The conflicted democracy: Cows, minorities and the Indian Constitution

Mentoring diet: A pamphlet (c.1912) protesting against the practice of beef-eating Photograph:( Others )

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Sep 15, 2016, 07.03 AM (IST) Anirban Bandyopadhyay

Fear has been stalking a group of poor roadside food vendors in the Mewat district in the Indian province of Haryana. The local police had forcefully picked up samples from their stocks, following complaints that they contained beef, and tests later carried out in a facility at a public university reportedly confirmed the suspicion. Slaughter and sale of beef, and according to some interpretations, even consumption, have been made illegal in the province following the implementation of a more stringent cow protection law early this year. The new law makes cow slaughter punishable by rigorous imprisonment for a maximum of 10 years and a fine extending up to hundred thousand rupees. While the police mull over the next course of action, the hapless food vendors count their days in anxiety. 

In a related development, Jignesh Mevani, convener of a platform of Dalit (formerly untouchables) protesters against the public lynching of Dalit young men in Prime Minster Modi’s home province Gujrat in early July, has announced plans for a new campaign to be called ‘Badbu Gujrat ki’ (the stench of Gujrat). Videos of seven Dalit men being publicly flogged by self-styled cow protectors in Mota Samadhiyala village in the Una Taluqa of the province of Gujrat went viral in early July. The Dalit youth had been accused of illegally slaughtering and carrying away dead cows. 

Dalits in Gujrat and elsewhere have since then launched sustained protests, the strategies including attempted suicides, resolve to quit skinning as a profession, long marches and public meetings in Gujrat and elsewhere. Mevani’s new campaign involves mass mailing to actor Amitabh Bachchan, who currently serves as the Brand Ambassador for tourism in the province and to Prime Minister Modi. Meanwhile, the streets of Gujrat have been stinking as Dalits have refused since July to dispose of cow carcasses.  

Late last September, Mohammad Akhlaq, a lower middle-class resident of a village near Dadri town in the north Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, was dragged out of his home and lynched to death by a Hindu nationalist mob, following rumours that he had slaughtered a local cow and eaten its flesh. 

During the last two years there had been reports from several other provinces---Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkahnd—of vigilante armies of self-styled cow protectors lynching and threatening ordinary citizens on the mere suspicion that they had either been illegally carrying away cows for export and slaughter or eating their flesh.

Among them, these incidents point to larger fault lines in Indian polity and society. Three points in particular call for immediate attention. The first is the divisive politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and its ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The second is the ambivalence with which the issue of cow protection has been handled by the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution. The third relates to interrogating what may at best be described as a belated and half-hearted condemnation by the prime minister of the recent spate in vigilantism in the name cow protection. It can be safely conjectured that the year-long silence of the prime minister on the issue was broken less out of remorse than by the relentless and strident protests by Dalit activists.

An apparent contradiction seemingly plagues Hindu nationalist politics in India. Its professed admiration for free market economy presupposes respect, indeed sanctity, for free choice of consumers. Yet, the free run of the vigilante Hindu nationalist mobs murdering and lynching members of vulnerable communities raise questions about the Indian state’s commitment to secular and liberal values. 

Prime Minister Modi often gets angry, he said, at anti-socials who have turned cow protection into a petty trade. Some anti-socials, he continued, commit crimes at night and change into the garbs of cow protectors by the day, presumably to hide their crimes and acquire respectability. If the provincial governments were to prepare a dossier on such characters, the prime minister was sure that 70 to 80 per cent of them would be found dubious. On another occasion, he called upon the states to initiate strong measures against the fake cow protectors, and the ‘real’ cow protectors to expose imposters who create mayhem in their name. He has, thus, shifted the responsibility to act against the vigilantes to the provincial governments and to ‘real’ cow protectors.

The prime minister’s rhetoric demands interrogation, primarily, for its timing and content. He was clear that while cow protection (or professed devotion for or veneration towards the cow, to repeat his exact words) is a desirable project, it must not result in violence, brutalisation or terrorisation. From his perspective, therefore, it is at best an instance of imposters sullying the good name of cow protection. Critics argue, however, that divisive mobilisation in the name of cow protection has been a definitive characteristic of the politics of the ruling BJP party and the wider family of Hindu nationalist organisations to which it belongs.

The right question to ask, therefore, is whether and how organised cow protection campaigns like these could lead to violence or persecution against vulnerable groups, such as Muslims and the Dalits.

Historically, there have been Hindu-Muslim riots in the name of the cow in India since the late 19th century. Cow slayers and beef-eaters have come to be defined as the classical ‘other’ of devout Hindus in hegemonic Hindu discourses. Most importantly, popular common sense has often translated these terms as a euphemism for Muslims, although plenty of non-Muslims, including Hindus, eat beef, according to surveys carried out by public authorities.

Roughly two years ago, leading his party’s campaign for the national elections as the prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi publicly accused their main rival Indian National Congress party of indirectly encouraging cow abduction with an intention to scale up beef export. There is no denying that at the time Modi had been projecting an impression that the Congress was indifferent to the cause of cow protection and that the BJP, when in power, would encourage those devoted to cow protection. It is no wonder that governments in provinces where BJP was elected to power soon after, such as Haryana, quickly enacted stringent cow protection laws. 

It has to be conceded, therefore, that the recent election campaigns of the party in power had at least indirectly offered incentives to aggressive campaigns for cow protection. 

It is useful in this context to revisit the ambivalence with which the framers of the Indian Constitution dealt with the cow protection issue. The cause of cow protection had been enshrined, as it were, in the form of a Directive Principle (Article 48), calling upon the state to enact laws for cow protection. However, protection of cows has been acknowledged in this discourse not as a religious imperative, but as an economic good ostensibly in terms of the scientific organisation of animal husbandry.

There were demands in the Assembly, the body that wrote and adopted the Indian Constitution, to accommodate an article banning cow slaughter as a Fundamental Right. However, in the present Constitution, it has been admitted as a Directive Principle. Fundamental Rights are justiciable while Directive Principles are at best recommendations that cannot be legally binding. At the time, some advocates of cow protection interpreted it as a ‘sacrifice’ by the Hindu community and reflecting an approach of non-coercion.

Some Muslim members called for clarity on the matter, arguing that the necessary connection between scientific agriculture and cow protection was not sufficiently established. Legal scholars have suggested that some articles such as Article 48 embodied expedient intra-party compromises and not fundamental principles of ‘social policy’, which Directive Principles were meant to uphold.

There is no doubt, of course, that the Article was written and assented to in terms of scientific organisation of animal husbandry. Yet, it cannot be disputed that at least to participants in the debate the article did reflect Hindu sentiment on the matter, and perhaps still does. At the same time, none at the time foresaw the Dalit resistance. It is only with an upsurge of Dalit identity politics that brought the community into the quagmire of cow protection movement in India.