The surest way to defeat the cause of cow protection is to make it illogical and anti-minority in content.
Politically stupid, economically unsustainable, morally and ethically unacceptable and communally dangerous. These are the only phrases to describe the BJP-Sangh approach to the cow, as manifest in the recent rule changes that have had the net effect of indirectly banning cow slaughter. To top it all, we have also seen violent acts by fringe groups that beat up and even kill alleged cow smugglers.
Nothing explains this point as well as the BJP’s own disquiet in states like Kerala and the North-east, where party candidates in local by-elections have been promising cheaper beef, quality beef. It shows the limited political purchase anti-cow slaughter laws find outside the BJP’s traditional base in the northern and western states.
At the outset, it is important to point out that the new rules do not ban cow slaughter at all; they emanate from a Supreme Court directive to prevent cow smuggling across the border, and this has been sought to be done by framing rules under section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The rules, announced last week, try to deal with the problem by seeking to regulate livestock markets. The idea is to restrict trading in livestock only to animals bought for “agricultural purposes”; animals for slaughter have to be bought directly from farms. In short, there is no ban on cow or buffalo slaughter, but the rule change means that procuring cows and other animals legally for slaughter will be tougher than ever. It may well make rogue gau rakshaks even more ubiquitous. (Read this piece here for a good explainer on the issue).
The foolishness of pushing cow protection laws to the extreme must be understood in the context of India’s political geography. The BJP is already dominant in the cow-belt, especially after its tremendous win in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In the East (West Bengal and Odisha) and North-east, and in the South, where it wants to expand its political base, support for anti-slaughter legislation is feeble at best, or non-existent. A majority of self-declared Hindus may not eat beef, but this does not mean they are willing to support what is core politics for the BJP in the Hindi heartland.
Non-vegetarianism is also very strong outside the BJP’s core areas, and any ham-handed attempt to push its ideas with ill-thought-out laws will only recoil on the party. As for tribal areas, where the BJP again wants to capture political space, cow politics is a vote-destroyer.
There is no better way for the BJP to shoot itself in the foot than by following cow-belt policies elsewhere, or by allowing rogue elements to circumscribe its political future by repositioning the party as a violent champion of Hindutva. It is giving Hindutva itself a bad name. Hindutva should be about fighting for Hindu interests in an inclusive and logical way, not with violence.
Cow politics is also economically unsustainable. The cow did not become holy for Hindus in the past only because of religious sentiment. At some point in the ancient past, it became economically very important for the population, both as provider of milk and as draught animal for tilling the land and hauling loads. The utility of cow-dung as fuel and the discovery of medicinal properties in cow urine added to the economic dimensions, and soon almost everything about the cow seemed divine.
After the Islamic invasions, the religious and economic dimensions got disentangled. In some ways, the economics of the cow got enhanced, specially since Muslims may have been more willing to buy cows for slaughter once its milk-yielding years ended. But the religious aspect of conflict worsened, for some Islamists used cow slaughter to humiliate Hindus – a job now taken up by the Left in India, or even the Congress, with one Youth Congress man in Kerala slaughtering a calf in a public place to protest the centre’s new rules.
At a subtle level, with many states banning cow slaughter, a wink-and-a-nod relationship has existed between Hindu farmers and Muslim butchers. There is a synergy of interests between people who are unwilling to kill cows and those who are. The cow economy - till the gau rakshaks went berserk - is thus complete from birth to butchery.
Today, in the age of farm mechanisation, we don’t need cows to farm. Chemical fertilisers have replaced animal dung, though it may still find new uses in organic farming. The buffalo has supplanted the cow as an efficient provider of milk, not to speak of cross-breeds that offer higher yields for longer periods of time. Cow urine is still used in Ayurvedic medicine, and as there is a revival of interest in this area of healthcare, there could be some hope here. But the farmer derives less from a cow than before, and not allowing cow slaughter – either covertly or overtly – means farmers will slowly stop rearing cows. The anti-cow slaughter laws, in fact, probably are hastening the demise of many Indian cow breeds. A doubling of farm incomes can happen more easily with buying buffaloes, which offer higher-fat milk, than cows.
Put another way, without thinking through an end-to-end economic model revolving around the cow, the government is effectively destroying the case for cow protection. This is the surest way to destroy whatever residual religious feeling the average Hindu may have for the cow. The Hindu may not eat beef, but he will not always pay for the upkeep of an animal that is all cost and trouble after a certain age. Religion works best when it aligns itself with the economic and psychic interests of man.
Then there is the case of moral regression brought about by mindless violence against fellow humans. It can be nobody’s case that violence to protect the cow is acceptable in any society. It can again be nobody’s case that vigilante groups can take law into their own hands, often running thinly disguised protection rackets disguised as gau raksha. Though the Prime Minister has criticised these self-styled gau rakshaks, he has not really sent a clear signal to his state governments that they must act strongly against such elements.
Sure, citizens can help governments prevent illegal cow slaughter, but this can only be as verbal whistle-blowers, not private law enforcers. Effectively, this means states are abdicating their responsibility to enforce the law. Nothing brings down the moral validity of a cow protection law more than allowing violent groups to take advantage of it for their own private benefit. Not only that, these groups make genuine gau sevaks look like criminals. When criminal elements call the shots, what is left of morality or state authority?
The real hypocrisy lies in states legislating cow protection laws to humour Hindu sentiments, and then doing nothing to enforce them, thus allowing corruption in illegal cow smuggling and slaughter. It suits politicians to benefit from both a vote bank, and a note bank.
There are many Hindu causes that are legitimate, which BJP governments at centre and states can pursue without damaging some other group’s livelihood or interests. Among them: repealing the Right to Education Act, or making it more balanced communally, rescuing temples from state control and handing them over to control by genuine devotees, amending articles 25-30 to ensure that majority institutions get as much autonomy as minority ones, and facilitating a more nuanced view of Indian history by promoting genuine Hindu intellectuals to research our ancient past. There is no need to whitewash the Islamic period of Indian history by airbrushing its violent iconoclasm and anti-Hindu biases. What stops a BJP government from sanctioning Rs 500-1,000 crore for creating an Indic intellectual rival to the Left citadel of JNU? Calling those who shout “Bharat ke tukde tukde” anti-national is one thing, but has the BJP shown its own pro-national side by being positive on valid Hindu concerns?
We see no action on this front whatsoever. This leaves one with the suspicion that cow-protection is a placebo to deal with Hindu sentiments, something unreal.
And it is the surest way to communal disharmony. If we start kicking away the livelihood support of those who depend on buffalo slaughter, and start harassing people involved in the meat trade, how is it possible to prevent Muslims from thinking that they are being targeted? What message are we sending to Kashmiri Muslims, who will see this as one more reason to seek secession? In the past, genuine Hindu-Muslim amity was fostered by local agreements favouring non-slaughter of the cow, and banishing pork from the dinner plate. It is this kind of compromise on two religious sensitivities that created harmony, not the insertion of words like “secularism” into the constitution.
Improving communal harmony means the BJP should be trying to bridge the divide between the two communities, not fanning the flames of mistrust further. The anti-cow slaughter brigade is now being used to deliberately drive a wedge. It is not that “secular” parties have not done the same on the Muslim side – as Mamata Banerjee and the Left have been doing – but why should the BJP be playing the same dangerous game on the Hindu side? It is one thing to call out minoritarianism, quite another to fan majority bigotry.
This is not the say that the case of the cow needs to be dumped. Far from it. But the case for it must be built on larger economic, ethical and environmental grounds.
It is now well-established that excessive consumption of red meat and beef is causing more damage to the ozone layer than cars. There is a strong case for the world to eat less animal products, and not just red meat. It will end poverty and malnutrition faster than any other food subsidy, for food meant for humans is now going to feed animals for slaughter.
Health is another issue that is linked to excess consumption of animal-based diets. As a nation grows richer, its consumption of high-protein diets worsens health rather than improves it - as obese Americans are discovering with their red-meat-oriented eating habits. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “excess protein has been linked with osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers.” While a small quantity of higher-protein meat diet is useful for traditionally-malnourished people, without the right balance of plant foods, they too will be storing up medical trouble.
It is possible to make a case for cow protection, since indigenous breeds are dying out slowly due to their lower milk-yielding capacities. One justification for allowing jallikattu, the Tamil Nadu bull-taming sport involving some animal cruelty, was that it allowed a specific species of bull to be raised, thus improving biodiversity. The same argument of biodiversity can be used to give incentives for protecting indigenous breeds of cows.
It is also possible to make a case against excessive slaughter, especially mindless slaughter, not only of the cow, but all animals. The ritual slaughter of millions of goats on Bakri-Id, and the slaughter of turkeys for Thanksgiving are two cultural/religious rituals that are unacceptable. Some ritual symbolism is fine, but mass killings of animals for religious purposes is an idea whose time is gone. Rearing of animals in cages and their transport in unhygienic conditions is also an ethical malpractice worth fighting against. Cruelty to animals is no longer any more acceptable than cruelty to humans.
If you are looking to fuse anti-cow slaughter with a Hindu vote bank, there are ways to achieve both ends without causing a social divide. For example, you could conflate the fight to wrest control of Hindu temples from the state with the need to funnel temple surpluses to run goshalas, creating gobar gas plants, and running schools.
The surest way to defeat the cause of cow protection is to make it illogical and anti-minority in content. The BJP has found a surefire way to give the opposition new ways to unite and try to defeat it in 2019. Trying to legislate what ought to be left to individual states also militates against true federalism, which Modi champions.
The Prime Minister should step in before the bandwagon for his removal in 2019 gathers steam. No one’s interests – not least the BJP’s - will be served by making the cow the animal that divides India. Hindus have reverent feelings for the cow because it supported Indic civilisation in its first attempt at greatness. It would be a pity if the same cow is used to destroy this greatness through petty political nonsense.