Beefing up a law

Print edition : April 23, 2010

Members of various Dalit organisations staging a protest against the Bill in Bangalore.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

The butchers at Bangalores largest beef market, in Shivajinagar, are a worried lot. On March 19, the Karnataka State Assembly passed a Bill that proposes to ban completely the slaughter of cattle in Karnataka.

I see this as a conspiracy by the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] government in the State against minorities and backward castes, said Suhail, a young butcher whose livelihood depends on the procurement and sale of beef.

Another butcher remarked that the elections to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), held on March 28, could be the main reason for the Bills passage at this juncture. Elections to the 198 wards of the BBMP were held more than three years after the term of the last council ended. The keenly contested elections had 1,336 candidates, including those from the three leading political parties in the State the BJP, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular).

Behind the beef market and in the thickly populated lanes of Shivajinagar is the office of Khasim Aijaz Quraishi, the president of the Beef Merchants Association of Karnataka. Quraishi is furious that the government could contemplate such an enactment when 35 lakh people in the State were dependent on the trade in beef. The figure, he said, included people involved in the ancillary activities such as transportation of cattle, the leather industry and the meat packaging industry.

While theBill seems to be targeted at Muslims, what the State has overlooked is that almost all the people involved in the associated trades are non-Muslims, he said His estimate of the number of people is not backed by any documentary evidence, but there is no doubt that if all the people involved in all the ancillary trades of the beef industry are enumerated, it will be a huge figure.

A complete ban on the slaughter of cattle figured in the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party when it contested the elections to the Legislative Assembly in 2008. Once the party emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly and formed the government with the support of independent legislators, right-wing pressure groups within the party began demanding that the pre-election promise be fulfilled.

The government first introduced the Bill in the Assembly last year but withdrew it on March 3, a couple of days after the communal skirmish over the publication of Taslima Nasrins translated article in a Kannada newspaper (see Frontline, March 26). However, it was reintroduced in a much more draconian form a few days later as the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill of 2010, which proposed to replace the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act of 1964.

There are two major differences between the two pieces of legislation. The latest Bill extends the prevention of slaughter to cattle, which it defines as cow, calf of a cow and bull, bullock, buffalo male or female and calf of she-buffalo. The 1964 Act had its scope restricted to the slaughter of cows, calves of cows and calves of she-buffaloes, but allowed the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffaloes if they were over 12 years of age or if they were no longer fit for breeding or draught or did not give milk.

The other difference is the severity of the penalty. The maximum imprisonment for violating the provisions of the 1964 Act was six months whereas the 2010 Bill prescribes imprisonment extending up to seven years. It is this that has made people question the intentions of the State BJP government as in the Indian Penal Code, imprisonment for such long terms is usually meant for crimes of a far more heinous nature.

Karnataka, especially its coastal areas, has routinely been the target of right-wing groups who use the cow slaughter issue to create communal tensions. Skirmishes follow allegations of transporting of cows for slaughter.

In March 2005, a 60-year-old man and his son were stripped, paraded and beaten in public for trying to buy a calf in Udupi district. In another incident in May 2006 in the same district, an elderly Hindu man was killed for being a middleman in the sale of cows. The involvement of fundamentalist organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu Yuva Sena was alleged in both these incidents.

Right-wing groups in the State use the cow slaughter issue to create communal tensions.-M.A.SRIRAM

Activist groups such as the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (KKSV, or the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum) feel that the harsh clauses of the 2010 Bill will be used to target religious minorities.

The Bill has come under the scanner for two other reasons. First, for its interference in the food habits of people apart from the religious minorities, a large number of backward caste people consume beef. Second, the excessive burden that the Bill will place on farmers, who will now have to look after their aged cattle instead of selling them off to meat traders.

Members of Dalit communities across the State have protested against the Bill, saying that it is a case of interference with their food habits and fulfilment of the upper-caste, Hindutva agenda of Sanskritisation.

Ideologues of the Dalit cause such as Kancha Ilaiah have, in the past, argued that beef-eating is an inherent part of the lower-caste identity. Many opponents of the Bill quote extensively from D.N. Jhas 2002 work, The Myth of the Holy Cow, which expounds that in the Hindu religion, the holiness of the cow is a myth and that its flesh was very much a part of the early Indian non-vegetarian food regimen and dietary traditions. Jha writes that beef-eating is not Islams bequeathal to India, as is commonly believed. He cites Vedic sources to demonstrate Indras preference for ox meat and Agnis and Somas fondness for cow meat.

The cow emerged as the rallying point for communal mobilisation in northern India in the late 19th century. It was the reason for riots on several occasions in pre-independent and post-independent India. There is evidence to show that many rulers in medieval India banned the killing of cows. And when the issue came up for discussion in the Constituent Assembly debates, the Drafting Committee decided to include cow protection in the Directive Principles rather than accept the demand for a total ban on cow slaughter across the country. The demand for a total ban continued in independent India, the apogee of which was in 1966 when a large crowd marched to Parliament and the Shankaracharya of Puri decided on an indefinite fast demanding the same.

The demand was raised sporadically across the country even after that, and a few States such as Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh banned the slaughter of all cattle. When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power at the Centre, it had tried to introduce the Prevention of Cruelty to Cow Bill in 2003 but its efforts failed as it could not build a consensus on the issue. While most States across India have banned the slaughter of cows but not other cattle, it is legal to slaughter cows in Kerala, West Bengal and in the north-eastern States.

The Bill was passed in the Karnataka Assembly by a voice vote after a lengthy debate and amidst protests from the Opposition parties. Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa said that the aim of the Bill was to preserve the rich cattle wealth of the State and should not be construed as being against any particular community. He said it was in accordance with Article 48 of the Directive Principles. But the government will find it more difficult to get the Bill passed by the Legislative Council, where it does not have a clear majority. The Governors sanction will follow this approval.

If the Bill becomes an Act and the sale of beef is completely forbidden in the State, it will be the responsibility of the State government to provide for the upkeep of lakhs of head of cattle. This will increase the burden on the State exchequer.

The ban will also bring about a change in the dietary habits of lakhs of people. Beef is relatively cheap, selling at between Rs.100 and Rs.120 in Bangalore, while mutton sells at double that price. The BJP government has not given a thought to this or to the livelihood problem of lakhs of people involved in the cattle meat trade while attempting to appease its right-wing constituency.

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