Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had attracted the ire of traditionalists when he wrote more than once that the cow is not a divine mother but only a useful animal. “A substance is edible to the extent that it is beneficial to man. Attributing religious qualities to it gives it a godly status. Such a superstitious mindset destroys the nation’s intellect,” he wrote in 1935.
Recent events have not been a good advertisement for the national intellect. The party that pays homage to Savarkar has never come to terms with his modernist rationalism. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Gujarat has amended a state law so that anybody found guilty of cow slaughter will be awarded a life sentence. The chief minister of Chhattisgarh has said that those who kill cows in his state will be hanged. Even acts of homicide or sexual assault do not usually result in the hanging of the guilty.
Meanwhile, there is a massive crackdown on abattoirs by the new state government in Uttar Pradesh, ostensibly targeted at illegal establishments, but clearly trying to hurt the Muslim community that dominates the meat trade. Congress leaders such as Digvijaya Singh have said his party will back a nationwide beef ban—a useful reason to remember that the original laws against cow slaughter were introduced in many states when the Congress was the hegemonic force in Indian politics. This also opens up the possibility of competitive cow politics. And footloose vigilantes have taken it upon themselves to attack any person they believe is harming the sanctity of the cow, even by just throwing a stone at an animal.
There have traditionally been two main arguments in favour of cow protection. First, the cow is the pivot of an agricultural economy. Second, it is central to Hindu religious beliefs. Neither of these two arguments can justify the harsh punishments that are rather casually being talked about.
The economic argument does not survive an empirical test. First, as farming in India becomes increasingly mechanized, the demand for draught cattle in the fields is falling. Second, as milk-producing cows grow old and become unproductive, they become a financial burden on farmers. If farmers cannot sell them off to slaughterhouses, they either abandon the animals or starve them to death.
Third, the rational response by farmers to the ban on cow slaughter has been to prefer buffaloes to cows, as is evident from both the official cattle census as well as price trends in cattle auctions across the country. The economics of an asset totally changes when its terminal value suddenly comes down to zero. Economists such as V.M. Dandekar and K.N. Raj showed many years ago that the factors determining cattle population are not slaughter bans or religious sentiments but the demand for livestock products such as milk and meat as well as the levels of technology used in agriculture.
Indeed, the directive principle of state policy that says cow slaughter should be prohibited is itself derived from the economic argument. Article 48 of the Indian Constitution needs to be read in full: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”
The issue of religious sentiments is a more tricky one. There is ample proof in old religious texts that beef-eating was not uncommon in ancient India. However, that does not necessarily mean that the current generation of Hindus should not worship the cow. There is also the undeniable fact that cow slaughter was one of the flashpoints in medieval India under Muslim rule. The real issue right now is that the state has no right to send someone to jail for killing an animal.
It is also important to remember that beef is one of the cheapest sources of protein. Some 80 million Indians eat either beef or buffalo meat, including 12.5 million Hindus, as shown in an article by Roshan Kishore and Ishan Anand in this newspaper in October 2015, based on their detailed analysis of sample data.
This does not mean that devout Hindus who worship the cow should not voluntarily devote themselves to its protection by setting up gaushalas, or cow shelters, though there simply aren’t enough of these to cater to the growing number of abandoned cattle. The problem lies elsewhere. Bans on the killing of cows are in effect a burden on farmers who own cattle. Punishment for consumption of beef is an attack on the basic Constitutional right of every citizen to live the life she wants to.
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