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Between Modernity and Madness: India and the Rise of Beef-Ban Vigilantism

Dynamics of caste, religion, food and cultural rights reflect a harsh reality of Indian politics today.

Photo Credit: Flickr, rishabhsharmafullframe

In the weeks leading up to this year’s festival of Eid ul Azha, a spate of attacks on Indians, almost all Muslim, dotted a political landscape already littered with incidents of lynching and bloodletting that have become more and more commonplace.

The first such incident that shook India out of her stupor took place on September 28, 2015, when Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim, was beaten to death after mob hysteria was stoked over his family storing beef. Since then, incidents across India reveal that, under the present political dispensation, "cow vigilante groups" have been empowered to take the law into their own hands by attacking, molesting, lynching and killing.

The attacks have taken place in states like Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh that are not ruled by the supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Attacks have also torn through Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkand and Punjab, which are dominated by the ruling dispensation. The list is long and gory. In one public lynching in Latehar, Jharkhand this March, two Muslim men—a young teenager and his uncle—were left hanging from trees.

Among the most recent is the beating death of 29-year-old Mohammad Ayub, who was carrying a calf along with Salim Shaikh in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. A vigilante mob set upon them, and while the police watched, beat the young man so mercilessly died two days later on Sept. 16, 2016. Under the law, he was committing an illegal act, as several states in India have enacted rules that ban the slaughter of cows and their progeny (excluding bulls and bullocks in some cases, but not others). But in a country that claims to be a modern and civilized state, the world’s largest democracy, did Mohammad Ayub deserve to be surrendered to the lynch mob?

It is interesting how the police in Gujarat dealt with the "crimes" that were committed. They registered two First Information Reports (FIRs). Despite the fact that there had been severe violence against the two men, the first FIR was under the Cow Protection Act, invoking the law to penalize the offenders for transporting calves with the intent to slaughter them. Only the second one fell under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with an “attempt to murder” charge and relates to the actions of the mob.

Significantly, while the police named the assailants (Janak Ramesh Mistry, Ajay Sagar Rabari and Bharat Nagj Rabari) in the first FIR that had been filed against the Muslim men for offenses under the Cow Protection law, and also noted the registration numbers of the vehicles they were driving, they were careful to omit the names of the accused in the second criminal complaint that mentions attempt to murder as the offense. This is a clear-cut ruse to weaken the case. This maneuver lies at the crux of the current spate of attacks, as Indian law enforcement personnel are influenced, swayed or pressurized by the ideology of the dominant political dispensation, which has legitimized these attacks in the name of protection of the "holy cow."

Days before that incident, in Gujarat—a state ruled by Narendra Modi for 13 years before his rise to prime minister—twin gang rapes were perpetrated by squads of men to avenge the "possession of beef."

Another incident took place on the eve of the Eid Ul Azhar Festival in Haryana, a state ruled by the BJP, where the chief minister recently made a controversial statement that "rapes and murders were trivial issues." The police were ordered by the Haryana Cow Service Commission, whose mission is to look after the welfare of cattle, to set up a 24-hour helpline so people can report incidents of cow slaughter. Cow slaughter is illegal in Haryana; in 2015, that state government passed a law that punishes the slaughter of cows with up to 10 years in prison. Over 20 Indian states forbid either cow slaughter or beef eating or both. As a result, access to beef, which is consumed by a large numbers of Indians, including Dalits, many Hindus, Muslims and Christians, is difficult in many states.

Economically and culturally, this cow vigilantism is affecting both Dalits and Muslims. Dalits, the sect of Indians once called India's untouchables, are often responsible for disposing of the carcasses of cows, selling their hides to tanners and their meat to butchers. They do it because upper-caste Hindus are loath to take on that task—they consider the work impure. Until July 11, 2016 when Dalits in Una in Gujarat were flogged mercilessly for performing their legitimate task of carrying cow carcasses to skin the animal, resistance to this vigilantism was scattered. That changed after Gujarat’s Dalits took to the streets, abandoned cow carcasses all over the state, even dumping them at the offices of the district administration, protesting vociferously and successfully. This was a unique resistance and protest as reflected in the battle cry, "If the cow is your mother, you bury her."

Gujarat’s Dalits and Muslims also forged an alliance. At seven percent and 10.5 percent of the state’s population, their numbers may not be enough to shake the BJP government out of its stupor. It is clear, however, that having Dalits in their corner is much more critical than the country’s Muslims; Narendra Modi was rattled enough by the repeated protests in the state, including mobilization from July 21 to 29 that included a rally at Ahmedabad and a march covering 81 kilometers that was likened to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Washington March. As a result, he broke his preferred silence on August 6, close to a month after the incident and several months after Muslim lives had been lost to public lynchings. To date, Muslims have been lynched to death and raped, Dalits beaten and flogged.

Muslims in 2014 and now, do not enter much into the BJP’s electoral calculations. Dalits on the other hand, seriously do. Not only did the ruling party win a substantial section of the seats reserved for the Dalits across India, but as the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, the RSS is and has been working overtime to appropriate Dalits, an exercise that includes the sanitization of the doyen intellectual and leader, Dr B.R. Ambedkar.

These dynamics of caste, religion, food and cultural rights reflect a harsh reality of Indian politics and where it stands today. The nuts-and-bolts number narrative behind the cow vigilante hate and lynch campaign tells a cold and cynical tale. What were the laws before 2014 and how have they been amended since? Since the days of the debates before the Constituent Assembly between 1947 and 1950, when the doyens of the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi and the leader of Dalits and man who drafted the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, battled issues of religion and culture, the ghost of cow protection has been hovering over and above Indian law and jurisprudence. Unambiguous in his analysis that the issue of cow protection and beef-eating was a cultural or religious more being imposed on India’s majority population, Ambedkar had written extensively on the question. He was unable to triumph over Gandhi and many other leaders, however, and a loose mention under the Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 48) has been used to impose this value.

Until 2014, however, the 20-odd states that had enacted Cow Protection laws, with the sole exception of Gujarat, had been careful to limit the ban to the slaughter of the cow and prevent bull and bullock slaughter only until the "productive" age of 14 years. Since the present Modi regime rode to power in a triumph of the majoritarian vote in May 2014, states under its rule have amended earlier laws to criminalize the transport, possession and consumption of beef. A slew of Supreme Court judgements from 1958 onwards saw a consistent and rational jurisprudence evolve. These court verdicts interpreted the laws in these states to say that, while cow slaughter can be banned, the ban on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks should only be maintained until the animal reaches 14 years (the definition of "useful"). That changed in 2005 when a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by then chief justice Lahoti ruled, in effect, that bulls and bullocks are "useful till they die."

The harsher Ban Beef law enacted after 2014 was challenged in Maharashtra (Bombay High Court) almost immediately. On May 6, 2016, the Court struck down Sections 5D and 9B of the amended law and, in effect, allowed consumption, import and transport of beef, ruling that these new additions to the law impinged on the right to privacy, which is part of personal liberty and the right to a meaningful life with free choice. The Court did not go further in view of the 2005 Supreme Court judgement. The appeals now lie in India’s highest court.

In the hysterically framed present political debate, the sheer economics of the issue are simply not being sensibly debated. A blanket ban on slaughter means the farmer will have to pay for their upkeep which, at current prices, would amount to around 100 rupees a day or 36,500 a year. Can farmers in the grip of an acute agrarian crisis afford this expense? Today farmers, mainly Hindus, sell unproductive cattle to contractors. Who and how will these cattle, once they are past productive use, be managed? Will the government give them a cattle subsidy? According to the cattle census, already there are 5.3 million stray cattle abandoned by their owners.

The strident campaign against cow slaughter will have an adverse impact on the leather industry, which employs close to 2.5 million people, mostly Dalits. Raw material supply to the industry will be affected. Figures provided by the Council for Leather Exports show that 2.5 million people, the majority of them scheduled castes, are employed in the industry. An estimated eight lakh Dalits earn a living through flaying the skin of dead cattle. This activity is allowed and is squarely within the law.

The current cow hysteria, earlier whipped up by Narendra Modi himself during the run-up to the campaign that brought him to the prime minister’s chair, is falsely premised. It is not cows but the meat of buffaloes and unproductive cattle that is mainly used for consumption and exports. In fact, as far as the cow is concerned, the 2012 cattle census shows that “the Female Cattle (Cows) Population has increased by 6.52 percent over the previous census (2007) and the total number of female cattle in 2012 is 122.9 million numbers.” This hardly points to rampant slaughter of cows.

How Many Indians Actually Eat Beef?

The National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) estimated in 2011-12 that 52 million people in the country eat beef or buffalo meat. Earlier, the National Commission on Cattle, set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government in 2002 to promote a ban on cow slaughter, also reluctantly admitted in a report that “extreme poverty and customary practices in the coastal areas and among some sections of scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and other backward castes also make them beef eaters.” There is clearly a class and caste dimension to beef and buffalo eating. Imposition of an unacceptable food code directly affect the nutrition of the poor.

Through this murderous mayhem, however, India retained its top spot as the world’s largest exporter of beef, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which classifies even buffalo meat as beef), and has extended its lead over the next highest exporter, Brazil. According to the data, India exported 2.4 million tons of beef and veal in FY2015, compared to 2 million tons by Brazil and 1.5 million by Australia. These three countries account for 58.7 percent of all the beef exports in the world. India itself accounts for 23.5 percent of global beef exports. This is up from a 20.8 percent share last year, before the Modi government rode to power.

And to top it all, 95 percent of the beef traders—including the companies that rake in the profits through exporting the meat, are ‘Hindus.’ Ironically many Hindu businessmen are the largest beef suppliers of India. Out of the six largest meat suppliers in India, four are Hindus, though the companies are given suitable ‘Muslim’ names. And the BJP political party that has given much legitimacy to the Cow Vigilante Groups that have been on a lynching spree across India has received 25 million rupees in donations from companies exporting buffalo meat, according to contribution reports for financial years 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 submitted to the Election Commission of India.

Cultural and Moral Hegemony and Majoritarianism

It is here that the present laissez faire vigilantism is rooted. Dr. Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of the caste system and the Brahminical order contained an analysis of the grounds for untouchability practiced against Dalits, one of which was consumption of the meat of dead cattle. He held that the demand for a ban on cow slaughter was a way of introducing Hindutva of the upper castes into what was to be a secular Constitution. Renowned historian D.N. Jha, no favorite of the present political dispensation, has long argued with incontrovertible historical evidence that even caste Hindus, during Vedic times, consumed beef.

In the book The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? Ambedkar grapples with erudition on the subject. Ambedkar writes:

What is the cause of the nausea which the Hindus have against beef-eating? Were the Hindus always opposed to beef-eating? If not, why did they develop such a nausea against it? Were the Untouchables given to beef-eating from the very start? Why did they not give up beef-eating when it was abandoned by the Hindus? Were the Untouchables always Untouchables? If there was a time when the Untouchables were not Untouchables even though they ate beef why should beef-eating give rise to Untouchability at a later-stage? If the Hindus were eating beef, when did they give it up? If Untouchability is a reflex of the nausea of the Hindus against beef-eating, how long after the Hindus had given up beef-eating did Untouchability come into being?

The clue to the worship of the cow is to be found in the struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism and the means adopted by Brahmanism to establish its supremacy over Buddhism.

Ambedkar discusses at length when and at what stage Hinduism began being associated with the love of the cow and cow protection.

Beef-Eating as the Root of Untouchability

Ambedkar writes:

The Census Returns [of 1910] show that the meat of the dead cow forms the chief item of food consumed by communities which are generally classified as untouchable communities. No Hindu community, however low, will touch cow’s flesh. On the other hand, there is no community which is really an Untouchable community which has not something to do with the dead cow. Some eat her flesh, some remove the skin, some manufacture articles out of her skin and bones.

From the survey of the Census Commissioner, it is well established that Untouchables eat beef. The question however is: Has beef-eating any relation to the origin of Untouchability? Or is it merely an incident in the economic life of the Untouchables?

Can we say that the Broken Men to be treated as Untouchables because they ate beef? There need be no hesitation in returning an affirmative answer to this question. No other answer is consistent with facts as we know them.

In the first place, we have the fact that the Untouchables or the main communities which compose them eat the dead cow and those who eat the dead cow are tainted with untouchability and no others. The co-relation between untouchability and the use of the dead cow is so great and so close that the thesis that it is the root of untouchability seems to be incontrovertible.

There is so much more. But Indian textbooks and school education do not really allow for a free and legitimate consumption of Ambedkar.

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Teesta Setalvad is a writer, activist, and journalist living in India. She is also the secretary of Citizens for Justice & Peace and a writing fellow for the Independent Media Institute