Material World: The Mad Cow Disease of India
Nation-states require symbols and slogans to promote patriotism. Often the identification is a religious one. India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Prime Minister Modi has been described as a Hindutva regime proclaiming India as a Hindu country. The move of the Modi government on 26 May to impose a ban on the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter at animal markets across India was a populist move aimed at gaining support from the Hindu majority. It is well-known that the cow is a sacred animal in India but beef is consumed by many and beef is on the menu of many Indian citizens including a substantial section of Hindus as well, many Dalits, for instance. 42 percent of the Indian population are Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, Christians and Sikhs. None of these populations are particularly put off by the consumption of meat, with some of these populations regularly including beef in their diet. This is not a situation of militant vegetarians against flesh-eaters but partially an anti-Muslim and partially casteist political agenda.
Haryana police started collecting samples of biryani sold in Mewat district, the state’s only Muslim-dominated district. In Haryana, cow protection laws are among the toughest. Yogi Adityanath who became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has begun a crackdown on illegal abattoirs. The Gujarat Assembly on 31 March, passed a new law on cow-slaughter. Anybody involved in this would be awarded life sentence. Next day, in order to outdo Vijay Rupani, Chief Minister of Gujarat, the Chief Minister of Chattisgarh, Raman Singh, announced that anybody found doing it would be hanged. These two Chief Ministers, if they are serious in revering ‘mother cow’, must ask the BJP to begin this process in Goa, Manipur, Arunachal and other states where despite RSS/BJP governments beef is officially available. Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Lakshadweep also have no legislation against the slaughter and consumption of beef.
On 5 April, Pehlu Khan a dairy farmer was beaten to death. He was the latest murder victim of the cow protector vigilantes. Previously, on 28 September 2015, a mob lynched Mohamad Akhlaq on the charge that he had killed a calf. In December 2015 a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh was shot dead by a ‘cow protection vigilante’ team. In Karnataka, Praveen Poojary, a driver who was transporting cows died after he was attacked by a right-wing Hindutva group called Hindu Jagrana Vedike. His co-worker Akshay Devadiga is in hospital after suffering serious injuries. More than a dozen people were killed and attacked by cow vigilantes in different parts of the country.
The Hindu so-called upper castes will not touch the carcass and the Dalits are forced to clear or handle it and when they do, they are mercilessly beaten up in the name of self-appointed ‘Bhartiya Gau Rakshak Samiti’ (Cow Protection Organisation), a neo-nationalist federation of cow protector movements in India. Dalits who constitute one-sixth of India’s population, some 170 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of Indian society because of their rank as ‘untouchables’ at the bottom of India’s caste system. Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land and basic resources, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of police and dominant caste groups that enjoy the state’s protection. Four young Dalit men were stripped, tied to a car and flogged in Una in Gujarat after wrongly being accused of cow slaughter. The men were, in fact, skinning a dead cow, an exacting and poorly-paid job that lower castes are forced to perform.
The implications of this ban will adversely affect small farmers. Dairy farmers no longer wish to own large herds of cattle, knowing that when the animals age there will be no resale value for them and they will have to bear the burden of taking care of them for many years after their milking-life is over. A cow lives for 20-25 years, but provides milk only for 10 years.
Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in an open letter wrote ‘Meat is the primary source of protein for millions of poor and ordinary people in this country (780 million of whom live in deprivation). People of all faiths consume meat in our country, not just the minorities. Once the prohibition comes into effect it will not only deprive them of adequate nutrition, but also prevent the availability of raw material for the leather industry.’ The leather industry is valued at $17.8 billion and serves India’s footwear manufacturers but also provides ingredients for India’s extensive pharmaceutical industry.
The Students Federation of India and other organisations have held beef festivals, where they cooked beef and then shared their food in public, highlighting among other facts that the decimation of the beef industry renders many people jobless.
Modi and the BJP want to keep the cow at the centre of politics so as to maintain a hold of power by challenging India’s secular constitution on behalf of his Hindu extremist supporters (we decline to say fundamentalist because there is no generally accepted religious scripture or canon in Hinduism to be fundamental towards).