The discourse has more often than not, been painted in communal hues, causing unnecessary friction. A recent development involving the question of the beef ban has once again drawn attention to the widening chasm between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
The Uttarakhand High Court which was hearing two petitions against a ban on slaughterhouses in Haridwar, said last week that the notion of banning meat concerns the fundamental rights of a citizen and it is not a problem of the majority versus the minority. A bench comprising Chief Justice RS Chauhan and Justice Alok Kumar reminded the court that in India, where as much as 70 per cent of the population is known to consume non-vegetarian food, a proposal to ban meat would need to be considered in the context of our constitutional rights. Rather than focusing on the religious aspects of such bans, what needs to be questioned is whether an individual’s right to food also can be decided by his or her state itself. The two petitions were filed in the aftermath of Uttarakhand declaring in March 2021 that all areas in Haridwar will be slaughter-free.
The incident in Uttarakhand is not isolated. An increasing number of BJP-ruled states are introducing ordinances that blur the line between bovine welfare initiatives and old-fashioned ghettoisation. Last month, the Karnataka government approved the setting up of gaushalas across the state in line with the anti-cattle slaughter law. And in February, the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill 2020 was passed. The Bill is being seen as the enabler of a blanket ban on cattle slaughter. Tellingly, the Bill also has a provision to protect those acting in good faith, which activists believe would give a free run to cow vigilantism. Those slaughtering cattle under 13 years of age, can face imprisonment of 3-5 years as well as fines ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 10 lakh.
Similar changes are being witnessed in Assam as well, where Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tabled the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021, aimed at regulating slaughter, transportation, and consumption of cattle. It prohibits the sale of beef in prohibited areas populated by non-beef eating communities. The new legislation will override the 1950 Act as per which consumption of beef was not considered an offence. Even in Lakshadweep which has a predominantly Muslim population, the draft Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, has been prepared. This regulation guarantees seven-year imprisonment for the sale or purchase of beef products. As of today, just Kerala and the northeastern states have no laws that prohibit cow slaughter. Madhya Pradesh has constituted a Cow Cabinet under the aegis of CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan. But there’s an aspect of cattle protection that gets altogether ignored. According to the 20th Livestock Census released by the Union Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying in January 2020, India is home to five million stray cattle. One of the reasons for the increase in the population of abandoned animals is cow vigilantism, fearing which farmers and livestock owners are compelled into abandoning unproductive animals instead of selling them to prospective buyers.
There is an obvious disconnect between the implementation of laws in India, vis-a-vis, the requirements of the public. If the argument against cattle slaughter is based on compassion for the cow, it is equally applicable to all animals killed for human consumption and usage. In a multicultural society, individuals must respect each other’s food, dietary, and lifestyle choices. So instead of introducing laws that reek of divisiveness, it would be preferable to arrive at a consensus agreeable to most. An idea that might be worth considering is if humane methodologies of slaughter could be employed in India and proper regulation for the same is brought about on a national level.