‘Driven by the communal agenda’

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Ram Puniyani. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Interview with Ram Puniyani, social activist.

RAM PUNIYANI, an academic and a social activist who has been working for communal harmony, has often spoken about the relationship between the cow and politics. He is associated with the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy), an organisation started in response to the 2002 Gujarat riots. Puniyani has been engaged in understanding the global and local changes that have given rise to communal violence. Recently, he edited a book, Cow on Indian Political Chessboard, a collection of essays by D.N. Jha, Puniyani and others. Puniyani, who has done extensive research on the issue of cow slaughter, says it is being used as a divisive and political tool by communal forces. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Would you say that the ban on beef is politically motivated?

In March, the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] government in Maharashtra got the President’s assent to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 1995, which seeks to ban the slaughter of bulls and bullocks as well. The choice of the cow alone from the list of animals for such a stringent stipulation proves the Hindutva agenda of the ruling dispensation. Among the issues involved here are the dietary choices of several sections of society, not only Muslims, and the economic impact of a ban on those employed in the meat trade and the supply of hide, bones and other parts of the dead cow, which are used in different industries.

Some call it dietary fascism. Why has the 1995 Bill been resurrected now? Did this issue not come up during the Congress-led Democratic Front rule? Did the previous government choose to ignore the issue?

The Bill had been put on the back burner for the last two decades. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance had passed it then and sent it for President’s assent. The combine has a political agenda and that is why the Bill has been resurrected. It has no relevance for the economic life of the State. On the contrary, it will deprive the poorer sections of society of a rich source of protein, as beef is available at less than half the price of other non-vegetarian sources of protein and nutrition. As the issue had no political and emotive relevance for the previous government, it did not revive it. As for dietary fascism, one recalls the Beef Festival organised at Osmania University and a similar event organised in Kerala recently.

Could you elaborate on the economic and social impact of the ban on beef?

The Kasai and Khatik communities’ livelihood depends on the storage and sale of beef and beef products. This will get affected. While there is no compulsion to eat beef in Islam, the ban will affect the dietary practices of the poorer sections of the community. At an emotive level, many Muslim groups have stated that they are willing to abide by the ban to respect the sentiments of their Hindu brethren, at the cost of a traditional source of employment and poor people’s food habits.

You have spoken and written about the cow and politics extensively. Could you briefly explain your point of view?

Hindutva politics has used the cow as its symbol. One recalls the killing of Dalits in Gohana in Haryana on the charge that they had killed cows. The killed youth were actually skinning dead animals. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP] defended the killing of the Dalits. Cow slaughter is a livelihood option and several people are employed in the trade of cattle hide and bones. Cows that do not yield milk and bullocks and oxen that are too old for agricultural operations are a burden on farmers. The workers of the Deonar abattoir took out a procession in Mumbai to protest against the Maharashtra government’s ban.

India is a secular democracy. Does the ban border on a majoritarian form of governance?

Pork is banned in many Muslim countries. In a secular country, the dietary choices of all citizens should be respected. Such a move is definitely a sort of majoritarian assertion of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS] combine, of which the BJP is a part. Interestingly, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideologue of Hindutva politics, was not in favour of treating the cow as holy mother. But the RSS finds it a useful tool for its political mobilisation. It is a symptom of the rise of majoritarian politics.

This ban has the potential to disturb the agrarian economy. Your comments.

Driven by the communal agenda, this government is overlooking the economic aspects of the issue and the employment and nutrition of the poorer sections of society. That is what identity politics does to the real issues of the people, particularly the deprived sections of society.

Farmers will find it difficult to dispose of their ageing cows and bullocks that cannot contribute to their income. It may affect the supply of cattle hides and bones, which are needed for refining sugar. Cow leather is superior in quality to buffalo leather.

Lastly, I would like to recall an interesting slogan floated by the BJP during the recent election campaign. It was “Modi ko matdan, gai ko jeevadan [Vote for Modi, give life to the cow], BJP ka sandesh, bachegi gai, bachega desh [BJP’s message, the cow will be saved, the country will be saved]”.

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