World

India's Ban on Selling Meat Hurts Farmers and Religious Minorities

At the heart of the move is the need to impose a vegetarian culture.

Photo Credit: BigIndianFootage / Shutterstock

A recent decision by the Narendra Modi-led government in India to amend the Animal Cruelty Law has been called out as unfairly targeting the country’s cattle industry, as well as its religious freedom.

There are several counts on which one more decision of the 36-month-old, ultra-right-wing Narendra Modi-led government in India is being called out for taking direct aim at Indian federalism, diversity and pluralism. Days before he died, Modi’s environment minister, Anil Dave, put his signature on a set of rules (amendments to the Animal Cruelty Law), that under the guise of prevention of animal cruelty, rather crudely targeted cattle traders, farmers, the meat/beef and leather business and trade, and more. The law Dave okayed has been criticized as being “retrograde.” It is no coincidence that it was on the eve of the government’s third anniversary in office (May 25) that the center’s environment ministry chose to impose this unlawful “ban” on the sale of livestock and cattle. It is a move that has hit farmers whose livelihoods depend on livestock and the entire meat, beef and leather industry.

In the 36 months he has been in office, Narendra Modi—after facing electoral defeats in two state elections, Delhi (January 2015) and Bihar (November 2015)—sits comfortably in his popularity ratings, especially after his party’s resounding victory in the recently held state polls in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. But elections aside, India under Prime Minister Modi—the man from Gujarat, hailed for his “developmental vision”—resembles a multifaceted, some would even say fractured and battered state. Murderous lynchings and attacks on the Muslims and Dalits (members of the lowest caste), in the name of trading and eating beef (the cow as “holy animal” is revered by a narrow section of the caste elite), have received public sanction. It’s worth noting that such bloodcurdling acts on the streets have not adversely affected the stock market ratings.

Three weeks after the impact of the latest regulations on cattle trade have begun to be felt, states across India, from Kerala in the far south to its neighbor, Karnataka, and the “seven sister” states of the northeast have formally protested this attempt not just to regulate cattle trade for slaughter, but also to trample the foundational principles of Indian federalism: Indian states under Article 346 of the Indian Constitution have sole say over some critical issues, and this is one of them.

The news broke on May 25, as reported by the Times of India:

“The rule, Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets), prohibits sale of cattle for slaughter. The scope of the rules covers buffaloes and camels. Overall trade in livestock has thereby been squeezed, as when sale of animals takes place it is difficult to determine what purpose it is for. Trade that has been legitimate for centuries will now be burdened by layers of bureaucracy and red tape, which will catalyse corruption. India’s thriving buffalo meat exports, which recorded Rs 26,684 crore in 2015-16, will be crippled by the move.”

As detailed in the publicly circulated letters of chief ministers of both Kerala (Pinarayi Vijayan) and Karnataka (Siddaramaiah), the new rules violate existing state legislation. Siddaramaiah, elected as chief minister of Karnataka in 2013, is one of those rare species among Indian politicians who took his oath of office under the Indian Constitution and not a religious scripture. Siddaramaiah’s letter circulated widely to all journalists and social media states:

“The new rules will go against the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Act 1964, which allows the slaughter of animals aged over 12 with permission from an authorised person. The new rules also go against provisions of free trade envisaged in Article 301 and 302 of the Constitution by indirectly prohibiting the sale of animals outside the state and they also interfere in a state subject without the consent of the state government.”

The letter also states, “The said rules suggest constitution of Animal Market Monitoring Committees and Animal Market Committees. This will disturb a well-established structure which is already in place under the Karnataka Animal Produce Marketing Regulation Act 1966. This Act provides space for regulation and operation of animal trading through the APMCs situated all over the state. The free trade of cattle among farmers will be badly affected by the said rules.” Further, Siddaramaiah adds, “A large number of farmers in the country will not be able to produce documents mandated by the new rules and will not be in a position to trade cattle and other animals under the new rules.”

“Meat is a key source of protein for poor and ordinary people. It is consumed by people of all faiths and not only by minorities and Dalits. The rules of the government bring in unfair and unnecessary dietary restrictions," Chief Minister Siddaramaiah explained in his letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Restrictions on the trading of cattle will affect the lives and livelihood of many people in the leather industry and many public sector meat processing units and this "will adversely affect the country’s economy," Siddaramaiah said.

Siddaramaiah concluded that “The rules should have been introduced after consultations with the states—the failure to consult states hits at the very root of federalism. I request you to consider repealing the rules in the larger interest of farmers and the society."

That the center’s notification restricting the sale of cattle in the country is glaringly unconstitutional and an affront to federalism, besides being a blow to farmers, is clear. The center cannot create any law or issue orders/notification on a subject that is in the state list, in the division of legislative powers between the center and states. Livestock is a state subject under India’s Constitution. In the state list under Schedule VII: Paras 15 and 16 cover livestock. The original notification, issued under the Prevention of Cruelty Act, assumes powers that the basic Act itself doesn’t have.

Significantly, also, pointing to the exclusivist and supremacist intent behind the notification, commentator S Faizi has observed at SabrangIndia: “the world’s first animal protection law was passed by Hitler in 1933 to ban the Jewish kosher meat and to selectively harass Jewish biologists.” “Already,” as S Faizi notes, many Indian states, such as Kerala, West Bengal, Telangana, Tripura, Nagaland, Sikkim and Goa, “are expressing outrage” and will undoubtedly have “to approach the Supreme Court where it is hoped this notification will be struck down as un-Constitutional.”

The Left Front dominated Kerala Assembly has not only formally registered its legal protest on the Central Government notification with the president of India, but also began its assembly session with a “beef party.” For those who enjoy the southern Indian state’s vast culinary delights, its “beef fry” is a delicacy that cannot be resisted. The ruling BJP (Modi’s party), however, faced its most embarrassing moments from the northeastern state of Meghalaya when not only did three prominent Christian leaders belonging to the Garo Hills Tribe resign, but they did so after organizing a “bitchi-beef” fest. This was a unique cultural protest against the Modi government’s new rules that aim to prevent sale of cattle for slaughter. These three BJP leaders—Bernard Marak, Bachu Marak and Wilver Graham Danggo—made a spectacle of their resignation after other seniors in the party had opposed their plans for a “bitchi-beef party.” “Bitchi” in the Garo dialect means “rice beer,” and the celebrations were initially to hail years of Narendra Modi government. The Cattle Notification literally spoiled the party for Modi in Megalaya. Five thousand other Garo Christians resigned from the BJP, protesting this imposition on their food habits and culture.

Further Restrictions Under the Rule

It is not insignificant that a month after the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) publicly advocated a “national ban” on cow slaughter, the Modi government that clearly sees the RSS as its ideological fountainhead, sought to bring this in, albeit through the proverbial backdoor. Apart from invoking this ban, a move that many states have protested, SabrangIndia reports:

“the [Modi government’s environment] ministry has notified another rule that makes it mandatory for the owner of the animal to bear the cost of its upkeep in a shelter. If the owner is unable to pay, it should be recovered as land arrears, the rule says. The cost will be specified by the state government every year on April 1. So will this mean land grab by the government in return for cattle that cannot be sustained or nurtured?

“Unions of Farmers and organisations see these new rules formulated by the late environment minister Anil Dave before his death, as a direct and dangerous assault on agriculture. They said that in a time of distress, sale of cattle was one of the important ways through which a farmer overcomes financial difficulties. Enacting such stringent rules to regulate sale of cattle will push farmers further into debt.”

As the Times of India reports, the impact of this ill-thought out notification “doesn’t end there. Milch cattle have a limited productive period. The livestock economy therefore depends on the farmer’s ability to sell cattle subsequently. Other industries such as meat, leather, soap, automobile grease among others, use livestock or its by-products as inputs. Therefore, restricting livestock trade impairs other industries and threatens millions of jobs.”

The move has been made ostensibly to prevent cruelty to animals. This argument has convinced few, as the Times of India points out, since more cruelty could be unleashed on animals “when farmers are forced to resort to underhand means to dispose of unproductive cattle. The Indian economy today produces few jobs relative to the number of young people coming into labour markets. It is, therefore, [any government’s] imperative… not [to] introduce rules that destroy even [the] jobs that exist currently.”

When the Environment Ministry notified these new rules in the last week of May, these rules were framed under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, banning the sale of “all kinds of cattle for slaughter at animal markets nationwide.” However, as Rohan Venkataramakrishnan writes, it has become apparent that what the government is really attempting to do, is:

“change the way the meat network in India operates. The new rules make it illegal for any animal passing through an open market to ever be sold for slaughter. Instead, it mandates that animals on the open market can only be sold for agricultural use, and requires the market authority to collect undertakings from the sellers and buyers of the animals asserting that they are not being traded for slaughter.”

Is the move also a crude attempt by a proto-fascist government to regulate what people can eat? The worldview that Narendra Modi and his government represents, that of the RSS is obsessed with regulating the consumption of meat and the selling of a notion of Indian culture that is “vegetarian.” Large parts of India, apart from Kerala in the south, west Bengal in the east, and Goa in the west, not to speak of the states in the northeast, are not just proudly non-vegetarian but consume beef and pork. Hence, many, particularly in south India and the northeast, took to the streets to criticise the government for attempting to regulate what people can eat.

That this is the motive of the Modi government, now entering its fourth year, might be a natural reading of the government’s intentions with the rules, considering its willingness to push support for state-level anti-beef laws as well as its close association with numerous cow vigilante mobs that have indulged in horrific violence.

As Venkataramakrishnan writes:

“The [Modi] government insists this move is about animal cruelty. The rules come under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. And indeed, many of the provisions do actually have a direct bearing on animal cruelty. For example, the rules mandate veterinary inspectors at animal markets, prohibit the use of chemicals on the animals, require poultry cages to be large enough for the birds to turn around and so on. The rules have titles like ‘handling and tying of animals’ and ‘penning and caging of animals.’

“Rule 22, however, is different. While the title of every other rule refers to all animals, this one is titled ‘restrictions on sale of cattle’—not animals, just cattle. If the concern is the welfare of animals, why does this section single out only cattle?

“Rule 22, among other things, require both the seller and the purchaser to provide an undertaking that they are not trading the animal for slaughter. This is the most controversial portion of the rules, the one that has been singled out as effectively being a backdoor ban on cattle slaughter. But why does slaughter make its way into this provision at all?

“Is slaughter cruel? Individuals might have many opinions on this, but the government is clear. Indeed, the official position on slaughter—specifically the killing of animals for food—is established in the very Act that these rules are based on.

“Section 11: Treating animals cruelly   
(3) Nothing in this section shall apply to—
  (e) the commission or omission of any act in the course of the destruction or the preparation for destruction of any animal as food for mankindunless such destruction or preparation was accompanied by the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering.  

“In other words, the law states that killing any animal for food cannot be considered cruelty, unless those actions involve unnecessary suffering. Rule 22 does not point out any such unnecessary suffering; it simply bans the sale of all cattle meant for slaughter at open markets.

“Which part then involves cruelty? It can’t be the slaughter itself, since the law expressly establishes that killing of animals for food per se is not cruelty. Is it the government’s claim that simply taking cattle to an open market for sale constitutes 'unnecessary suffering'? If that were the case, then the rules should be banning these markets and preventing animals from being brought for any purpose, whether agricultural or for slaughter. Instead, the rules actually lay the groundwork to legalise, notify and regulate animal markets. So where is the cruelty?

“It’s clear that Rule 22 of the New Rules has several problems. It selectively picks on cattle, instead of covering all animals. It doesn’t establish what cruelty is involved when it bans the sale of cattle for slaughter at open markets. Yet the government felt the need to include this under rules related to the Prevention of Cruelty. Why?

“The answer is quite simple. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], the parent organisation of the [present government]…, has been calling for a blanket ban on cow slaughter across [India]…. Yet this cannot be done at the Center, because the Constitution gives exclusive powers to the states to make laws regarding livestock. Any decision to ban the slaughter of cows or other cattle, like the cow-slaughter bans that exists across much of India, has to be taken at the state level.

“However, the Constitution does put the question of preventing cruelty to animals in the concurrent list. This means both states and the Center can make laws, and if there is any conflict between the state and Central law, the latter will override the former. So the Center seems to have tried to use its powers under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to regulate sale of cattle, even though it has not established any cruelty involved. This is why the ministry, in its statement, had to insist that the law was about cruelty, not slaughter.”

That the move is political and aimed at the eating habits of Indians—specifically to curtail local consumption of beef—is clear. Banning sale of cattle at local markets while promoting “breeding of buffaloes, etc.” for employment generation schemes under the National Livestock Mission explains the Modi government’s intent: squeezing the cattle market so that the farmer is forced into distress sales to large slaughter houses. So beef exports boom and local beef consumption is regulated.

Under this scheme, it is the Dalit- and Muslim-run local slaughterhouses that will suffer. And the corporatized, mechanised ones, run by “vegetarian” Hindus and Jains in the large part, will flourish. The Left Front government in Kerala as also the Congress-led Karnataka government appear to have seen through this ruse. No wonder then, that this ploy to paralyze, or hamstring, the independent, domestic meat trader—large sections of whom are Muslim—and privilege the corporate meat producer, is seen as one more example of Modi’s corporate Hindutva.

At the heart of the move is the need to impose “one culture”—a vegetarian culture. History is testimony, replete with examples of Indians being as much non-vegetarian as vegetarian. The Vedas refer to about 50 animals deemed fit for sacrifice, and by inference, for eating. The present-day political dispensation, blinded as it is by its politicised and reductive vision of things, including vegetarianism, would do well to look toward the true Indian culture foreign to its lunatic fringes, and one that they are unable to absorb. Since the days of the Indus Valley civilization, 2,500 BCE, Indians have indulged in dishes made with meat and poultry: zebu cattle (humped cattle), gaur (Indian bison), sheep, goat, turtle, ghariyal (a crocodile-like reptile), fish, fowl and game.

Indian culture is replete with a unique sense of diversity and inclusion, debates and dialogue. For a dispensation committed to imposition, through brute majoritarianism versions and readings of culture that are inherently exclusivist do the greatest disservice to all that is true—and Indian.

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