In the great Indian novelist Yashpal's magnum opus about Partition, Jhootha Sach ("The False Truth"), one character swears that he is telling the truth -- and if not, "may the curse of spilling a cow's blood fall on me."
This line may be taken as emblematic of one of the most special man-animal relationships in the world, that of Indian Hindus with the cow. Not only is the cow central to the Indian agricultural system -- supplying milk for family nutrition and for sale, and dung for manure and fuel -- it also has many sacred associations in Hindu mythology and everyday life. On street corners one can find a cow tethered by its owner to a tree or post, being fed grass paid for by passers-by, who consider the gift a small act of kindness and empathy for the day. Even the languages of India are rich with cow proverbs and metaphors. Cows, whether as living animals or symbols, are always within the field of vision.
It is but natural then that the slaughter of cows for meat is a controversial subject in India, where such an act would horrify Hindus (the Bloomberg View columnist Pankaj Mishra quotes the historian DD Kosambi as saying "a modern orthodox Hindu would place beef-eating on the same level as cannibalism") but seem perfectly normal to Muslims and Christians. Indian social history, especially in the modern period, is littered with accounts of clashes and disputes on this subject. When the Constitution was framed in the years after independence in 1947, its makers offered some concession to Hindu sensitivities in offering a set of "directive principles of state policy" -- goals, rather than laws -- that included "prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves" and other milk and draft cattle.
Since then, despite many agitations by Hindu organizations, the government of India has resisted passing a nationwide law regulating cow slaughter, and instead allowed each state of the federation to pass its own law on the subject. A recent survey of laws about cow-slaughter in Indian states by the Indian Express revealed a great diversity of approaches, with each state having its own interpretation of "cow" (some take it for exactly what it means, while others extend it to mean all cattle, including the ubiquitous water buffalo), its own definition of "slaughter" (some allow old or diseased cows to be killed), and a range of punishments from simple fines to imprisonment. In states where beef is widely eaten, such as the northeast of the country and the southern state of Kerala, there is no law on cow slaughter. Indeed, beef is widely available around the country, but usually it is buffalo meat, referred to colloquially as "buff."
Some commentators, such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his 2003 essay "Cows, Citizens and the State," have argued that it is wrong to legislate on what might be seen as a matter of individual liberty:
Living with difference requires a recognition that not all the things that we hold sacred are universally held to be such. All calls for state power being used on behalf of that sacred value ought to take cognizance of this fact. A closed society, or a fundamentalist one, is distinguished by just this feature: it takes religious sacredness to be a sufficient argument to invoke state power, independent of considerations of individual liberty or what it means to treat citizens as equal.
But even Mehta concedes that laws against cow slaughter are inevitable given the pressure of public opinion. He settles for a situation where it isn't the central government that forms such laws but the states. One might say that such solutions, worked out from state to state, represent an equilibrium-point between divergent social practices.
But this balance was thrown completely out of kilter in the large central state of Madhya Pradesh last month when the government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, received permission to radically amend an existing law from 2004 prohibiting cow slaughter. The revised law raises the term of imprisonment for cow slaughter to seven years, and makes even the transport of cows for slaughter in other states and the storing of beef punishable offenses. Clearly no legislator with any experience in law-making, much less an entire government, should be complicit in the lack of respect for due process and disregard for human liberty and dignity implicit in a set of clauses that announce:
For the purpose of enforcing the provisions of this act, the competent authority or any person authorised by the competent authority... shall have powers to enter and inspect any premises within the local limits of his jurisdiction where he has reasons to believe that an offence under this act has been, is being, or is likely to be committed and shall take necessary action. [...]
Any police officer not below the rank of Head constable or any person authorized in this behalf (sic) by competent authority may...stop, enter and search any vehicle used or intended to be used for the export of cow progeny or beef. [...]
Where any person is prosecuted for an offence under the provisions of this Act, the burden of proof that he had not committed the offence under the provisions of this Act, shall be on him, if the prosecution is in a position to produce the prima facie evidence against him at the first instance.
In those airy, all-pervading words "has been, is being, or is likely to be committed" is a world of mischief -- but more on the part of the lawmaker than the notional lawbreaker. No democratic government can arrogate to itself powers that are warranted only in states of emergency, not for the ferreting out of contraband meat. The very nonchalance with which the government of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan passed these sinister amendments, and the gloating phrase at the beginning declaring the act to be "in the interest of the general public and to maintain communal harmony and peace," is a clear indication that the government wishes not only to protect cows but to spite some of its own citizens -- the "others" within the fold -- in the bargain. As Javed Anand wrote in the Indian Express in a piece called "Using the Cow":
You do not need a particularly fertile imagination to recognise the numerous possibilities in this draconian and insidious provision to harass, intimidate, implicate, detain, arrest or prosecute a targeted section of citizens. In a state where as often as not the police function as the private militia of the Saffron Brotherhood [saffron is the colour of Hindu nationalism], who is to determine, and on what basis, whether a chunk of meat stored in the fridge or simmering on the burner comes from a buffalo (not prohibited) or from a cow or its progeny?
And an editorial in the Deccan Herald said:
What makes the law most draconian is that it empowers officials to enter into homes or other premises on suspicion that an offence under the act has been or may be committed there. Worse, it is for the accused to prove his or her innocence in a court of law. Such provisions do not pass legal muster even in the case of more serious crimes.
In any law-abiding society where the rights of citizens are respected the onus of proof of the commission of a crime is on the prosecution. The provisions are bound to be misused in a politically riven society where law enforcers are themselves not above board. Cow slaughter has been an emotive issue and it can be easily used to harass and persecute sections of people, especially minorities. [...] The law’s political intent and its divisive impact on society will not be missed.
Traditionally a symbol of innocence, piety and peace, the gentle cow has been turned in Madhya Pradesh into an instrument of intimidation. In the language of those few arrogant clauses of the revised act prohibiting cow slaughter is a revealing glimpse of all the labor that has been, is being, or is likely to be required to make all adult Indians, and especially elected representatives of the people, arrive at a common minimum understanding of each other's needs, rights and liberties.
(Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at email@example.com