The cow is a symbol of reverence for many in Indian society.
Should cow slaughter be banned across the county? Is it possible to implement a blanket, no-exceptions ban on cow slaughter across the country? The two questions are similar and yet different. The first refers to a political or philosophical aspiration, which an individual or an institution is within its rights to have. The second refers to administrative feasibility, the reasonable limits to lawmaking, and the issue of rights and obligations in a country of such bewildering diversity.
To draw an analogy — admittedly an imperfect one — it may be useful to turn to the abortion debate in the United States. Frequently, and especially during elections, calls for an absolute ban on abortion are heard in the US. Candidates declare that they are uncomfortable with abortion, find it morally repugnant and would want it outlawed. In specific states, there are restrictions on abortion. Nevertheless an absolute ban on abortion nationwide is impossible. That doesn’t stop it from being a political issue, but there are limits to how far political discourse can influence the law.
That fine line, that nuance is important to understand in the cow slaughter and beef debate as well. The cow is a symbol of reverence for many in Indian society. That is a reality and there will always be boundaries to its slaughter. There are non-religious reasons for this as well. Slaughter of the cow, as indeed of some other animals, has been restricted in many societies not merely for religious reasons but for those of livestock management, animal husbandry and milk production.
Take Pakistan’s Animal Slaughtering Act of 1963. More than once, it has been activated in the country, particularly in Pakistani Punjab, to prevent the slaughter of cows, female goats and so on. This is a necessity forced by the agricultural economy, and not religion. In India, typically, both reasons have been cited for imposing restrictions on cow slaughter, and largely they have been accepted.
As such, there are states in India where cow slaughter is banned, there are states where cow slaughter is allowed and there are states in which — in a happy compromise — slaughter of cows above a certain age is allowed. There are also states in India — Kerala, to some degree West Bengal and several states in the Northeast — where beef is a commonly-eaten meat. In those jurisdictions, cow slaughter is permissible for dietary reasons.
One now moves to the issue of beef consumption, which needs to be differentiated from cow slaughter for these are sometimes related but actually separate debates. It needs to be said that very few people in India eat beef (as in, cow’s meat). Most Hindus don’t eat it, and frankly it is not a mainstay of the Muslim kitchen either. The mouth-watering Mughlai or Awadhi cuisine is better suited to cooking with goat’s meat. It is a fair bet that even if all restrictions on cow slaughter were to be lifted in India the amount of beef consumed by Indians residing in India would probably go up marginally.
Yet, those Indians who do eat beef have a right to do so. In areas where such a population is concentrated, cow slaughter laws are relatively liberal or at the very least the practice is not banned. In many states slaughter and consumption of buffalo meat (strictly speaking this is not beef, but is often described as such) is a half-way house. In still others, beef consumption is allowed if the beef is sourced from territory where cow slaughter and beef production is permissible.
This maze of laws is not always logical. The Haryana law of 2015, for instance, strengthened existing bans on cow slaughter but added a ban on consumption of beef even if imported from another country or state where beef production was legal. On the other hand, in Maharashtra, where cow slaughter laws were also tightened in the same period, the consumption of imported beef is legal, following a court order to this effect.
As such, if an individual imports a can of beef from Japan, he can consume it in Mumbai but not in Gurgaon. Panchkula and Mohali are both part of the Chandigarh metropolitan area and a 30-minute drive from each other. In Panchkula (Haryana) the opening of that can of beef from Japan is illegal, in Mohali (Punjab) it is legal. Recognising that there is an expatriate community (including , as it happens, many Japanese) that may consume beef, the Haryana government has periodically mooted the idea of licences for foreigners who can import and eat beef.
More than any moral or religious observances, it is apparent that the compendium of laws — and the ridiculous suggestion of a beef-eating licence — is an open invitation to intrusive policing and bribery. As in the case of anti-liquor or prohibition laws — another fever raging in the country, to be discussed another day — a maze of such regulations is difficult to enforce and only leaves scope for harassment.
By and large Indians respect each other’s dietary taboos and restrictions. If I invite a devout Muslim home for dinner, I am unlikely to serve him pork chops. If a Muslim or Christian family invites a religious Hindu for a meal, it is unlikely to offer beef. In Kolkata, where beef is legally available, biryani restaurants cater to a largely Hindu clientele and, conscious of the market, place a prominent sign on the wall saying “No Beef”. Beef, however, may well be served in a different outlet and location. Such examples are common across the country.
It is important that this respect for each other’s sensitivities and food habits flows from a civic covenant that underwrites the experiences of a shared community, and from a recognition of what the market can absorb. It should not and must not be a top-down imposition from the State.
Equally, a political party and a government need to be conscious of how much precious political capital can be spent in chasing a mirage.