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Hungama hai kyun barpa…?

Updated: October 23, 2015 10:45 am

During the religious Hindu festival of Sankranti every January, the open fields in farming villages throughout India are filled with people dressed in their best clothes celebrating the harvest and new beginning. It is hard to say who is more colourful—the people or the cattle being led to the field. This is the day for honouring cattle and every household parades its bemused bovine population: horns painted, necks garlanded, bells tinkling. In much of India cows are not eaten. They are fed. “Mother Cow”, her horn sometimes painted and decorated for festivals, is held in high esteem by devout Hindus, both for her gift of milk and for her sacred associations with the gods.

This is the precise reason why on the night of September 28, 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq, a resident of Bisara village of Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh, was lynched to death and his son Danish was brutally assaulted by a mob of villagers over a rumour that Akhlaq and his family had slaughtered a calf and consumed its meat. Just before the lynching, an announcement was made from the local temple to spread the rumour, and within moments a mob constituted itself and attacked Akhlaq resulting in his death. Akhlaq’s son Danish has been in hospital since that night and despite undergoing two brain surgeries his condition is still said to be critical.

In another incident, one of the law-makers in Jammu and Kashmir was roughed up for his serving of beef in a party at his house. Also, a motley group of people attacked two Muslim youth allegedly for their involvement in cattle smuggling in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh. All these incidents make one ponder over the question as to why beef eating in India has taken a political colour?

Religious Connotation

The Hindu reverence of cattle—particularly the cow—is well-known. Census data shows that almost 80 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion population are Hindu. Most Hindus worship the cow and abstain from eating beef. The debate of the sacredness of the cow is an issue even amongst India’s historians with some arguing that the “holy cow” is a relatively recent phenomenon exploited by political and religious groups. In The Myth of The Holy Cow, historian D. N. Jha says that ancient Hindus ate beef—the cow got its revered status around 500 A.D. coinciding with an agricultural boom on the subcontinent. His book tries to establish that ancient Hindu kings regularly sacrificed and ate animals including cattle. Cattle, even cow, meat was not sacred during the Vedic period (1000-5000 B.C.) which was the time when Hinduism’s oldest scriptures—the Vedas—were written. Around 500 A.D., India became an agrarian economy. Cattle, cows, and bulls became invaluable for small-scale farming that, even today, is the heart of Indian rural life. This coincided with a time when Hindus were beginning to reject animal killing and gravitate towards vegetarianism. Cattle became not only a sign of wealth, but also sacred.

To Hindus, the cow is now worshipped as gaumata (mother cow) because it provides milk to everyone. It symbolises selfless giving. There are about 3,000 gaushalas (cow shelters) in the country where old and infirm cows are looked after. The cow, to many Hindus, embodies gentleness and non-violence. Hinduism holds the belief that all living creatures are sacred and promotes the idea of ahimsa (non-violence). The fact that this concern for cows is not universally shared across the subcontinent makes it a sensitive political issue, since many members of the Muslim and Christian minorities are happy to eat beef. India’s modern history is marked by several violent clashes, some deadly, over the status of the cow. However, few people revere the cow like the world’s 900 million adherents of Hinduism. Since the faith first evolved near Asia’s Indus River more than 3,000 years ago, respect for animal life has been a central theme in Hindu life. While many scholars say early Hindus ate beef, most ultimately came to see the cow as a sacred animal to be esteemed, not eaten. “If someone were to ask me what the most important outward manifestation of Hinduism was, I would suggest that it was the idea of cow protection,” Mahatma Gandhi, father of the nation, once wrote.

Chequered past of cow slaughter ban

India has a chequered past with cow slaughter bans. The Muslim Mughals ruled for three centuries and the British colonised the country for two centuries. The first Mughal emperor, Babur, banned cow slaughter in 1527 out of respect for Hindus, but some Hindu kings did not enforce the ban. India’s present anti-cow slaughter movement probably began with the mutiny of 1857. The mutiny was an uprising of Indian soldiers against their British superiors for introducing pork and beef-greased cartridges for P53 Enfield rifles. The ends of these cartridges had to be bitten off before use, enraging Muslims, who don’t eat pork, and Hindus, who don’t eat beef.

But as the cow’s sacredness is debated, a nationwide ban is hard to impose. While some Indian states ban slaughter of any cattle, others ban slaughter of only cows, and some only ban the slaughter of milk-producing cows. States in the north-eastern part of the country have no bans at all. Punishments, too, vary from minimal fines to five years in prison.


Beef: A political issue

India’s rapidly growing beef industry is a political issue, especially during elections when the country is divided along cultural, religious, and political lines: Muslims and Hindus, left versus right, beef-eating Hindus versus non-beef-eating Hindus. When Narendra Modi was campaigning for the 2014 general elections, at an election rally he criticised the then ruling Congress Party-led government’s “Pink Revolution”—the nickname for India’s rising beef exports. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed the Congress Party for encouraging beef trade to woo India’s 180 million Muslims. Modi promised to curb the industry, a promise he hasn’t followed through with since he became Prime Minister last May. A week after 50-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob in the Bisara village of Uttar Pradesh following rumours that he had slaughtered and consumed a calf, most political parties jumped into the virtual wrestling pits of breaking news television and enthusiastically traded insults and blames over the incident.

The latest to join the long list of politicians, who have made ridiculous statements on the incident, is Azam Khan. He had relentlessly criticised the BJP over the last few days and of late announced at a press conference that he will write to the United Nations over the Bisara issue. Talking to the reporters in Lucknow, he said: “I have written a letter to the UN Secretary General explaining the condition of Muslims in India and seeking his intervention. I have sought to know what will be the position of Muslims in India.” His statement seemingly has little to do with seeking practical ways to dissipate communal tension in his state and has everything to do with scoring a point over a political opponent.

For the past week, the Bhartaiya Janata Party and the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have exchanged barbs about inciting communal violence and creating religious divides, but now the politicisation of the tragic death has spilled into the neighbouring state of Bihar, where the first phase of elections began on October 12.

After Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav declared that “even Hindus eat beef,” and his second-in command Raghuvansh Prasad Singh claimed that even the saints used to eat beef, senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi promised to ban cow slaughter if his party wins the elections. Then, the Congress Party rushed to clarify that cow slaughter was already banned in the state under the Bihar Preservation and Improvement of Animals Act, 1955, and slammed the BJP for making a false promise. This has not only communalised the elections in Bihar, but also gives an insight into the political undercurrents in the Indian society.


Beef a Meaty Business

Beef has always been a politically contentious issue in India, reflected in the multiplicity of laws in different States regulating the slaughter of cows and cattle and the consumption of beef. While the States in the North-East have no ban, as many as 23 others have some kind of restriction on the slaughter of cows or cattle. The storm kicked up by a recent Maharashtra government’s decision to ban the slaughter of all types of cattle reflects the emotiveness of the issue. Two decades after it was first cleared, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 1995, has now become law, placing a blanket ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves, in addition to cows (whose slaughter has been banned since 1976). Even possession of beef is now an offence; however, water buffaloes can still be legally slaughtered in the State.

While most of the criticism of the Maharashtra government’s move has been centred on the imposition of a majoritarian choice on the food habits of the minority, the real argument is economic. India may not be the largest consumer of beef in the world, but it is the world’s largest bovine meat exporter. Most of the exports consist of buffalo meat, which is legally classified as ‘beef’. In 2012-13, India had exported 1.3 million tonnes of bovine meat, worth over ₹26,457 crore. In April-December 2014-15 (the period up to which export data is available), exports had already crossed 1.1 million tonnes. More importantly, bovine meat is now India’s single biggest agri export, overtaking basmati rice exports. India has the largest livestock population in the world. It accounts for about 58 per cent of the world buffalo population and 14.7 per cent of the cattle population, with over 300 million cattle, over 200 million goats and sheep, and over 10 million pigs.

Beef an environmental issue too!

Amid all the controversy surrounding consumption of beef in India, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has come up with an expert report according, to which beef is a ‘climate harmful meat’. It is very energy intensive to produce every gram of beef, on an average every hamburger results in 3 kg of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Today, saving the planet is really about ensuring sustainable consumption and meat production is unfortunately a highly energy intensive exercise.

Meat eaters in general and beef eaters in particular are among the most unfriendly to the global environment, reports the United Nations body, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome. It may come as a surprise but globally beef production is one of the leading culprits for climate change. According to FAO, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions as compared to the transport sectors’ 15 per cent. In a study ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options’, the FAO concludes: “The livestock sector is the major player (and its contributions to climate change has) a higher share than transport.”

The debate over the sacredness of the cow can go on and on but what we are seeing at the present moment in the country is the politics played over the issue. Everyone is trying to gain from the issue and no one seems to be interested in preventing the vicious environment created in country over this issue.

By Nilabh Krishna

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