In the year 2015, Maharashtra’s state legislature passed a law prohibiting the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks, the trade, sale and purchase of these bovine animals outside the state for slaughter, and the conscious possession of the meat of such animals from Maharashtra. Before this ban was introduced, little did people think that eating beef would become a form of protest in itself. But, it did. In Kerala, beef was cooked in the open and Hindus and Muslims sat together for a meal, in a remarkable sign of fraternal religious co-existence. Groups in Kolkata and Hyderabad also organized ‘beef festivals’, marking the inception of a new form of protest to oppose state-sponsored dietary prescriptions.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017 notified by the central government recently is in the same vein as the 2015 Maharashtra legislation. Rule 22 puts down the prohibition in express terms – the Animal Market Committee established under the rules must procure an undertaking from the purchaser of bovine animals that they have been bought for “agricultural purposes” only and not for “slaughter”. Unsurprisingly, the move set off a surge of ‘beef fests’ in Kerala and elsewhere in the country, and the voices are louder this time around because the rules are not restricted to one particular state but are applicable across the country.
The rhetoric behind the protests in both 2015 and 2017 has been the same – that food choices do not warrant state intervention. Additionally, the Kerala government may have also been the first to vociferously oppose the ban simply based on economics. Beef consumption and trade in the state are high. It is estimated that the annual sales of beef in the state stand at 2.5 lakh tonnes and the trade is worth a whopping Rs. 6552 crore. If a Communist-led government does not put its people’s jobs and livelihoods ahead of an arguably unfair set of guidelines, it would be quite ironic, wouldn’t it?
The Kerala government’s response is calculated to move through administrative channels. The Chief Minister of the state has already taken up the issue with the Central Government. He has also called upon Chief Ministers of other states to make a considered move on the issue. After all, it should be a cause for concern for all, because the rules are projected to affect a $14-billion-trade in meat and leather. Moreover, it has significant repercussions for India’s international trade presence, considering that the country accounts for nearly 20% of all the beef exported in the world and is a huge competitor in the meat markets of Australia and Indonesia.
As for the ‘beef fests’ themselves, there is nothing outrageous about them. If anything, the protests are a simple form of civil disobedience (known to yield results in the past). In almost all cities where such fests were organized, beef was cooked in the open and eaten by protesters, with a clear message to the central government to lift the ban. Peaceful protests have always been a beauty of the Indian democracy. However, the slaughter of a calf in the streets of Kannur by Kerala Youth Congress activists was undoubtedly unnecessary, because the incident had tremendous potential of fuelling disruptions in peace and public order during the protests. Yet, an isolated untoward incident should not take away from a protest that has, otherwise, been nothing but an impressive show of resistance.
The protests in Kerala come at a time when “cow vigilantism” is claiming lives across the country and the central government’s rules may easily be interpreted as a free hand by these vigilante groups. A slew of government initiatives, including cow ambulances, cow hostels and a system of ID cards for tracking cows, have made headlines in recent times, only furthering the suspicion about these rules stemming from a Hindu nationalist party’s bovine obsession as opposed to its claims of “animal welfare”. But, the most striking feature of these ‘Kerala beef fests’ has been the lack of a religious undertone – a rare commodity today. Setting aside the fact that beef is practically a secular dish in Kerala, it is heartening to see people of all religions come together to voice their support for the freedom of choice of individuals.
Seth Govind Das, member of the Constituent Assembly of India, had sought to amend the present Article 48 of the Constitution of India to extend its scope to “bulls, bullocks, young stock of genus cow”, in addition to cows. He argued “Cow protection is not only a matter of religion with us; it is also a cultural question. Culture is a gift of history. India is an ancient country; consequently no new culture can be imposed on it. Swaraj will have no meaning for our people in the absence of a culture.” The amendment was rejected. But, one is still left to wonder if this “cultural question” inspired the lawmakers to extend protection to all “cattle” (including cows, bulls, bullocks, buffalos, etc.) in the name of “animal welfare”, despite what the text of Article 48 says.
In any case, the zealous promotion of a religious-majority-dominated “culture” did not sustain the secular fabric of our proposed Constitution then, and cannot sustain it even today. One may even go as far as saying that the same reasons of “culture” and “economics” used by Seth Govind Das in 1949 to ban cow slaughter, can now be used to oppose such a ban. Beef is consumed even by practicing Hindus today. Apart from the economics already pointed out earlier, the rules are also set to adversely affect the Indian farmer. Most farmers do not keep cattle beyond 8-9 years of age. They prefer to sell redundant bovine animals in livestock markets – a large chunk likely for slaughter.
In any case, the strong voices pouring in from Kerala show that the Indian liberal will continue to oppose biased policies and boy oh boy, is that reassuring!
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