HISTORY, as the much-quoted Marxist axiom goes, repeats itself first as tragedy, second as farce. The gruesome lynching of five poor Dalit youths in 2002 at a police post in Dulina near Jhajjar town in Haryana took place ironically on the day of Dasara, the festival symbolising the triumph of good over evil. The five men, some of whom were flayers, were allegedly “caught” slaughtering cattle. A communal mob, incited sufficiently by local cow protection vigilantes, beat them to death. Statements issued subsequently by a section of the perpetrators claimed that the five men were actually from the majority community but had been identified as Muslims by mistake.
On March 16, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government passed the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan aur Gau Samvardhan (Cow Race Protection and Cow Conservation) Bill, 2015, prohibiting the slaughter of the cow and its progeny and providing stringent punishment of up to 10 years of imprisonment for any violation of the law. This was two days after the government imposed a ban on the sale of beef and beef products, including packaged beef, the sale of which was allowed during the previous regimes. The reasons for these moves are baffling as Haryana is a largely “vegetarian” State and beef is not known to be consumed by the average person. With the national beef consumption averages as low as 4 per cent in rural India and 5 per cent in urban India, there appears to be no compelling logic for the enactment of the law other than ideological bigotry and the claim of public sentiment. In the State Assembly, the discussion on the Bill lasted just about an hour and it was passed with a voice vote. Animal Husbandry and Dairy Minister Om Parkash Dhankar, who tabled the Bill in the House, argued fervently for its passage in view of the “strong socio-religious sentiments of the general public”. Surprisingly, the Opposition Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) supported the Bill, with former Congress Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda even stating that the BJP government deserved to be “patted on the back” for the new law. That the cow protection Bill is one of the earliest pieces of legislation to be taken up by the Manohar Lal Khattar government is not surprising.
Under the new law, anyone found guilty of cow slaughter is liable for rigorous imprisonment ranging from three to 10 years and a fine of up to Rs.1 lakh. It says “any person who attempts to export cows for slaughter would be imprisoned for not less than three years and up to seven years”. The fine imposed will be not less than Rs.30,000 but may extend up to Rs.70,000. Those found defaulting on the fine will have their imprisonment extended by a year. The law also makes punishable the transport of cows for slaughter. It makes the process of seeking a permit for export of cows difficult as clear reasons have to be provided for such export to States where cow slaughter is permitted. The Bill makes both violations, cow slaughter and beef sale, non-bailable. According to government figures, there are around three lakh cows in 400-odd gaushala s (cattle shelters), 1.5 lakh stray cows and some 18 lakh cows raised by households in Haryana.
The ban is effectively aimed at the minority population, concentrated in the Mewat region comprising parts of Haryana and Rajasthan. Public opinion in Haryana has been guardedly silent on the issue, and the impact of the ban on the livelihood of those employed in the meat trade has not generated a debate. In fact, statements such as those made by Governor Kaptan Singh Solanki, who while speaking at a gaushala praised the government for introducing the Bill and exhorted citizens to contribute generously to protect the cow from smugglers, may have the effect of encouraging violent vigilantism as witnessed in Dulina. It may be recalled that in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and later, rumours of alleged cattle smuggling had triggered violent protests and communal tensions in the Gurgaon-Pataudi area of the State. On August 30, 2013, 16 trucks, part of a convoy of 25 trucks carrying stray cattle from Chandigarh to Mathura, were waylaid and set on fire. Government officials and the paramedical team accompanying the convoy were beaten up and the cattle were set free. The officials’ protests that they were on government duty (their vehicles had “on government duty” stickers pasted on them) fell on deaf ears. Several minority community families fled the area. The cattle-laden trucks were going to a gaushala in Mathura and had taken a short cut via Jhajjar when they were waylaid. Vehicles carrying cattle or water buffaloes are intercepted regularly in this region by self-styled cow protectors. The areas of Jhajjar, Pataudi and Dharuhera are particularly sensitive.
Incumbent governments, in their enthusiasm to pander to religious sentiments, have for long neglected the demand from livestock owners for organising cattle fairs. This practice was discontinued by the Hooda government, which succumbed to the “popular majoritarian” view that the cattle bought at the fairs were sold to abattoirs.
“This was all for cow protection,” said Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Livestock owners find it increasingly unviable to maintain cattle, with the milk-yielding capacity of cows decreasing, fodder prices increasing and other alternatives for leather becoming available. Some of the villagers Frontline spoke to said every single town in the State had stray cattle in abundance. “Why don’t the Prime Minister and the Haryana Chief Minister adopt stray cows and keep them in their backyard?” one villager asked, explaining how unaffordable fodder had become.
Inderjit Singh said cattle were traditionally an important source of livelihood for peasants. The farm sector used to depend on draught animals for ploughing and transporting of produce and the cow was the main source of dairy products. Rearing and breeding of cattle continues to be important to that extent. In fact, the cow was described as “gau mata” (meaning mother) without any communal overtones. The birth of a bull calf was celebrated while the birth of a female calf did not bring so much joy. It was the reverse, Inderjit Singh explained, in the case of water buffaloes. With the mechanisation of farming, tractors replaced bullocks. In the case of transportation, water buffaloes gradually replaced bulls. The bullock cart was only notional. The 2007 cattle census showed a marked decline in the number of cows (4.2 lakhs) compared with water buffaloes (19.9 lakhs). It showed an increasing preference for the water buffalo. In such a context, the attempt to restore the glory of gau mata through a law can only have one reason other than the economic one.
Haryana’s Murrah breed of water buffaloes are known for their high milk yield. One Murrah buffalo fetched a farmer in Karnal district Rs.6 crore recently. Inderjit Singh, who is from an agricultural background and has studied at the Hisar Agricultural University, said that in the past four decades, the population of cattle as a percentage of the total bovine population had declined sharply from 40.9 per cent in 1966 to a mere 14 per cent in 2007. On the other hand, the water buffalo population had increased from 50.7 per cent to 79 per cent in the same period. “It was simply because the buffalo was more economic in terms of milk yield. The average daily milk yield of the cow is 2.9 kilograms while that of the buffalo is 4.6 kg,” he said.
In fact, there has been no reasoned debate around the economic logic behind the cow protection law. The law says the desi (indigenous) cattle breed will be “conserved and upgraded” and the processing of milk and milk products from these cows will be incentivised. But indigenous cattle are being increasingly replaced by the cross-bred Sahiwal or Jersey cows or the Holstein Friesian, the large dairy cattle known the world over for their high milk yield. “So the desi cows, which have been left out, are further marginalised,” he said, adding that it was this cow population that formed the stray cattle population. This is the same animal that is neglected and yet “worshipped”.
Several people this correspondent met in Hisar explained how cattle shelters had become thriving centres of business as people donated generously for cattle care. In recent times, State governments have also given liberal grants to these shelters. One villager said: “People running these shelters let the cattle loose at night into our fields. We use wire fencing to keep them out. The bulls from these shelters harm pregnant water buffaloes. Cow protection activists should not keep animals that are not productive. They try to educate dairy farmers without realising our plight.”
The All India Kisan Sabha, a national farmers’ organisation, has been demanding curbs on stray cattle and has made proposals to improve cattle breeding, but the government and vigilante bodies seem to emphasise cow “protection” rather than cow “conservation” although conservation is part of the new law. Inderjit Singh said: “In February, there was an official seminar on the plight of the gau mata at Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, where several religious heads and babas were on the dais along with the Agriculture Minister. A policy announcement that a 50 per cent subsidy would be given to those setting up dairies with desi cows was made. This was clearly to exploit the religious sentiments of people as it is the cross-breed cow that is likely to yield more milk.”
Shamsher Arya, State president of the Haryana Rajya Gorakshak Sangh, told Frontline that the law had to be implemented. “There is a lobby that is working on a commission basis to ‘develop’ cattle further, to increase their weight. They misguide people. I don’t consider the cow a mother. She is more than that. The cow’s urine holds remedies for 108 ailments. The minimum wage here is close to Rs.300. Who would like to look after cattle in this situation?” he asked. He claimed that his organisation had “rescued” cows meant for slaughter and had seized 16 tonnes of beef. Although laboratory tests, he claimed, had shown the beef to be that of the cow, the reality was that it was buffalo’s meat. About the arson in Gurgaon in 2013, he said “people had to take the law into their own hands” when the administration was lax.