The Beef Over Buff

Why Karnataka’s cattle slaughter bill is simply ridiculous

Despite cows being politicised, many are left to fend for themselves. Arne Hodalic / Corbis
01 September, 2010

ON THE AFTERNOON OF INDEPENDENCE DAY, I met with former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda at his Safdarjung Lane residence in New Delhi. The 77-year-old, often regarded as the ‘son of the soil politician,’ was visiting from Bangalore to attend the Independence Day parade at the Red Fort. Only a week earlier, Gowda was in Delhi with 40 state legislators in tow, making an appeal to President Pratibha Patil in the form of a three-page memorandum—to dissuade the president from giving her assent to a new bill sent by the Government of Karnataka: the Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill 2010.

This March, Karnataka’s BJP government passed the Cattle Bill, banning the slaughter of cows, bulls, and buffalo. Under the bill, if you’re found selling, eating, or possessing beef, you could be imprisoned for up to seven years. But in July, State Governor HR Bhardwaj declined to give his assent and left the decision to President Patil. In his press note, Bhardwaj, a former union law minister, said: “I feel that the bill infringes [on] fundamental rights of the citizens and it is against the rulings of the apex court. The bill adversely affects lakhs of people’s lives and lacks legislative competence.”

Deve Gowda was among the first few politicians to speak out against the bill. On that humid afternoon on 15 August, Gowda wore his traditional white dhoti and waistcoat with a pocket stitched at the middle, right on his stomach. The handloom cloth was transparent, the 100-rupee notes in his pocket clearly visible.

Gowda’s journey from a childhood in a nondescript village to the prime minister’s office was an unusual one. As a poor boy in Haradanahalli, Hassan district, Karnataka, he once herded sheep and cows after school and studied by the light of a kerosene lamp. When he became prime minister of India in 1996, it was clear that he wasn’t one of the citified, Hindi-speaking, or Brahmin leaders. His caste, the Vokkaligas (literally ‘people of the plow’), subsist on farming. His upbringing has given Gowda clarity into how such a bill would affect the people of rural India. The former PM thinks the new cattle slaughter bill goes not only against Muslims, Christians, Dalits and tribal people, but also against the livelihood of a huge population of Hindus. “If it [the bill] serves anything, it’s communalism,” he said. “The very idea of such a bill also shows you hardly know anything about the rural economy.”

I may have been born several decades after Deve Gowda, but coming from an agricultural family in Wayanad, Kerala, only 160 kilometres south of Gowda’s Hassan, I think I get what he means when he says ‘how the rural economy works,’ and how banning cattle meat would have a hugely negative impact. Drawing from my experience, I would use the same argument as Gowda to drive home my first point against the cattle slaughter bill. Because with such a sentimental issue, people who coexist with cattle—the ones who get their hands dirty looking after the animals—should not be left out of the debate against those who make higher moral claims of militant vegetarianism, those who preach the doctrine of the sacrosanct bovine, yet watch the animals eat plastic and urban waste and return no physical care to the animals.

The organic co-existence of the farmer who raises cows gives him a legitimacy over his livestock. It is the farmer who milks them with his hands, bathes them, polishes their skin to keep insects away, washes the cowshed, mates them with the healthiest partners available, stays awake all night during delivery to make sure the calf doesn’t hit its head on the ground and the cow, in its post-delivery depression, doesn’t kill herself by eating the placenta. These along with several such chores of affection and care give him that legitimacy to the animal over those who give a token roti to a wandering city cow, and leave them to survive on rotten vegetables from garbage heaps, which include toilet litter, construction debris, and medical waste.

In villages, cattle are loved and well looked after. Of course, this is done with the primary needs of milk, manure, and ploughing strength in mind, but as long as they are in a farmer’s cowshed, the animals have a good life. Before old age sets in, farmers sell them to butchers to earn some money to buy another calf. So from a farmer’s point of view, even those who do not eat meat themselves, the prospect of selling a head of cattle that has lived its life and served its purpose is a big economic relief. In other words, even vegetarian farmers who raise cattle are glad that there is a meat market.

So there is a disconnect between the realities of lower Hindu castes, Dalits, tribal people, Christians and Muslims who rear cattle, and that of a few cultural elites from the Brahmin and Brahminised upper castes who don’t like to get their hands dirty doing manual labour, but construct a theory of the sacred cow. And the latter somehow always wins over the former. Now in Karnataka, the core intellectual group behind the bill is the leadership of the RSS, the BJP and the clerics who work very closely with them—such as Raghaveshwara Bharathi of Ramachandrapura Math in Shimoga, Vishvesha Tirtha of Sri Krishna Math in Udupi and a few lingayat clerics from northern Karnataka. The irony here is the wide chasm between the preachy-end and the practical-end. (Four kilometres from Udupi, in Manipal, where I went to college, cows in my upper-caste neighbour’s house were looked after by his servant from the Koraga tribe, who ate beef.)

My second point against the Cattle Bill is borrowed from history. The academic world rubbishes the BJP claim that it was only with Islam and Christianity that beef eating came to India. RS Sharma, former Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Delhi University, an expert on feudalism in ancient India, established several decades ago that ancient Aryans were beef eaters. Professor DN Jha, another historian, wrote an entire book on this in 2001: The Myth of the Holy Cow; Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions. (This book was banned in India for a while.)

According to the academic world, cows were not ‘sacred’ during the Vedic and post-Vedic periods. Jha’s study refers to ancient scriptures and lists several references to beef from the Vedic texts, such as the Rig Veda. Indra had a weakness for bull meat, and Agni for bull as well as cow, the texts say. Taittiriya Brahman says: atho annam via gauh (verily the cow is food). And in Charak Samhita, the Ayurvedic medical text, cow’s flesh is prescribed as a medicine for various diseases. The BJP try to communalise India on the subject of beef, but according to Dalit scholar and sociologist Kancha Ilaiah, “About 45-50 percent of Indians are either occasional or regular beef eaters.”

Then comes the third point—nutrition. For a large number of poor people, animal meat provides a cheap and easy source of protein. I asked Dr K Bhaskarachary, Senior Scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition, about the relevance of meat in the national nutrition index. He said, “Beef contains 22.5 proteins while rice has only 6 to 8 percent and wheat only 10 to 12 percent. Also for its essential amino acids, animal proteins are qualitatively better than vegetable proteins.” This is also a reason lower-caste Hindus continue to eat beef in spite of ritualistic Hindus making it a taboo.

The right to one’s food preference has to be respected just as much as another’s right to avoid a particular food. Problems arise when a particular school of thought on food influences the state, and passes laws in its favour. Such actions are simply not democratic, and in this case, ahistorical, and will prove detrimental for the rural economy.

Several states have banned cow slaughter in India: Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Gujarat. But the president can keep her decision pending on Karnataka for a long time, given the fact that the Congress party is the main opposition in Karnataka and has campaigned against the bill. I wonder what that Koraga man in my old neighbour’s house in Udupi must be making of the new bill in his state. And I worry if I could be sent to jail for seven years if caught with dry buff while travelling from Wayanad to Bangalore—the route I take to reach Delhi. Luckily, in Kerala, there is no ban, and there could never be one—nearly everyone there eats beef.