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Dedicated to “Bharat” and “Dharma”

On Cow Slaughter etc..

This post has been some time in coming – and I am penning my thoughts on something controversial after a long time. It was prompted by the recent decision of government of MP to increase the punishment for cow slaughter. As many of you would know, the issue of cow-slaughter is not a new one.  In fact, the demand for a ban on slaughter of cows is more than a century old – and was first raised in modern times by Swami Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj. It has been suggested that the British inadvertently strengthened the “Cow Protection Movement” by decreeing that the cow is not a sacred animal and can be slaughtered. I have my doubts about this “theory” but here is the reference:

In 1888, a high court in Allahabad ruled that cows are not “sacred” animals as defined in section 295 of the Indian Penal Code and Muslims could not be held accountable for slaughtering them. (1).

There are accounts from colonial times of Muslims slaughtering cows during Bakr-Id festival although there is no religious decree to support cow slaughter (In fact, the Supreme Court in Mohammad Hanif Qureshi Vs. State of Bihar in 1958 had held that the Muslims had no religious right to kill cows on Bakr-Id).  Although some argue that the cow was merely used as a symbol for mobilizing Hindu opinion by Arya Samaj and other leaders of the movement, the fact that it spread rapidly over large parts of India in a day and age where communication and travel was very difficult is indicative of the underlying strength of emotions towards this animal.

In the 1870s, cow protection movements spread rapidly in the Punjab, the North-West provinces, Awadh and Rohilkhand. Arya Samaj had a tremendous role in skillfully converting this sentiment into a national movement. The first Gaurakshini sabha (cow protection society) was established in the Punjab in 1882.(2) The movement spread rapidly all over North India and to Bengal,Bombay, Madras and other central provinces.

It has been mentioned that

Signatures, up to 350,000 in some places, were collected to demand a ban on cow sacrifice.(3)

The strong sentiment around cow-slaughter – and Mahatma Gandhi’s strong views on the matter – led to its inclusion in Constitution under Article 48 (Part IV; Directive Principles of State Policy) which states that: (the) State shall preserve and improve the breeds and prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves and other cows and drought cattle.

It has also been mentioned that when this issue was being debated in Parliament, many wanted a total ban on cow slaughter but this was opposed by Nehru and thus a compromise was reached by including it in terms of Directive Principles. I do not have sufficient references (also see #164) to back this up but hope to find links to debate/discussion in Constituent Assembly on this matter. However, it appears that during the debate in the Constituent Assembly at least some Muslim Members (Mr. Z.H. Lari and Syed Mohammad Saidulla?) were willing for cow slaughter prohibition to be kept as a Fundamental Right.  Regardless of the deliberations in Constituent Assembly – and since then – the cow continues to be an object of great reverence and is widely considered sacred – cutting across castes and regions in India.  Laws banning slaughter of cow and its progeny have been promulgated in almost all states in India except Paschim Banga, Kerala, Nagaland and Meghalaya (the latter two have a predominant Christian population). The ban on cow slaughter was in news last year too when the government of Karnataka passed a law that prohibiting the slaughter of buffaloes along with cow and its progeny (a law protecting the cow was already in force in Karnataka since earlier).  And as noted above, this has been in news once again prompted by a move by the government in MP to seek punishment of up to 7 years for slaughter of cow (note the punishment is not for consumption of beef but for slaughter of cow).

The  cow and bullock have a venerated place in the ancient traditions of Bharat. The cow  is referred to by various names in the Vedas including Aditi, KamaDhenu and Aghnya (that which cannot be killed). Other than its milk and by-products, a cow has numerous “economic” uses. Cow dung is known to act as an anti-septic and reportedly acts as an air purifier when burnt. It also acts as a coolant when mixed with mud and applied to walls of dwellings. There is also some evidence to suggest that the chemical composition of cow-urine may have medicinal properties (and may play a part in cancer therapy).

One of the many names of Bhagwaan ShriKrishna’s is “Gopal” (Protector of Cows).  Muhammad Ghori was apparently pardoned by Prithviraj Chauhan when he asked to be treated like a “cow” (unfortunately I don’t have full & reliable references). There are records to suggest that Akbar issued firmans prohibiting cow-slaughter to respect the sentiments of the large Hindu population during his reign. This “ban” continued during the reign Jehangir and ShahJahan. The cow may also have been one of the triggers for the uprising against the British in 1857.

Before we proceed any further, it would be instructive to read the judgement of the Supreme Court in the landmark case on this matter, Mohd. Hanif Quareshi & Others vs The State Of Bihar(& Others), April, 1958 (emphasis added):

So approaching and analysing the problem, we have reached the conclusion (i) that a total ban on the slaughter of cows of all ages and calves of cows and calves of she-buffaloes, male and female, is quite reasonable and valid and is in consonance with the directive principles laid down in Art. 48, (ii) that a total ban on the slaughter of she-buffaloes or breeding bulls or working bullocks (cattle as well as buffaloes) as long as they are as milch or draught cattle is also reasonable and valid and (iii) that a total ban on the slaughter of she- buffaloes, bulls and bullocks (cattle or buffalo) after they cease to be capable of yielding milk or of breeding or working as draught animals cannot be supported as reasonable in the interest of the general public.

Note that while the Directive Principles are unenforceable by themselves but constitutionality of laws is usually examined in the light of directive principles.  Even stronger than the 1958 ruling, is this conclusion from a (relatively) recent judgement by the Supreme Court (from 2005) in the case of State Of Gujarat vs Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab (emphasis added):

In the case before us, we have material in abundance justifying the need to alter the flow of judicial opinion.…Independent India, having got rid of the shackles of foreign rule, was not even 11 years old then. Since then, the Indian economy has made much headway and gained a foothold internationally. Constitutional jurisprudence has indeed changed from what it was in 1958, as pointed out earlier. Our socio-economic scenario has progressed from being gloomy to a shining one, full of hopes and expectations and determinations for present and future. Our economy is steadily moving towards prosperity in a planned way through five year plans, nine of which have been accomplished and tenth is under way. We deal with the findings in Quareshi-I seriatim.

Finding 1 :…So far as the State of Gujarat is concerned, we have already noticed, while dealing with the documentary evidence available on record, that fodder shortage is not a problem so far as this state is concerned and cow progeny, the slaughtering whereof has already shown a downward trend during the recent years, can very well be fed and maintained without causing any wasteful drain on the feed requisite for active milch, breeding and draught cattle.…the documentary evidence available on record shows that beef contributes only 1.3% of the total meat consumption pattern of the Indian society. Butchers are not prohibited from slaughtering animals other than the cattle belonging to cow progeny. Consequently, only a part of their activity has been prohibited. They can continue with their activity of slaughtering other animals. Even if it results in slight inconvenience, it is liable to be ignored if the prohibition is found to be in the interest of economy and social needs of the country

Finding 3 : 47 years since, it is futile to think that meat originating from cow progeny can be the only staple food or protein diet for the poor population of the country. ‘…The real problem, facing India, is not the availability of food, staple food and protein rich diet; the real problem is its unequal distribution. The real challenge comes from the slow growth of purchasing power of the people and lack of adequate employment opportunities. ….It will, therefore, not be correct to say that poor will suffer in availing staple food and nutritional diet only because slaughter of cow progeny was prohibited.

Finding 4 :…For multiple reasons which we have stated in very many details while dealing with Question-6 in Part II of the judgment, we have found that bulls and bullocks do not become useless merely by crossing a particular age. The Statement of Objects and Reasons, apart from other evidence available, clearly conveys that cow and her progeny constitute the backbone of Indian agriculture and economy. …This Statement of Objects and Reasons tilts the balance in favour of the constitutional validity of the impugned enactment. …

In the light of the material available in abundance before us, there is no escape from the conclusion that the protection conferred by impugned enactment on cow progeny is needed in the interest of Nation’s economy. Merely because it may cause ‘inconvenience’ or some ‘dislocation’ to the butchers, restriction imposed by the impugned enactment does not cease to be in the interest of the general public.

The former must yield to the latter.…The Bombay Animal Preservation (Gujarat Amendment) Act, 1994 (Gujarat Act No. 4 of 1994) is held to be intra vires the Constitution.

Let us now look at the “rational” or “liberal” argument against a ban on cow slaughter:

1] That Hindus ate beef in the past – as mentioned in the Vedas. The first point against this argument is the fact that there are contradictory statements within the Vedas regarding “beef eating”. Very likely, these are the result of incorrect and improper translation (e.g. see this post on Agniveer.com) and therefore cannot be relied on as being authoritative. But even if one was to assume so – for the sake of argument – this is a bad argument because not all past practices are carried over to current times (neither should they be; e.g. past practice of not dining or marrying outside the “jati”). The second (important) point to note (and ask) re. the Vedic references is: are these references really laudatory – and praiseworthy – or are “beef-eaters” looked down upon? Furthermore, most (all?) references are to the meat of the bull – not cow; and even of there were references to cow, they refer to a sterile cow; also see part II of the post on Agniveer)

2] The second “liberal” argument against a ban on cow slaughter is that the state shall not dictate what I can and cannot eat; that the only reason the state can impose its views on such matters is if you harm others in this process, or if doing so will harm the environment. A good illustration of this argument is in this post by Sanjeev Sabhlok (also FTI colleague):

If eating beef is not lethal and it doesn’t kill others, then there is no cause to interfere in the freedoms of others to eat beef.

Now substitute “eating beef” with “taking drugs” or “having multiple wives” – and you will begin to see why this argument looks somewhat shaky. Freedom cannot be absolute – and is usually circumscribed by prevailing social norms and expectations. If such expectations overwhelmingly treat the cow as an object of reverence – or if there is general social revulsion towards slaughter of a particular animal – perhaps there is case to be made for a law banning slaughter of cows?

It is obvious that cow-slaughter arouses strong emotions in people. Bear in mind that people elect a government (in a democracy) to make/propose laws and take decisions that represent the collective will of the society (in addition to maintaining their safety and security). In a democracy, laws will usually be a manifestation of how the society wishes to govern itself (including in the form of a Constitution) – and are usually based on traditions and norms. If the society and the community wishes that the slaughter of cow ought to be prohibited in a land where it has been worshiped and held sacred for millennia, is that not a good reason for having such a law? Unless public opinion change to such a degree where such a ban becomes irrelevant?

I am tempted to point out that another argument (which is sometimes) used in this discussion – along the lines of “let society decide on its own to not eat beef, if it so wishes, but governments should have no role to play in this” – would mean government should have no role in banning untouchability or demands for dowry, right?

Please note that a nuanced argument can be made supporting a ban on cow-slaughter while maintaining neutrality with regards beef consumption (this would mean – for instance – that restaurants are free to import beef and serve it to their customers).  Anyway, enough food for thoughts for now, I guess. I will stop at this point – with the caveat that my thoughts on this matter are still evolving. Therefore, happy to be challenged, contradicted and of course supported!  Comments and thoughts, welcome as always

P.S. While I am broadly supportive of the government’s bill in MP, I worry seriously about the apparent “presumption” of guilt and putting the onus on the accused to prove his or her innocence (these are also the reasons – among others – on why I worry about the Communal Violence Bill and an all-powerful “Jan Lokpal”).

References/ Supporting Documents (the three below, courtesy Wikipedia; have not been independently verified):

  1. “Religious Nationalism, Hindus and Muslims in India”, Peter van der Veer, pp. 83 and 86, 91 and 92 ISBN 0520082567
  2. “The Making of an Indian Metropolis, Colonial governance and public culture in Bombay”, 1890/1920, Prashant Kidambi, p. 176, ISBN 9780754656128
  3. “Vishnu’s crowded temple, India since the great rebellion”, pp. 67-69, Maria Misra, 2008, Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300137217

Here is a richly linked and referenced web-page on the history and background to this question and the matter of cow slaughter

Here is an unusual case for eating beef – from a Hindu perspective and a case for cow slaughter – from an economic perspective (this also has an excerpt that suggests Swami Vivekananda reportedly favoured beef-consumption).

Surprising Find of the Day: the following quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi (December 1927):

As for me, not even to win Swaraj, will I renounce my principle of cow protection.

Related Posts: If Muslims revered cattle – excerpt and  Of “Sacred Bulls”, Divinity & Development

Also see: This is funny.. and the Deoband fatwa on “beef-eating

P.P.S. I was not aware that certain types of meat consumption is banned in Australia (so I guess Hindus are the not the only ones who are irrational!):

RSPCA Australia believes the consumption of cat and dog meat should be expressly prohibited in statute. Cats and dogs hold a specific place in Australian society as companion animals. Eating cats and dogs is therefore offensive to mainstream Australian cultural values. RSPCA Australia believes that state governments should follow the lead of South Australia and create specific offences for eating cats and dogs...

Additional (suggested) Readings: Eating less meat may help save the planet and Eating red meat may be really bad for you..

February 8th, 2012 Posted by | Debates & Discussions, Distortions, Misrepresentation about Hinduism, Hindu Dharma, Human Rights and Legal Issues, Politics and Governance in India | 58 comments


  1. Somewhat related..From Could I bring myself to eat a guinea pig? By Paula Dear:

    …When British TV presenter Philip Schofield tweeted about eating a guinea pig in Peru last year, he was criticised online and in newspapers, including a Daily Mail story with the headline: “TV presenter blasted for boasting about scoffing ‘pet’.” It quoted Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler as saying: “This callous provocation is despicable.”

    Indeed, some argue animals like this could be the future. Guinea pigs reproduce fast, taking up very little space and efficiently processing their simple diet of grass and vegetable scraps.

    Raising cattle is a drain on resources, they point out. By comparison, guinea pig, squirrel, and other rodents are “low-impact protein sources”.

    Matt Miller, a science writer for the US-based Nature Conservancy, is writing a book about the benefits of eating “unconventional” meats.

    “Many animals that some consider ‘bizarre’ or ‘unconventional’ make a lot more sense – ecologically, economically, personally – to eat than modern, industrial meat,” he says.

    Miller focuses on a number of rodents that are “abundant and can be sustainably harvested”, like squirrels, capybaras – the world’s largest rodent, also eaten in Venezuela – and guinea pigs.

    Comment by B Shantanu | June 11, 2013

  2. Dear Shantanu,

    The Indian (read Hindu) society has had a very long tradition of questioning man’s relation with nature. Another tradition has been of conveying multi-layered messages through the use of symbols & stories.

    I would like to point your attention to one such story – one of Rajah Prithu in the Brahma Purana. It is on Prithu’s name we call this globe as Prithvi. In the story the earth takes the form of a cow while escaping Prithu’s exploitation. One get’s very curious as to why is the earth takes the form of a cow !? addressed as Gaurupa. The riddle is solved further in the story, when the earth allows different people to milch her and thus satisfy their hunger, gain nutrition in exchange of a guarantee of protection and care.

    There are other such examples. Thus the Cow has also symbolized nature – and this particular story conveys the message of sustainability, amongst other things.

    Now, the symbolic value is not tangible – like the scientific value of cow dung, or urine. In a utilitarian world, everyone would look at the tangible. But, in the process the symbolic value is lost.

    Cow slaughter – thus for me is destroying an age old message of sustainability – ironically while at the same time we are importing western concepts on sustainability. It is nonsensical, even criminal !

    Hemant Rajan Naidu

    Comment by Hemant Rajan Naidu | May 20, 2014

  3. Its shame on us that India stand strong in the export of beefs its shocking news. now its high time we all need to strong and demand govt like this come on we could have attack on Man Mohan Singh sonia gandhi govt beef have become large exporter in India how can it happen in the presence of govt. let us all stand hard against those who harm Cow now its religious issue. mind you dear friends sonia gandhi is very selfish lady she never cares about us.UP is the relevant place for exporting cow beefs what the hell akhilesh yadav were doing? so let us ask Modi BJP govt to stop such activities as we give great respect to COWS If anyone found with such barbaric act punishment should be Death.w e can tolerate anything but cutting Cows, Buffaloes, Goat definitely we can’t. Modi come on we can expect you to stop this acts in India. attack Man Mohan, sonia and get the justice done. we want justice its bloody shame.
    Modi ji you are the only hope we have got. The very first thing I need from your end is to stop killing of Cows, Buffaloes as we can use them for other purposes such as Gobar gas.Pls pls pls BJP we need justice. We do respect Cows Indeed.
    pass this messsage dear Friend

    Comment by CHURCHILL KUMAR SHAH | June 8, 2014

  4. I am totally against the killings of the Govansh. All citizens of India should stand for this noble cause. This is my appeal to everyone apart from his religion and caste should participate in the movement for preventing GOHATTYA or COW SLAUGHTERING. This is very serious issue.If we loose cows,bullocks and calves by slaughtering them we will also loose our farming and chemical pesticides will destroy our whole agriculture land. For saving the agricultural land we need GOVANSH. The dung and urine (GOBAR AUR GOMOOTRA0) of cow will protect our agricultural land. The food from the pesticide use is also harmful to our human body and results into cancer and other many diseases. So we should be careful about our next generation. For protecting our next generation we have to protect govansh. The gomata nourished our many last generations by giving milk,dung,and gomootra also giving bullocks for our farming. The financial and economical-commercial view, the religious view, the political and historical, emotional view behind cow protection should also be cinsidered.

    Comment by Milind Kulkarni | June 20, 2014

  5. Somewhat tangentially related…
    Shuddh desi gau: Govt allots Rs 500 cr to protect indigenous cattle breeds By Firstbiz Staff,
    Amid concerns over extinction of of indigenous cattle breeds, the government yesterday launched ‘Rashtriya Gokul Mission’ with an outlay of Rs 500 crore to be implemented in the ongoing 12th Five Year Plan for protection, preservation and conservation of the breeds.

    Under the mission, funds will be allocated for setting up of integrated indigenous cattle centres i.e ‘Gokul Grams’, establishing breeder’s societies called ‘Gopalan Sangh’, strengthening of bull mother farmers to conserve high genetic merit indigenous breeds and assisting institutes which are repositories of best germplasm among other activities.

    Out of 37 recognised indigenous cattle breeds, breeds such as ‘Krishna Valley” breed in Karnataka, ‘Nimari’ in Madhya Pradesh, ‘Vechur’ in Kerala, ‘Punganur’ in Andhra Pradesh and ‘Pulikulam’ in Tamil Nadu are rapidly declining in the country warranting immediate attention.

    At present Indian farmers rely on several foreign cow breeds – like the Jersey-Holstein cross-breeds, black-and-white Holsteins from the Netherlands and the British Brown Jersey cow — for a variety of needs like breeding and better quality milk, according to The Hindustan Times.

    India is the largest milk producer in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, with a 16 percent share of global production.

    Comment by B Shantanu | July 29, 2014

  6. Posting a couple of links here for the record:

    Everyone has a ‘sacred cow’: Horse slaughter banned in US IANS, New York, Oct 10, 2015, from which: Horse slaughter is effective banned in the US through a convoluted budget tactic while two bills are pending before the US Congress to make it permanent.

    While the bill for an outright ban works its way through Congress, the present backdoor horse slaughter ban works like this: The budget that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama last year prohibited the agriculture department from spending money on inspecting horse slaughter houses. Without inspections, the slaughter houses cannot operate legally and that effectively banned horse slaughter.

    Why Indian Muslims must end cow slaughter and start respecting Hindu sentiments
    by Uday Mahurkar, 13/10/15, from which: The debate over cow slaughter has more of a religious context than an economic one. Slaughtering cows at temples before demolishing them and then converting them into mosques was common during the Sultanate period and till the advent of Akbar. The only two rulers besides Akbar who tried to prevent cow slaughter in deference to the Hindu religious sentiment were Zainul Abidin of Kashmir (1420-1470) and Ibrahim Adil Shah of Bijapur (1580-1627), better known as one of the greatest patrons of Indian classical music and worshipper of goddess Saraswati.

    Otherwise history, particularly before Akbar, is replete with episodes which show that slaughtering the cow was the chief weapon of Muslim rulers to spread radical Islam by insulting Hindu religious sentiments. However, after Akbar, Aurangzeb revived the evil practice. When he came to Ahmedabad as governor in 1645, the first thing he did was to break the Chitamani Jain Temple and slaughter a cow there, before converting it into a mosque. The temple was later restored by his tolerant brother Dara Shikoh. So, it is no wonder that many Muslims, especially Wahabi Muslims (who dislike Akbar for his liberal views), slaughter cows also from a religious angle.

    Importantly, the works of eminent historians like Dr RC Mazumdar, Jadunath Sarkar, Ishwari Prasad and VD Mahajan – who were by no means of the Hindutva persuasion, but nationalist intellectuals respecting religious sentiments – confirm how slaughtering cows was part of the strategy of radical Muslim rulers to put down the Hindus. And that is the reason why Mahadji Shinde (Scindia), the great Maratha general and Wakil-e-Mutaliq (protector) of emperor Shah Alam-II, got the emperor to issue a sanad reviving the ban on cow slaughter in 1792 AD as a present to himself for the services he had rendered against the Rohilla menace.

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 18, 2015

  7. Worth a read: Why I believe my driver’s version about Dadri October 12, 2015, by Vandana Vasudevan from which:
    I chatted with Dharampal about the recent disturbance in Dadri and he had a different version about the events than what we hear in mainstream media.
    He said that on that fateful day, a cow that had strayed from the herd had been caught and killed for its meat. Four men had seen the its hide being buried in the field and had therefore gotten incensed. Now, cattle cost a fair amount of money. Each calf I am told is about a lakh of rupees and the price for a full grown cow could go up to a couple of lakhs more. Every cow, even a straying one, belongs to someone, so killing another person’s animal (forget cow, it could be goat, pig, hen or whatever) amounts to thievery and damage of personal property. If this version is correct, it’s a question of money and property, rather than religion, apart from the fact that in UP cow slaughter is illegal.

    But this is not about the killing, which any right minded person of course condemns. This is about the trigger and the events leading upto it. There are many versions of that going around and you are free to choose yours depending on your affiliations. This, however, is a version of the regular people who live there. I know it is just a few people and they are not investigative journalists. But I am inclined to believe them because they have no agenda, nothing to gain or lose by cooking up any story, no votes to target, no one to appease. The word on the street is often the most credible word.

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 18, 2015

  8. Link to “Review of Beef in Ancient India” (pdf; ~20MB)

    Comment by B Shantanu | October 18, 2015

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