India’s Mad Cow Disease

T.S Eliot while rejecting the manuscript of the ‘Animal Farm’ concluded that it might lead people to believe that what was required was ‘more public-spirited pigs’. Eventually, Secker & Warburg chose to publish the book, immortalizing the Orwellian Phrase, ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than the others’.

It seems that the hellish approach in protecting our bovine lot has led many to conclude that what is needed is a much more public-spirited group of protectors. Every few weeks, there is an incident of vigilante justice being meted out to individuals who may or may not be violating the law. Clearly, cows are more equal than the other, even more than their coalish cousin buffaloes that were not appropriately deified in mythology to deserve enough protection.

The cow slaughter debate has four facets, legal, religious, economics, and the less highlighted environment and health. To begin with, the less highlighted meat of cow is termed as red meat due to its reddish appearance after medium cooking. For the past few years, the link between consuming red meat and contracting cardiovascular diseases and cancer has been increasingly highlighted in researches. Last year, the World Health Organisation came out with a study that the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100-gram portion of red meat eaten daily. Cultivating cows for meat and other dairy product also bears an impact on the environment; the bovine agriculture produces 18% of all greenhouse gases emission from human activities far ahead of transportation which constitutes 14% of the emissions. The rearing of cattle for consumption requires an exorbitant amount of water, for example, to produce a pound of beef in the US one would require 2,500 gallons of water. Health and environment as a rationale for controlling beef production in India can find a common cause among both the left and right, but it is seldom invoked by either side.

As far as religion is concerned, the imagery of a saintly and beatific cow beside a pied piper Krishna is endemic in Hinduism. For its dairy products, especially consumable milk, the cow has been granted the status of ‘mata’ (mother) in Hindu culture. The cow is also referred to as ‘Kamdhenu’ for its numerous by-products that have an agricultural application like cow dung for manure and stove-fuel fulfilling many human needs. Not all, however, consign themselves to this imagery as argued by the left. Beef act as a cheap source of protein for the lower caste and is a part of their dietary habits. Furthermore, the Muslim minority in India has no such religious conscriptions and therefore argues that it shouldn’t be made to subscribe to a majoritarian view. Prof. D.N Jha has also written extensively about how beef used to be a part of the diet of Vedic civilizations but got restricted post-Mauryan age (influence of Jainism and Buddhism?).

However, Religious and cultural imagery as a propellant for environmental and humanitarian intervention has been a long tradition in India and was favored by the left just as much as preached by right now today. A prime example would that of Chipko movement wherein women tied sacred threads to trees on Raksha Bandhan, much earlier in Rajasthan’s Khejarli village more than three hundred villagers gave up their lives protecting the Khejri trees which they considered to be scared. Much of these struggles are dearer to left more than the right. The shifts in Hindu tradition from being consumers of the cow to protectors have occurred long enough to now grant it as a vital tenet of the religion. Prof. Jha’s attempts to alienate the practice from the religion now are limited to an academic debate rather than a public discourse. The left also sees the issue more than a right to food, it seeks to build a political coalition between the lower castes and the Muslims based on dietary similarities. Often organizing beef parties to infuriate the right, and further politicizing the issue.

As for the Dalits and Muslims, earlier a concession of buffalo meat existed but since 2014 the BJP governments have been implementing an overall ban including buffaloes and bulls and therefore bears the responsibility for supplementing the dietary patterns with other meats to maintain the protein intake bears on them. So far, there has been no action on the exercise of substitution. To dismiss the responsibility by instructions to move to other forms of meats like is shrugging off state responsibility.

As for the economics and legality of the ban, the right often points to article 48 of the constitution which seeks to protect cow and its progeny. However, the directive principle of state policy is based on economic consideration and not religious. That doesn’t mean that there were no religious motivations behind it, a look at constituent assembly debates reveal that the motivation was just as much religious and Nehru and Ambedkar had to assuage those sentiments and veil them behind an economic terminology. Congress’s very own Seth Govind Dasand and Rajendra Prasad had them bent to ensure that constitution gave some protection to the bovine lot. Even socialist leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan wrote to Indira Gandhi advocating a ban on cow slaughter, though by then Jayaprakash himself had begun tilting towards the right-wing Jan Sangh.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of a complete ban on cow slaughter that it to include bulls and buffaloes in State of Gujarat v. Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat. But here too, while agreeing with the economic rationale of cow’s never diminishing utility in terms of it dung fuel, manure, and biogas, Chief Justice Lahoti mentioned the religious significance of cows in Hindu mythology.

In a perfect secular state, it would have been inadvisable for the state to legislate and intervene in the matters of religion. But ours is imperfect and to borrow from Guha, a ’50-50 secular state’. We provide subsidies, grants, fund, aid, and relaxations in one way or the other to almost all religions. The expectations of suddenly erecting a wall when it comes to cow slaughter are idealistic. But legislations rather than giving teeth to the police gives it to the vigilante fundamentalists, some of the laws are also highly irrational if juxtaposed with the state of the economy. For example, Haryana law proposes setting up of laboratories for forensic testing cow meat when we often have to take forensic help from foreign countries in our criminal investigations (Sunanda Pushkar). It also proposes to have retiring houses for cows that are well past the milking age and dedicated police to protect cows. Also, it only protects indigenous cows throwing the animal right argument out of the window.

Talking about economics, India is currently the largest exporter of beef, the pink industry stands at $4.2 billion a year. It has to give tertiary employment to numerous other industries like leather which employs at least 2.5 million people. The red-tapism in granting licenses has also led the sector to function in an unhygienic and unregulated way which is further harming the environment and are now being urgently closed down. The cost of environmental degradation it produces, however, and the cost of cleaning it up hasn’t been even given due space and not have been contemplated and calculated in the entire debate.

A logical way out would have been to allow the illegal slaughterhouses to adapt to standards set by the government in a time-bound manner, providing protection to cows that have agricultural value and providing assistance to people maintaining retiring shelters for cows. All this supplemented by an enthusiastic campaign on vegetarianism, the likes of Swachh Bharat. Blanket bans and appealing to sentiments would only lead to continued bovine misery which are then left to fend for themselves after they stop producing milk.


Anuj Aggarwal


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