This Matter Of Beef

This Matter Of Beef

Our current silly laws on cow slaughter must be changed. They neither protect the animal nor the dairy farmer.

Narinder Singh Sarila writes in his autobiography that he and a few other Maharajas bumped into the famous Ranjitsinhji in a London restaurant. The Prince of Cricket was merrily chewing up a delicious steak. His fellow princes protested that the great Ranji was eating beef. Ranjitsinhji turned around and told them that eating the meat of an English cow was perfectly acceptable. Apparently, only the Indian cow is holy! This story has now acquired an apocryphal quality and is attributed to various persons in similar situations.

The modern Hindoo (I use the spelling advisedly) position on the holy cow and on beef remains a puzzle. Hindoos are not vegans. They happily breed cows. They consume milk and dairy products. They inflict pretty gruesome violence on bulls when they castrate them and turn the animals into bullocks. But suddenly when it comes to killing cows (even humanely, with a minimum of pain), even those which are no longer milk-producing, Hindoos get all worked up. And the very thought of eating beef, gives some of them nightmares.

Mind you, one can never generalize about Hindoos. Many castes and tribes, who may or may not be nominally Hindoo, depending on your point of view, have apparently, traditionally eaten beef. In any event, since buffalo meat is acceptable (buffalos being even ritually sacrificed by some Hindoos), there is obviously some leeway. Others would call it a loophole to surreptitiously sell and consume the forbidden flesh of the holy cow.

As far as so-called traditions are concerned, the debate is endless. Left-wing historians are usually emphatic that Vedic Hindus ate the meat of cows. Such statements leave their Hindutvic counterparts sputtering with rage. To my knowledge, no one has countered the fact that Bhavabhuti in his Uttara-Rama-Charita makes reasonably casual and unexceptional reference to the consumption of beef. Bhavabhuti, may have had an Austrian friend——for he shows some preference for veal (the meat from young cattle)! While we have to concede that Bhavabhuti does not have the canonical authority of Valmiki, Kamban or Tulsi, one cannot dismiss his work as some sinister orientalist forgery. It is there and we need to accept it gracefully, if we wish or without grace, if we must.

Some facts would be amusing, if they were not grotesque. Hindoos will object to the killing of old cows, which are past their economic dairy value. If they are really that concerned, should they not be buying up these animals at a fair market value, mind you, and taking care of them? That of course is not the preferred option. They do run some shelters for aged cows, but the previous owners have to deposit the cows for free. In any event, clearly we do not have enough shelters.

So economically useless animals are allowed to graze anywhere. They degrade the grasslands on the peripheries of forests and they invite predator-human conflict in the process. In urban India, they wander around leaving dung in the middle of streets, holding up our already chaotic traffic and rather pathetically eating up the ubiquitous plastic bags that litter our sidewalks and the occasional garbage bin that our great municipalities choose to set up. Once they eat plastic, their intestines get ripped apart and they die a slow and what must surely be a very agonizing death. But there is no public reaction to this cruelty which at least to me seems more fiendish than a quick, humane killing.

The economics are simply so compelling that I am surprised one even needs to make the case. Any asset (and a domesticated animal, since Mesopotamian times has been viewed as an asset) automatically becomes a less attractive investment if it loses its residual value. To expect a farmer to actually incur a cash flow outage, to maintain an animal which has ceased to produce sufficient income, is to live in an Alice in Wonderland world. And despite all the talk about cow’s urine or dung yielding value, the fact of the matter is that the farmer is financially better off by selling an old cow or bull.

If we continue with our present set of silly laws, the Indian farmer may abandon the cow entirely. In fifty years, we may have only domesticated buffalos—a prospect that may actually result in less controversy and violence in our outlandish country! Have we ever thought about that?

From a nutrition point of view, some would argue that we have space for equivocation. In protein-deficient India, to keep old cows and bulls alive at a high cost and deprive people of much needed protein seems on the face of it a tad stupid. We also know that red meat is the best fixer of iron for our blood. In a country which reels from extensive anemia, increased consumption of red meat would go a long way in mitigating this problem.

Again the argument seems difficult to counter. Fortunately or unfortunately, some fifty years ago, cardiologists came to the conclusion that cholesterol was bad and that there is cholesterol in red meat. This came as welcome relief to opponents of beef. Aha——our ancients all along knew about cholesterol. That is why they were against beef. Over the years, the medical fraternity, as has become a habit with them these days, has moved on. Apparently, some cholesterol is good. Apparently the link between diet and cholesterol is a bit tenuous. In any event, excess red meat is not okay; but as of today excess omega acid is okay!

Separately, we are getting curious statistical evidence that the Japanese are growing taller. A few generations of eating red meat has apparently resulted in this. Now we have something new to worry about. If we want to produce tall fast bowlers (and don’t we desperately need them?), perhaps red meat is the way to go.

And of course, we now have this whole new industry of Environmental Consultants, Climate Change Experts, Global Warming Gurus. For what it is worth, they are quite clear. Keeping alive surplus cattle which contribute to the dreaded methane in the environment (Dear Reader: I shall spare you the scatological details) is clearly a very very bad thing as far as Eco friends are concerned. Since it is fashionable these days for the earlier holdout countries like China and India to also take up pious positions on this, than for no other reason than the fact that we are for the environment (I mean who isn’t for the environment—remember the Vedas are all for the environment?), we can make a case for humane culling of old cattle.

Let us come back to aesthetics and ethics which after all are intertwined with religion and politics. The vegan position that exploitation of all higher sentient animals is to be avoided at least has a penumbra of logic around it. I presume even vegans are not in favour of non-violence against infectious bacteria. Taking antibiotics must therefore be acceptable. But breeding sentient animals for milk, meat, leather and so on should be avoided, and as luck would have it, modern technology does provide adequate substitutes.

Some vegans may extend their benign interests to worms and also be against the breeding and exploitation of silkworms for the benefit of humans. But no one in a position of power in contemporary Indian politics or religion has suggested a ban on milk, mutton, chicken or leather. One wonders what then is the moral argument being made.

And then there is the legal case. After all our Constitution is against cow slaughter. And state legislatures (usually unanimously, during the presence of different ruling parties over the years) have passed laws. Is it not correct that these laws should be implemented? Other countries have laws regarding the banning of substances, products and drugs—some of them rational and some of them culture-bound. Would Americans tolerate it if people set up dog-farms and sold dog-meat in America? Why should we always put ourselves down?

It is a tad difficult to deal with these arguments. Our Founding Fathers used various sleights of hand (e.g. Directive Principles) in order not to precipitate unresolvable conflicts in a new Republic. Cows bred for milk are quite different from dogs kept as pets. But that the statute books (including edicts of 19th century Maharajas) support the ban on killing cows and a negative position on beef is simply a fact. It is going to be very difficult to reverse these laws. The answer may involve resorting to even more elaborate sleights of hand—different laws for different states and of course a timely ambiguous and helpful judicial intervention come to mind.

Now let us talk about culture. Ah that extraordinary word. Actually, culture in English is weak. The German “Kultur” spells better, sounds better and I have a sneaking suspicion refers to things that German newspapers wrote about extensively some eighty years ago. The cow is our cultural symbol. Hence an attack on the cow is an attack on our mother. We can forgive many things, but we cannot be silent when our bovine mother is attacked. And all the Bhavabhuti arguments are just nonsense. We have always revered the cow. And this issue is non-negotiable.

Many believe that this is a strong argument. I would argue that this is the weakest. In the 1830-s, one Radhakanta Deb, an eminence gris of Bengal argued vociferously in favor of Sati (or Suttee, if you would indulge me) on the grounds that it was religious and a cultural thing—you know the kind that rulers, particularly foreign rulers should not tamper with.

As it turned out the rulers of the day listened to Ram Mohan who was a precursor of Macaulay-putras. Some seventy years later, a young Maratha Maharaja gave a scholarship to a young Mahar, over-ruling the prevailing Kultur that the student was genetically unworthy of being a scholar. The young student was Bhimrao Ambedakar.

Fast forward a few more decades and a young Maharani “persuaded” Rajput families that their earlier kultur of keeping their women in purdah could and should be abandoned. She opened a school named for herself to educate Rajput girls who had earlier been virtual prisoners. The Maharani’s name was Gayatri Devi.

The point is that if we do not interrogate this dangerous phenomenon of a static heimlich/volkisch kultur (all words used consciously), then we lose the argument by default. A head-on debate and a suggested way cannot be avoided. Variants of Ranji’s arguments coming from people who have experienced the joy of lean grass-fed steak cooked medium rare or a custom-ground medium hamburger run the risk of getting dismissed as those of deracinated Macaulay-putras. And trust me, in contemporary India, not more than a few hundred have heard of Bhavabhuti and most of those who have heard, do not care. So what then is the frontal argument?

Here is a shot:

Clearly, it can be nobody’s case that old cattle should wander around destroying grasslands on the edges of forests and getting themselves killed by leopards. Clearly, it can be nobody’s case that old cattle should wander around towns and cities eating plastic and dying slowly of intestinal hemorrhage. Clearly it can be nobody’s case that a dairy farmer join the ranks of rural bankrupt suicides because he is deprived of his assets.

Therefore the only solution is that while Kultur-advocates are welcome to start shelters and pay at fair market rates for the animals they wish to take care of, the option of supervised, humane culling must also be made available for those animals which they cannot or will not accommodate in their shelters or for whom they cannot or will not pay a fair market price. If we have to change our Kultur, in order to accommodate this, then we will just have to do that.

Just think of Ram Mohan, Sayajirao and Gayatri Devi. My own feeling is that a Private Member’s Bill in our Legislatures might just succeed. I think that the idea of a fair market price for farmers may acquire a life of its own and become unstoppable. While clearly it is easy to take the position that one favors cows over butchers or meat-traders (particularly of a particular persuasion), it might just be impossible to take the political position that one favors cows over hard-working, financial desperate farmers!

This is the only way to go.

The author is the former CEO of MphasiS, and was head of Citibank’s Global Technology Division. He is currently the Chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC), an affordable housing venture.


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