Hindutva ideology and its political strategy of polarizing the majority community and minorities, especially the Muslims. 
Killing of the cow, held sacred by the Hindus, can be easily turned into an emotional issue with aggressive Hindu nationalist rhetoric. It is also being used as an instrument to bring economic suffering to owners (mostly Muslims) of slaughter houses and eateries that serve beef. At the same time the ban notification fills the Hindu fundamentalist constituency of the BJP with a sense of victory and power. It is yet another signal for cow vigilantes to run amuck.
BJP leaders justify the notification by pointing out that prohibition of cow slaughter is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. It is however not an enforceable fundamental right but is part of the Directive Principles of State Policy, a set of principles to guide policymaking, which cannot be enforced in any court. This Directive Principle (Article 48 of the Constitution) did not include the question of religious sentiments; nor did it require the state to ban cow slaughter outright. Instead, Article 48 says the state shall “organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
Those championing the ban on cow slaughter ignore section 11 (e) of The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, amended in 1982, which allows killing of animals for food for mankind.
Beef is food for Muslims and Christians across India. A wedding feast in the northeastern states of the country is not complete without beef on the table. For many, beef is the inexpensive meat they can have on their menu. 
Is the BJP using the ban on cow slaughter as another means to impose its beliefs on those who are not supporters? Critics see the notification just in this light.   
Interestingly, India is the world’s number one exporter of beef. As much as 23.5% of global exports of beef in 2014-15 were from India. Only 30% of cattle culled are used for meat consumed locally or exported; 70% of the carcass is traded for industries that manufacture soap, toothpaste, button, paint brush and surgical skein. 
(The author is a veteran political commentator)

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