Majoritarianism in the name of cattle protection

The National Commission of Cattle’s 2002 report would have gotten a deserving burial but for Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s jubilant announcement on Monday, when the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act received presidential assent. Fadnavis exulted about a long-pending dream having come true, and BJP MP Kirit Somaiya proclaimed that there would be both cultural and economic implications for the state of Maharashtra.

Set up in 2001 by the NDA government in its previous term, this commission was both blessed and spurred into action by Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram, who went on an indefinite fast demanding a complete ban, and stringent criminalisation, of all forms of cow slaughter. Gumman Mal Lodha, who headed the commission, recommended the establishment of a Rapid Cow Protection Force, and prosecution under POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) of anyone caught ferrying or smuggling cattle and its meat within the country, or facilitating the operation of illegal slaughterhouses. The then government had to backtrack and put these recommendations on hold — its legitimacy would have been jeopardised if it enforced the recommendations.

The present amendment — which takes bulls, bullocks, female buffaloes and buffalo calves outside the purview of Schedule 6 of the Act (that list was for animals which could be slaughtered with government permission) and places them in Schedule 5 (that mandates a complete ban, and strict penalties in violation thereof) doesn’t bear as frightening a spectre as that of 2001, but is nevertheless draconian in its scope, and its implementation shall definitely give rise to grave consternation.

Was the amendment (ostensibly meant to protect the cow) borne out of legal necessity and what can be termed as policy-level imperatives? The Bombay Animal Preservation Act of 1948 already prohibits the slaughter of animals useful for milch, breeding or agricultural purposes. If necessary, the authorities can even invoke the Bombay Provincial Municipal Corporation Act, 1949, Section 466 (1) of which allows closure of slaughterhouses which sell meat, either cooked or raw. When it introduced the amendment in 1999, the then Sena-BJP ruling combine had not cited a single study suggesting that the plight of cows required such government and legal intervention. From what is there in the public domain, the present dispensation has done nothing to fill up this lacuna.

Thus, the decision is a purely cultural one a sort of embodiment of religious and upper-caste majoritarianism. Because, prohibition against cow slaughter in general, and the consumption and sale of cattle’s meat and other body parts in particular, have long been used to discriminate, both economically and socially, against Muslims and Dalits. Such pugnacious implementation of cultural triumphalism is abhorrent, but its legal ramifications and other fallouts are far more dangerous.

For one, the strict penalisation of even possession of cattle meat would give a huge impetus to communal vigilantism — something Mumbai is not unaccustomed to. Every year on the eve of Bakri Eid, the police and people of certain areas remain on tenterhooks. Last October, Ahmedabad’s Shahpur area witnessed police firing when a person was killed by a mob that suspected him of smuggling beef. Earlier, in August, some beef was found in a field in Motinagar village in Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur district. A Muslim trader was suspected of cow slaughter, and lynched to death. Could we trust Mumbai Police to prevent such occurrences in our city?

These apart, butchers and meat sellers are also imperilled, and worse, have no legal recourse worth speaking of, because, in 2006, by a 6:1 majority, the Supreme Court upheld a similar Gujarat law. The then Gujarat CM and the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hailed the Mirzapur Moti Qureshi Kassab Jamat verdict as a victory for those who believe in non-violence, and would have a major impact on national life.

A similar helpless situation awaits the community in Mumbai, and the communities for whom beef is part of their staple diet, including Christians, Muslims, Dalits, and a portion of even the Hindu community.

Saurav Datta is associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi, which works towards better policing. You can follow him on Twitter @SauravDatta29

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