India pretends it has a Constitution that is not linked to any particular religion.
Gujarat has passed an unusual law on cow slaughter. The state amended the Animal Preservation Bill and changed the punishment for those convicted of killing bulls and cows.
It will now be a life sentence and a minimum of 10 years, meaning that Gujarat has decided that the act of murdering a citizen and killing an animal are equal crimes. The chief minister of the state has said that he wants to turn Gujarat vegetarian. He added, somewhat unusually that “he was not against any food”. The outsider might ask: if there is no objection to food, then does that mean the chief minister’s party, the BJP, have no problem with beef?
The answer is that of course it does. Beef is the reason the law has been passed, but not the legal reason. The legal standing comes from the directive principle in the Constitution, which says cows and bulls should be preserved for economic reasons. This logic is from a time when bulls were used for ploughing, which is a time behind us. No other nation has this sort of economic logic; it is only India. And that is because of the Hindu unease with beef.
India pretends it has a Constitution that is not linked to any particular religion. Indeed, Indians like myself have always taken great pride that we are very different from Pakistanis who built a State around religion. The reality is that India’s laws are inflected by high-caste Hindu customs. Another example is prohibition. The Constitution also disapproves of alcohol. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas said that prohibition was a Sanskritic act. This is true.
Like beef, alcohol is also banned or restricted using other pretences. Indian states have often experimented with prohibition and most often failed. Bihar wrote a law that collectively criminalised the possession of alcohol. Meaning that if I was found with a bottle in my house, my wife and relatives and whoever shared the house with me would also be charged. This law was so ridiculous that it was hard to believe that the state would consider it. The courts finally stepped in to block it, but another variant of the law was approved. Those who think of Nitish Kumar as being a great alternative to Hindutva politics should consider this.
Courts do not always weigh in on the side of the freedom of the individual. These days India is implementing a court order that establishments serving and selling alcohol within 500 metres of a highway should be shut down. In some states in the Northeast, which are mountainous and have few roads, this would mean shutting down most of such establishments. The court has made exemptions for these states, though I have not been able to fully understand the logic of that. If the issue is safety, then it cannot be compromised with.
To me the issue is that of individual freedom. The state should assume that its citizens will drink responsibly and it should have the capacity and intent to prosecute those who drink irresponsibly and put others and themselves in danger. Instead, in imposing this ban, the state is assuming citizens are generally irresponsible. The state is encroaching on individual rights and imposing a form of prohibition.
And so through these various actions, religion is creeping into the framework of our republic. Other countries also do this sort of thing of course. Pakistanis love kite flying during the festival of Basant. However, this is seen by some as an unIslamic practice and so often runs into trouble with the law. Courts feel that kite flying endangers birds and the safety of citizens and therefore should be banned. I think this comes from a very similar instinct as we are seeing in India.
The difference is that Pakistan does not claim its Constitution and laws are secular. They are Islamic, though there is some discomfort among many Pakistanis with this fact because religion alone does not offer us a framework for modern government. In India it is the opposite. There is a discomfort among many of us at the fact that the republic is not more Hindu than it could or should be. This discomfort is producing laws such as the one we now have in Gujarat.
We should acknowledge that this is a narrow reading of Hinduism, which is being pushed by the BJP on Indian citizens. Those Indians who work with leather and meat, like dalits and Muslims, will face the wrath of this new law. But we can always assure them that we are officially a secular nation whose laws are not specifically aimed at victimising them.