In a Cabinet meeting on June 15, the Congress government in Karnataka decided to repeal two contentious laws passed by the previous BJP government—the Karnataka APMC (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022 (anti-conversion law)—in the forthcoming session of the Legislative Assembly, slated to commence on July 3.
Another contentious legislation, the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act (KPSPCA), 2020, popularly known as the “anti-cow slaughter law”, did not come up for discussion at the meeting. The Congress is perhaps taking a cautious approach with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha election and several State elections scheduled for this year. The obvious fear is that any action in Karnataka could have a ripple effect on the party’s prospects nationally.
Genesis of law
The BJP government enacted the KPSPCA when B.S. Yediyurappa was Chief Minister, replacing a 1964 legislation that banned cow slaughter in the State.
It was passed hastily despite widespread political opposition, and the BJP was forced to first take the ordinance route because it did not have the numbers in the Legislative Council to see the Bill through. The ordinance became an Act in February 2021 when it was passed by a controversial voice vote in the Council.
In keeping with similar anti-cow slaughter laws in various BJP-ruled States, the Act forbade the slaughter of all bovines except aged buffaloes (above 13 years), placed severe restrictions on the transport of cattle, and increased the quantum of punishment for violations.
Statements by BJP leaders in the Legislative Assembly and Council as part of the debate on the Act foregrounded the religious significance of the cow in Hinduism. But leading farmers’ organisations objected to the Bill, pointing out that the KPSPCA would be detrimental to the agricultural economy of the State.
After the Congress’ emphatic victory in the Assembly election in May, farmers’ organisations renewed their demand that the government repeal the anti-cow slaughter law along with other anti-farmer laws (including the Karnataka Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 2020, and the Karnataka APMC (Amendment) Act, 2020).
As part of a coordinated Statewide protest at all district headquarters on June 15 against these laws, around 200 farmers from different parts of Mysuru district gathered in central Mysuru.
Speaking to Frontline on the sidelines of the protest, Badagalpura Nagendra, State president of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), said: “The KPSPCA has destroyed the farmers’ financial condition as they lost valuable revenue from the sale of aged cattle and male calves. It has also affected dairy farming. ...No farmer in his right mind will sell female calves, but what does one do with male calves or aged cows [that are more than 8 years old]?”
He added: “A bundle of hay costs Rs.150 and a farmer needs Rs.5,000 a month to maintain a cow or a bull. It is impossible for a small farmer with four or five head of cattle to maintain these animals when they are past their utility. We cannot even dispose of dead cattle as farmers incur additional expenditure to bury or cremate these animals.”
As for gaushalas (cattle shelters) where cattle can be abandoned, Nagendra said that most gaushalas were defunct and farmers had to “pay money to the gaushala to maintain a cow or bull”.
Another farmer, who did not want to be named, said: “Earlier, old and useless cattle used to be sold to beef traders for Rs.20,000 to Rs.30,000, depending on size, but now we are forced to sell at a much cheaper rate.” The sale is done circumventing the law, and farmers are forced to accept lower rates from traders.
- KPSPCA did not come up for discussion at June 15 Cabinet meeting.
- Farmers staged protest in Mysuru district seeking withdrawal of law.
- KPSPCA has been a sword over the heads of farmers, traders, and butchers, wielded at any time of the administration’s or a vigilante’s choosing.
The law bans open sale of cattle. As a result, cattle santhes (markets) have almost become defunct in the State. But cattle traders and beef butchers admitted that they continue to procure cattle from farmers illegally, making payoffs at all points in the animals’ journey from the farms to fancy Bengaluru restaurants.
“Not only do we pay the police and officials of the animal husbandry department and municipal corporations, we also have to give a cut to the so-called gau rakshaks [cow protectors], whose NGOs are a front for making money,” a Mysuru-based beef butcher said. The consumption and sale of beef is still legal in Karnataka, and it is procured from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu too.
The KPSPCA has been a sword over the heads of farmers, traders, and butchers, wielded at any time of the administration’s or a vigilante’s choosing. This year, as of end-April, 93 cases were booked under the KPSPCA.
On April 1, a cattle trader named Idrees Pasha was lynched by a group of cow vigilantes in Ramanagara district. Those engaging in violent attacks on Muslim traders and transporters with impunity are empowered by Section 17 of the KPSPCA, which protects “persons acting in good faith”.
On June 6, four Muslim men were arrested in Dakshina Kannada district on the charge of cattle trafficking.
But it is not just Muslims who are the targets of the vigilantes. Farmers who transport cattle for a variety of reasons too are often at the receiving end of the attacks. On June 6, a farmer in Turuvekere in Tumakuru district was on his way home after purchasing 15 head of cattle when he was waylaid by Bajrang Dal vigilantes who accused him of transporting the animals for slaughter. Even though the farmer denied this, he was arrested and the animals were confiscated. He was released only after the intervention of the MLA concerned.
T. Yashavantha, general secretary of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, said: “Since the enactment of the anti-cow slaughter law, farmers who need to transport cattle for activities such as dairy farming and farming are terrified that they can be targeted at any time by vigilantes. It is farmers who are responsible for preserving cattle in the country, but the irony of the KPSPCA is that farmers themselves are moving away from cattle rearing, as the cost of rearing and milk production has soared.”
Yashavantha also referred to the census on cattle undertaken periodically by the Animal Husbandry department to corroborate his statement. Between 2007 and 2019, he said, the number of head of cattle in Karnataka fell from more than one crore to around 84 lakh. And this was even before the KPSPCA became law in February 2021. Apart from its disastrous repercussions on farmers, the anti-cow slaughter law has also had two other serious impacts: first, it has devastated the livelihoods of beef butchers and other ancillary industries such as the leather trade; second, it removed beef from the menu of a large section of Karnataka society that regularly consumed beef, including Dalits and backward castes.
Impact on butchers
Shoaiburrehman Qureshi, the Bengaluru-based president of the All India Jamiat-ul-Quresh (Karnataka), a representative organisation of beef butchers in the State, said: “After the anti-cow slaughter law was implemented, the income of butchers has fallen drastically, as only aged buffaloes can be slaughtered. On an average, a butcher used to earn around Rs.30,000 monthly earlier; that has fallen to Rs.10,000. How do we educate our children?”
He added: “According to my estimate there are more than two lakh families that are dependent on the beef trade in Karnataka, and all of them have been affected by this law. The government can make the cow the national animal and accord it the highest level of protection, but allow trading in other cattle like bulls and bullocks so that this continuous harassment and killings in the name of the cow can be stopped once and for all.”
Mavalli Shankar, Karnataka convener of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, said: “Beef is part of our food culture and also sustains the farmers’ economy. Beef is cheaper than mutton and chicken and is the most nutritious source of food. [A kilogram of beef costs Rs.250-280 in Bengaluru, whereas mutton costs Rs.750-Rs.800.] Dalits depend on this nutritious food source. Certain Dalit communities such as the Samagaras are involved in the leather trade, but that entire industry is dead now and is affecting their livelihoods.”
“Beef is part of our food culture and also sustains the farmers’ economy.”Mavalli ShankarKarnataka convener, Dalit Sangharsh Samiti
A November 2021 report authored by a doctor named Sylvia Karpagam and Siddharth K. Joshi, a public policy scholar, claimed that the ban on cattle slaughter affected “farmers, cattle traders, butchers, vendors, and consumers, apart from dealing a debilitating blow to the livestock, leather and meat economy of Karnataka”.
The Congress had vehemently opposed the passage of the KPSPCA and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been a vociferous and consistent opponent of the law. In 2010, when Yediyurappa, as Chief Minister, tabled a different version of the anti-cow slaughter Bill in the Assembly, Siddaramaiah, as Leader of the Opposition, had opposed it.
In December 2020, Siddaramaiah again took the lead in opposing the Bill in the Assembly, with protesting Congress MLAs walking out of the House. More recently, in February 2023, speaking on the floor of the House, Siddaramaiah stated that the KPSPCA had caused severe problems to agriculturists, and farmers “were abandoning aged cattle in forests”.
On June 4, Animal Husbandry Minister K. Venkatesh gave the strongest indication that a repeal of the KPSPCA was on the cards when, at a press conference in Mysuru, he asked: “If one can slaughter buffaloes, what is wrong with slaughtering cows?”
BJP leaders condemned his statement, with affiliate organisations of the Sangh Parivar threatening to launch an agitation if the law were amended. Consequently, Venkatesh was reprimanded by Randeep Singh Surjewala, Congress national general secretary and in charge of Karnataka.
Speaking to Frontline, Rural Development Minister Priyank Kharge did not make an emphatic commitment that the KPSPCA would be repealed but said: “If an Act or GO [government order] is good for the progress of Karnataka, we will strengthen it. If not, we will review it. The proposal [for repeal of the anti-cow slaughter law] must come from the Minister concerned [Animal Husbandry], and he has asked for some time for this.”