Safety of cows, sacrifice of minorities: cow vigilantism in India

Safety of cows, sacrifice of minorities: cow vigilantism in India

In a new regime that protects the welfare of cattle, the Indian government overlooks the safety and livelihood of its minorities, argues Pawan Singh

Restrictions on buying and selling cows and other cattle in open livestock markets in India began in May 2017 when the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change implemented the Supreme Court directive.

It followed a writ petition filed in 2014 by animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi of People for Animals. She wanted to prevent the cruel treatment of animals being transported across state borders in cramped conditions and subjected to physical constrictions like taping of udders.

The new rules do not necessarily ban cattle slaughter. They create a regulatory framework for the prevention of cruelty to animals that ensures the sale and purchase of cattle through proper documentation and within state-registered markets.

Cattle for slaughter cannot be purchased from agricultural and livestock markets but can be sourced directly from farms. It makes any transaction involving cows and cattle potentially suspect.

Concerns for animal welfare, for environmental impacts of cattle trade and regulation of markets may appear fairly straightforward and appeal to our humanitarian instinct towards innocent animals. Yet the human-animal connection in India goes beyond the simple rules of ownership and consumption.

Traditional notions of worship, sacredness and divinity are attached to certain animals such as the cow, as well as rituals of sacrifice and sport among various Hindu communities across India. Globally, India may have the popular image of a vegetarian nation, but the social reality is far complex with diverse histories of diets, cuisines and gastronomic aversions and affinities. Questions of economics are equally crucial to this debate in which stakeholders from all socio-economic strata are anxious about the long-term implications of the new rules.

Cow vigilantism

All this is further compounded by ongoing cow vigilantism by certain Hindu groups who invariably tend to target religious and caste minorities, that is, the Dalits and the Muslims.

While the cow has a steadfast presence in temples, on agricultural fields and in the midst of road traffic in India, it is also a big part of the Muslim dietary regime, which has enriched India’s food cultures for centuries.

The new regulations on cow and cattle slaughter and its varied political, socioeconomic and cultural implications must be understood in light of Narendra Modi and the rise to power of his National Democratic Alliance in 2014. Following his election, the western state of Maharashtra was the first to impose a beef consumption ban in 2015, a ruling that was amended by the Bombay High Court to exclude the consumption of beef imported from outside Maharashtra. Nevertheless, the ban has adversely affected the Muslims, for whom beef consumption is part of religious celebrations such as Eid and Ramadan, the restaurants that serve beef and poor farmers.

Cow protection has emboldened lumpen individuals to unleash a militant brand of cow-vigilantism

What must be kept in mind is that laws banning cow slaughter existed in many states before the NDA returned to the political centre in 2014. But the ruling party’s nationalist cultural agenda of cow protection has emboldened lumpen individuals to unleash a militant brand of cow-vigilantism in various parts of the nation.

Militant attitudes towards Muslims were obvious in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in 2015 when a Muslim farm worker by the name of Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a Hindu mob after he was accused of eating and storing beef in his fridge. The meat was subsequently sent for forensic testing and turned out to be mutton of goat progeny, but a further test report concluded it was beef.

The latter test came eight months later, coinciding miraculously in 2016 with election preparations in UP by all major parties including the BJP.

Violence was also directed at Dalit cow-skinning workers in Gujarat in 2016. Skinning of animal carcasses is dirty work exclusively assigned to Dalits who have remained at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India. Seven members of the lower caste group were beaten up and robbed by a vigilante mob for skinning dead cows in the town of Una. The incident led to protests and violence in the state as Dalits dumped truckloads of carcasses in front of government offices in the town of Surendranagar.

Hindus who consider cow to be their mother got a fitting retort from the Dalits this time: Your mother, you perform the final rites.

Heated public debate

This year, the new rules have only fanned the heated public debate on cow slaughter, beef consumption and violation of fundamental rights to life and livelihood enshrined in the Indian constitution.

In an opinion piece in the Indian Express, Arvind P. Datar delineates the long history of legal regulation of the slaughter of cattle. Back in 1959, the Supreme Court upheld the economic rights of the Qureshi community, Muslim butchers in UP and Bihar. Since then, the legal question of cow and cattle slaughter has not receded from the public view but has acquired a vociferous, violent dimension since NDA came to power.

Rajasthan is the latest state to witness another death, a dairy farmer this time. Pehlu Khan was returning to his home state of Haryana with cattle bought with legitimate documents. Under the new rules, these documents should have allowed him to travel safely. Despite producing purchase documents and being within legal bounds, Pehlu Khan became an inevitable victim of cow vigilantism. The Pehlu Khan murder has affected business adversely, according to the testimonies of cattle traders in the Hindustan Times who reported the cattle market empty of buyers.

Not all Indian states are on board with the new rules. The north-eastern states where beef is widely consumed have protested the ban for undermining their way of life and food culture. In the southern state of Kerala, political parties, except the BJP, organised beef festivals. A youth Congress worker slaughtered a bullock in public view and distributed the meat before the police charged him with causing nuisance and violating public order.

New rules in world’s second largest exporter of beef are at odds with cultural diversity and right to life and livelihood of its citizens

The Indian government may be well-intentioned in taking up the noble cause of animal welfare. But it must go the next step to ensure the safety and economic security of minority communities, as well as take steps to punish cow vigilantism that is, without a doubt, both illegal and extra-legal.

In the world’s second largest exporter of beef—India’s beef exports in 2016 accounted for 20 percent of the world’s share at $4 billion—the new rules are at odds with the cultural diversity and right to life and livelihood of Indian citizens.

Discrepancies between the word of law and its interpretation or disregard by vested interests will continue. It has been the case since India became independent. However, the math of distributing justice fails when one considers the disproportionate amount of violence suffered by India’s minorities in their daily lives.

As it endeavours to safeguard animals, the government must not sacrifice its social minorities.

Featured image: Cow stroker in Varanasi, India Photo: Wen-Yan King Wikimedia Commons

Dr Pawan Singh is a New Generation Network scholar in contemporary history at Deakin University and the Australia India Institute, University of Melbourne.

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