The murder of a Muslim man, Pehlu Khan, by thuggish gau rakshaks, in Rajasthan’s Alwar district is yet another signal to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that if it does not get its cow politics under control, things will get out of hand. Khan was presumed to be transporting cows illegally, and was set upon by a vigilante group. He died of injuries in hospital. Last year, another Muslim, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched to death in Dadri by a mob that suspected he had slaughtered a calf.
The problem is not the Hindu reverence for the cow, or the BJP/Sangh parivar’s keenness to eliminate illegal cow slaughter in India. Rather, it has not thought through the consequences of trying to implement its beliefs in the wrong way. It is perfectly all right to ban cow slaughter, which can be justified both based on widespread religious sensitivities and economics. If you can ban alcohol or smoking, both of which contravene the citizen’s right to make his own choices, banning one form of bovine meat is hardly outrageous.
But here’s the point: the cow is an economic animal, with its own lifecycle. It has a parasitical phase when it is a calf, a useful phase when it yields milk, urine and dung, and a declining phase when it is a burden on those who own it. Its economic value is diminished if towards the end of its useful life it is not killed or handed over to someone who is willing to take care of it. Even assuming Hindus believe that the cow must live upto the end of its normal life, there are questions to be asked about who will bear the cost when the cow is a burden, and what is to be done with the carcass after normal death. Should it be cremated like in the case of humans, or allowed to be cut up for its leather and other useful body parts.
Different communities – Hindus, Muslims and the weaker sections of society – play useful roles during this lifecycle, so the problem isn’t the ban on cow slaughter, but a refusal to have answers to questions about who plays what role in the cow’s lifecycle.
While Hindus may avoid eating beef, they have had an unstated wink-and-a-nod relationship with Muslims, who often buy the animal when its useful life is coming to an end and lead it to slaughter. Hindus know that cows may be headed for the abattoir, but prefer to avoid thinking about it. Their conscience shuts down once they have sold the animal. This is one reason why it is the Dalits and Muslims who are seen transporting cows for slaughter.
This is where gau rakshaks, especially those vigilante groups that are merely looking for extortion or trouble, enter the picture. Many such groups exist only to collect a booty for letting animals be transported; others may be more motivated by genuine religious belief that cows should not be killed, and are willing to do violence in pursuit of their beliefs.
Both sets of gau rakshaks are problematic for the Narendra Modi government and the rule of law. It is one thing for gau rakshaks to inform the police about illegal slaughter, quite another to take the law into their own hands.
If this kind of lawlessness has to be avoided – it can only hinder the Modi government in implementing its sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan – the BJP must evolve a policy on cow protection from birth to death.
As Ashok Gulati and Smriti Verma wrote in a recent Indian Express op-ed, the choice is not cow or development, but “development with cow”. What they mean is that proper animal husbandry policies involving support for dairy farming will help Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) farmers overcome acute poverty faster. This is what they wrote: “Our research shows that this (reduction of poverty) can be achieved by putting the cow (dairy) in the lead role; this will assure incomes to farmers and provide employment to 70 per cent or more of the female workforce. It can also cut down rural poverty very fast. So, we are looking at ‘development with the cow’ – and not ‘cow over development’. UP’s dairy sector requires more milk processing units immediately. The state’s new Chief Minister should invite Amul and private sector dairies, tap NABARD funds for dairy development and set up several medium-sized plants to process at least 30 per cent of UP’s milk production in the next five years. Current levels of processing through the organised sector are less than 12 per cent – Gujarat, in comparison, processes almost half of its milk through organised dairies. UP is the largest milk producer of the country; it produces 17 per cent (over 25 million tonnes annually). But it has lagged far behind in processing. As a result, farmers don’t get a good price for milk.”
Clearly, banning cow slaughter is not the evil that the TV outrage it has generated seems to suggest.
But Gulati’s ideas are about tapping the cow in its productive phase. What the BJP needs to decide is what to do with the cow when this phase is over, and it becomes old and useless.
It can, for sentimental reasons, decide to provide cow shelters for aged bovines at state cost. If it does not do that, cowherds will sell or let their cows loose on the streets, so that they are not burdened by it. This is how we get into areas which are ripe for vigilantes to extort money or unleash violence on buyers.
The BJP/Sangh should also have a policy on disposing of the carcass after the cow is dead, and flaying or skinning a dead cow and recovering its hide cannot be an objectionable activity. Hundreds of Dalits were out on the streets of Gujarat when a video showed one of them being beaten up for doing just that. This makes no sense – except to phony gau rakshaks.
Another area the Sangh needs clarity on is consumption of buffalo meat. The ban on cow slaughter has made farmers buy buffaloes as a better income option, since they not only produce milk with more fat, but can also be sold for slaughter at the right price. Assaulting buffalo transporters or closing buffalo slaughter houses – assuming they have a valid licence – is thus capable of ruining farm economics.
A related problem is the one of separating cow meat from buffalo meat. It is not easy for ordinary people to figure this out just by looking at the flesh in front of them. Gau rakshaks may thus be beating up people even if they have done no wrong.
The BJP and its state governments must clearly rein in the gau rakshaks even while evolving a more coherent policy on cow protection and enforcing the anti-slaughter legislation. At best gau rakshaks can serve as police informers; the job of enforcement must be left to the forensic labs and the police.
Preventing cow slaughter does not mean licensing human slaughter, even if murder was not intended by the gau rakshaks who killed Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan.
(This copy corrects a line at the end of the first para about the killing of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri.)
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