#BeefBan: How Modi has done a disservice to the cow and economy

Sumit Mitra
Sumit MitraMar 28, 2015 | 17:36

#BeefBan: How Modi has done a disservice to the cow and economy

The palpable anxiety of BJP functionaries in the states to make their bovine protection laws increasingly draconian betrays a hurry which is difficult to explain. Within months of being elected, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Phadnavis secured the president’s assent to a decade-old amendment to the state anti-cow slaughter Bill, drafted by a previous BJP-Shiv Sena government. It not only includes bulls and bullocks in the prohibited list but stretches the maximum punishment to five years of rigorous imprisonment and transfers the burden of proof to the accused. Not to be outdone, Haryana chief minister Manoharlal Khattar, who’s not given to concealing his soft corner for the state’s khap panchayat and other controversial patriarchal instruments, has doubled the punishment to ten years RI. And, acting on war footing, the Maharashtra government booked, within days of being armed with the law, the first lot of three men under the amended Act, on the charge of killing a calf at Malegaon. With 24 of India’s 29 states already having some regulation regarding slaughter or sale of cow meat, why the state governments (preservation of cattle stock is a state subject) are in a tearing hurry to make their laws even tougher is a baffling question. 

There is no provocation from either cattle census figures or number of slaughters that may have provoked urgent action. It is a fact though that, between 2007 and 2012 livestock census years, there was a 4.1 per cent drop in cattle population, from about 199 million to 190 million (buffalo population went up in this period). But it is hardly due to over-slaughtering. The obvious reason for the drop in numbers is the changing energy-use pattern in agriculture. Time was when cattle power drove India’s economy, from agriculture to food processing and transport. But, like in most parts of the world, bovine power is becoming just another reject of history — like typewriter and fixed phone. From figures computed by the agriculture ministry, in 1970-71, India’s agriculture consumed 15 per cent energy from human effort and 45 per cent from draught animals while the remaining 40 per cent energy came from electricity and fossil fuel. By 2010-11, the share of electricity and oil shot up to 86 per cent, the worker contributing a mere four per cent and animals six per cent. In most farms, big or small, draught animals are now put to limited and low-energy use, in seed-bed preparation or sowing. According to a calculation by SD Kulkarni of Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering in Bhopal, a draught animal nowadays works no more than 400/600 hours per year. Judging by the rate at which farming is getting mechanised, with agriculture drawing increasing share of power from the grid, it is obvious that there is an urgent need for the Indian bovine stock’s use to be redefined — from an agricultural help to source of milk and meat and cheap (and polluting) fuel.  Either BJP leaders have got their math wrong or, as it is more likely, they’re in search of a popular issue.   

Cow protection is no doubt an issue that touches a chord in India from time immemorial. Emperor Babur, who was born in cattle-rich Uzbekistan, forbade killing of cow after becoming India’s ruler. He left a note for his son, Humayun, saying: “Refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan”. Over a millennium before Babur, the beef-loving Vedic Hindus were deeply influenced by their dissenters, the Jains, who professed interdependence of all living things. They were followed by Buddhists and their creed of non-violence. It’s not that all this ended animal killing but it surely put the cow on a pedestal. In modern India, the pedestal was further raised by Mahatma Gandhi’s powerful advocacy of cow protection, giving it a religious tinge. “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection”, he said. To him, cow protection was one of the “most wonderful phenomena in human evolution” because “it takes the human being beyond this species”. The words carry a clear subtext of Jain world-view. Besides, Gandhi’s strong view against cow slaughter is said to be one of the reasons why Muslims abandoned him before Partition and responded avidly to MA Jinnah’s call for a separate theocratic state. 

Gandhi is no doubt a messiah of freedom from colonialism but some of his views on social issues have invited criticism, and often rightly so. Like his apathy for modern industry, proneness to emotionally blackmail his followers, and a dogged refusal to stand up against Muslim leaders’ irrational demands. For the last reason, he became a punching bag of successive generations of ultra-nationalist Hindus, from VD Savarkar onward. Even his assassins drew their inspiration from them. But the group, represented by the Rashtriya Sawamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), still seem to be enamoured with some of Gandhi’s obscurantist views. Rather than the spread of large industry, they want rural regeneration, much as Gandhi did. And now the anti-cow slaughter initiative of Phadnavis and Khattar, both with strong RSS links, is said to bear the imprimatur of a Mumbai-based Jain trust which is strongly opposed to mechanised farming. Apparently not bothered by an excess of cattle stock past their productive years, the trustees favour a return to pre-modern agriculture. Surprisingly, there are powerful audiences in Mumbai and Chandigarh to such passionate time-travellers.   

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s way of thinking can’t be much different — in his election speeches he taunted rising beef exports as “pink revolution” — he has a development agenda to chase. And at its core lies a productive rural sector. It has no room for 19th century style farming. If RSS insists on championing more and more stringent laws against cow slaughter, the market economy will hit back by making bovine animals unwanted, leaving pens empty. That will raise questions on the future of milk economy, besides robbing the cattle of its remaining years on the Indian fields as a draught animal.

Last updated: March 28, 2015 | 17:36
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