The proposed national cattle ban has reignited the national controversy over the protection of cattle and regional bars on cattle slaughter. Setting aside the actions of lawless vigilante mobs, whom are neither the subject of the proposal nor answerable to the legislature, there are still several objections made to the move. However, none of these objections hold much merit – and are a result of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the country and the law.
By and large, there are two main objections against the ban. First, is the claim that a cattle ban is a violation of people’s rights – both the consumer’s right to choose what they eat, and the sellers right to his occupation. The second is that a ban based on religious sentiments is anti-secular, and discriminatory against non-Hindus.
The first objection is that banning beef undermines the basic rights of the people. Beef is a food freely available across the vast majority of the world. Moreover, several states like Kerala and West Bengal permit the slaughter of cattle and eating of beef freely. The global and regional access to beef has engendered among the people a sense that there is a right to eat it – or there should be one. It’s a (fairly common) item of food, and many think they should be entitled to eat whatever they want.
Furthermore, India is also the largest single exporter of beef in the world – putting out exports of roughly $4 billion every year. And this amount reflects real people, with real jobs that will be lost if a national ban is imposed. It is widely held that these people have the right to ply their trade, free from governmental restraint and restriction.
These arguments rely on two rights – the right to eat, and the right to sell. However, neither of these two rights have been recognized by the Constitution, the judiciary, or the government at any stage. Neither the “right” to eat whatever one wishes, nor the “right” to ply the trade of beef are protected by the government. And, touching on the specific issue of the beef ban, the Supreme Court has already held it abridges no fundamental rights in the State of Gujrat case in 2005.
It is for precisely this reason that the government can restrict what a person might consume – by outlawing marijuana and creating national “dry-days” wherein no alcohol may be sold. This also applies to the sellers side of the equation; the government can restrict or outright prohibit a good many trades and practices based on morality or the welfare of the people. Look at pimping, drug dealing, or the limits on caffeine content in soft drinks.
Even those rights elucidated by Constitution of India (which nowhere include the right to eat whatever you wish or undertake any profession that pays) are not absolute. The Kesavananda Bharati case held that these rights can be limited, both in protection by the executive, or in law by Parliament. Which means that, even if one were to grant the “rights” over consumption and sale of beef, they wouldn’t necessarily bar a ban on cattle slaughter.
The other class of objections against the ban concern it’s religious nature. This is really two arguments wrapped together. First are those that claim rules based on protecting or codifying religious sentiments are inherently bigoted and anti-secular. Then there are claims of religious discrimination – where this rule in particular is discriminatory in favor of Hindus.
This first argument simply fails to understand the nature of secularism in India. While most western nations view secularism as a divorcing of law from religion, this has never been the Indian approach. Our law has always viewed secularism as including several religious traditions and practices into our legal framework. We protect everyone’s religious sentiments, instead of marginalizing all matters of religious concern.
This is precisely the reason there is no uniform civil code. For matters that touch on religious belief, social mores, and community morality, the law is applied based on one’s faith, not devoid of it. It is why the religious right to polygamy in Islam is recognized by law, as is the concept of sapinda relations in Hindu marriages. It is why the bar on alienation of more than one-third of inheritable property in the Koran is protected by the government, but so is the right to freely give away one’s worldly possessions under Hinduism.
Our entire conception of secularism is law based on religious sentiments – just in a non-discriminatory sense.
What naturally follows, is the arguments about discrimination. If social mores and religious sentiment can be enough cause to create an outright ban on beef, why not pork? After all, Islam forbids the consumption of pork just like Hinduism bars consuming beef. What’s good for the goose ought to be good for the gander, right?
This is, however, a false equivalency. The reasons behind the prohibitions could not be more different: beef is barred because cows are venerated, while pork is barred because swine are denigrated.
Pork is forbidden by Islam out of a sense of hygiene or cleanliness. The Koran decrees that no Muslim shall eat “the flesh of swine” (2:173), because “that surely is impure” (6:145). Pork is ‘haram’, impure and unclean. There are no religious sentiments to be offended by others eating pork – rather it underlines their sense of religious purity, much like the prohibition on consuming alcohol.
But Hindus refuse to eat beef because Hinduism calls on its adherents to protect the cow from harm – not just their own, but from others.
To a Hindu, the consumption of beef by others is as offensive as the consumption of beef by himself – if not more so. It is a demonstration of sacrilegious contempt, which cannot help but inflame their religious sentiments.
This is, in fact, the reason there has been no widespread “pig rakshak” movement – or indeed, any movement to protect any animal. There is simply no other animal venerated by any religion in India in the same was as cattle. To call a law based on these sentiments discriminatory is absurd – there is simply no analogous situation for any other religion, much less one in which such a custom was not protected for discriminatory purposes.
by Akash Kashyap