Print edition : April 28, 2017

PUSHING the Hindutva agenda further, the Gujarat government makes cow slaughter punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The BJP government amended a law, providing complete protection for the cow. In March, the Gujarat Assembly passed the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 2017, making its anti-cow slaughter law the toughest in the country with the offence becoming non-bailable and punishable with a life sentence.

Cow slaughter was never permitted in Gujarat. Before the amendment was incorporated, the law stated that cow slaughter was punishable with five to seven years in jail. Obviously this acted as a deterrent. Therefore, it came as a surprise that the law had to be made so stringent. Political observers say it is election year in Gujarat and blatant right-wing moves are to be expected in the run–up to the elections.

It is part of the BJP’s effort to gain political mileage and in the process suppress certain minority communities that are dependent on cattle slaughter for a living.

Liberal voices are questioning the move, saying amendments made on the basis of religious sentiments are dangerous and anti-constitutional. However, the government cited the Constitution, claiming it has opposed cow slaughter for economic reasons.

Under the new law, the maximum punishment for cow slaughter will be life imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs.5 lakh. Slaughter of cows, calves, bulls and bullocks have been included in the law. Additionally, it bans transportation of animals at night.

Transportation, sale and storage of beef is punishable with up to 10 years of imprisonment. Vehicles transporting cattle can also be confiscated.

Introducing the Bill in the Assembly, Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja explained: “Cows not just have religious significance; they also have an economic significance in our society. It is necessary to increase the punishment to deter those involved in slaughtering cows.”

Jadeja said the law, in its earlier avatar, made the offence bailable and that its provisions were relatively mild. “It did not act as an efficient deterrent for those committing the heinous crime.”

In 2011, under Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the State imposed a blanket ban on cow slaughter and the transportation of beef and prescribed a penalty of Rs.50,000 and imprisonment of up to seven years. Explaining the need to amend the Act, Jadeja said several Hindu religious leaders and prominent Gujaratis had been petitioning Chief Minister Vijay Rupani to amend the Act. It is reported that on the day the Bill was passed, the Assembly’s gallery was filled with saffron-robed Hindu religious leaders.

In fact, a few months before the Bill was passed, Rupani declared that his government’s mission was to make Gujarat a vegetarian State. After the Assembly cleared the amendment, Rupani apparently described Gujarat as a “unique State” which followed the principles of non-violence and truth advocated by Mahatma Gandhi. “This is Gandhi’s Gujarat, Sardar’s [Vallabhbhai Patel] Gujarat and [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.”

Rupani, who belongs to the Jain community and is a strict vegetarian, “was determined to change the law in order to not only appease his community but gain political mileage”, a Dalit leader, unwilling to be named, said.

Dalits and Muslims have been affected by the law for many years. Many people’s livelihoods are dependent on cattle slaughter. There was still some hope for tanners and those who skinned dead cattle. However, following the incident in Una town in July 2016, when four Dalit tanners were beaten by vigilantes for killing and skinning a cow, “Dalits are too scared because anything we do with the cow, people come to attack us”, a Dalit activist said.

A tanner said they earned approximately Rs.200 for every cow they skinned. Typically, it takes four men to work on one cow, which means each gets Rs.50. They are lucky if they get a single cow in a week, which means they earn just a few hundred rupees a month. “We are the poorest in the village. We cannot use the public well or enter the temple. How much worse will it become?” he asked.

“They are operating like we are in the medieval times. The state instead of debunking holy cow theories is perpetuating it,” Jignesh Mewani, a social activist and lawyer working on Dalit rights in Gujarat, said. Mewani, who led the movement for Dalits after the Una incident, said: “These laws are absolutely obnoxious and clearly send out a message to Dalits and Muslims that this is the way the State is going to be run: majoritarian rule.”

“Una created fear, this has caused a complete shutdown. The law gives the authorities a free rein to enter anyone’s home or workspace, declare the dead animal a cow, and then it is life imprisonment for the poor man. His life is destroyed. It will lead to many more Akhlaqs [the man who was lynched to death in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, accused of consuming cow meat],” he said.

Achyut Yagnik, a social scientist who heads the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad, said: “This is part of the agenda that Gujarat stands for development and Hindutva. Of course, their development does not include the marginalised.”

Yagnik said it was a misconception that Gujarat is a vegetarian State. More than half the population are meat eaters, may be not beef but certainly not vegetarian. Breaking down the myth with demographics, he said tribal people constituted 15 per cent of the population, Dalits 7 per cent, Muslims 10 per cent and the Other Backward Classes 17-18 per cent. “This is more than 50 per cent. It is a facade created by the upper-class Gujaratis that the State is vegetarian.”

Anupama Katakam

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