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):
- “Religious Nationalism, Hindus and Muslims in India”, Peter van der Veer, pp. 83 and 86, 91 and 92 ISBN 0520082567
- “The Making of an Indian Metropolis, Colonial governance and public culture in Bombay”, 1890/1920, Prashant Kidambi, p. 176, ISBN 9780754656128
- “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.
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...