Cow slaughter was first banned in Maharashtra in 1976, during the Emergency. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena alliance extended the ban to bulls and oxen in 1995, a legislation which finally received presidential assent last week (which still exempts buffaloes). It was misguided then, and it remains problematic now, but it is the law in the state. An activist in Mumbai has now challenged the law in a public interest litigation.

It is wrong not only because many livelihoods are dependent on it. It is wrong not only because most Indians are not vegetarians. It is wrong not only because the sacredness of a cow is a matter of opinion, just as the idea of sacredness is itself an opinion, and laws are best not based on opinions.

It is wrong not only because many Hindus may not eat beef, nor because some do, but because Hindu eating preferences cannot dictate a rule for all Indians.

Nor is it wrong merely because in ancient times Hindus ate beef, as Dwijendra Narayan Jha’s 2002 book, The Myth of the Holy Cow reminds us, and as it is trotted out each time this controversy resurfaces.

Maharashtra’s ban draws legitimacy from a directive principle of state policy, found in Article 48 of the Constitution, which says: “The State shall endeavour to…prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle."

Here is a fine example of a directive principle clashing with a fundamental right, the freedom to practice any trade or occupation.

Indeed, many livelihoods—of butchers primarily, but also transport companies and restaurants, as well as the leather industry of Dharavi (whose informal economy is estimated to be over $500 million)—will be adversely affected. India became the world’s biggest exporter of beef in 2012, and at $4 billion, beef exports rank higher than any other commodity in India’s agricultural export basket. That business will move out of Maharashtra.

Even if it is the case that most Indians may not eat beef, most Indians are certainly not vegetarians. According to the State of the Nation Survey in 2006 conducted by The Hindu and CNN-IBN, a poll of 14,680 Indians in 883 villages and cities and 19 states showed that only 31% of Indians are vegetarians (and only 21% of entire families are vegetarian), and another 9% eat eggs, but not meat.

Being a non-vegetarian does not mean you would eat any meat. Muslims and Jews won’t eat pork, and many others avoid a range of animals or fish for their own reasons, including allergy or personal taste.

If Maharashtra bans beef because it offends the sensibility of many Hindus, why not also ban pork, which offends the sensibilities of most Muslims and Jews? Why do cows deserve more protection than other animals?

In fact, why not go further, and outlaw all meat eating, since it offends the sensibilities of Jains, some Buddhists and some Hindus? (Whether such a hypothetical—and ridiculous—ban should extend to potatoes and onions would depend on how important Jains are as a vote bank).

Like the Hindus and Jains in Gujarat who surreptitiously leave their homes at night to that ill-lit stall down the lane where someone whips up a nice omelette that they can eat quietly without their parents or neighbours finding out, many Hindus may have quietly eaten beef, even though they may not admit it openly.

When abroad, many rules are broken, and I have seen Indians I know to be vegetarians enjoying their steaks and burgers, feigning ignorance or claiming that the restriction on beef only applies to Indian cows.

Jha’s book is right in pointing out that ancient India didn’t have rules prohibiting eating beef.

There were many wonderful things in ancient India: homosexuality was not criminalized; alcohol wasn’t prohibited; there were probably far greater personal and sexual freedoms; and art and literature were not banned. (As the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra pointed out mischievously, making Sanskrit compulsory in schools would be a good thing because of the exposure children would get to erotic poetry.)

Obnoxious sections of the Indian Penal Code such as 295A and 153A weren’t there in ancient India either. But that is not the ancient India that the current dispensation wants to celebrate.

They want to create an India that looks like the one in the late 19th century, when India was a subject nation of a Western power, when restrictive laws were made and personal freedoms curbed. India had an iron age once; this is the age of irony.

Nobody should be forced to eat—or avoid eating—beef.

The reason the beef ban is wrong is because many Indians want to eat beef and they should have the right to do so. Those Indians certainly include Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Sikhs, but also some Hindus, perhaps some Jains and Buddhists too, and of course, many others who refuse to be categorized by any religion.

All of them are Indians; Maharashtra comprises people from all these faiths and none.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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