Herd men­tal­ity

Hi­man­shu Upad­hyay­alooks at how po­lit­i­cal rhetoric has drowned out the economic re­al­i­ties of cat­tle-slaugh­ter bans

Business Standard - - IN DEPTH - Reprinted with per­mis­sion from the September 2017 is­sue of The Car­a­van, ©Delhi Press www.car­a­van­magazine.in

In mid Au­gust, news broke that more than 200 cows had starved to death in a shel­ter in Ch­hat­tis­garh owned by a Bharatiya Janata Party leader named Har­ish Verma. After the reports ap­peared, Verma protested that he had not re­ceived funds that the gov­ern­ment had promised him for the shel­ter.

But the irony could not have been starker. The BJP has long been op­posed to cow slaugh­ter, and the central gov­ern­ment as well as the state gov­ern­ments that it heads have clamped down on it. The years since 2014, when the party came to power at the centre, have seen an es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions around the is­sue, and mul­ti­ple in­ci­dents of people lynched on sus­pi­cion of pos­sess­ing beef. Yet, in Ch­hat­tis­garh, one of the party’s own lead­ers had al­lowed cows un­der his care to die pro­longed, ag­o­nis­ing deaths.

The in­ci­dent high­lighted the deep ten­sion in In­dia be­tween the eco­nomics and pol­i­tics of pro­tect­ing cows, as well as other cat­tle, such as buf­falo. Over the decades, nu­mer­ous lead­ers and groups have sought to pro­mote the cause, urg­ing that even old and un­vi­able cat­tle be pro­tected from slaugh­ter. They have ar­gued that cat­tle should be housed and cared for in shel­ters. But the economic vi­a­bil­ity of this so­lu­tion has never been fully an­a­lysed. De­spite this la­cuna, events over the past cen­tury sug­gest that po­lit­i­cal rhetoric has drowned out the economic re­al­i­ties of the is­sue.

Though not much his­tor­i­cal re­search has been con­ducted on this topic, what lit­tle work has been done has sug­gested that cow slaugh­ter was com­mon in the coun­try in the nine­teenth cen­tury. In their 2002 book The Bri­tish Ori­gin of Cow Slaugh­ter, the schol­ars Dharam­pal and TM Mukun­dan con­jec­tured that “prob­a­bly, ev­ery district in In­dia had one or more slaugh­ter house, which also car­ried out cow slaugh­ter, by about 1840.” (The au­thors’ sources for mak­ing such a claim are rel­a­tively thin, how­ever, and they do not look more closely at the so­cial and economic his­tory of cat­tle slaugh­ter in In­dia.)

Though the con­cep­tion of the cow as a sa­cred an­i­mal dates back more than two mil­len­nia, in their 2012 book A Con­cise His­tory of Modern In­dia, the his­to­ri­ans Bar­bara D Met­calf and Thomas R Met­calf note that the ac­tive use of it as a sym­bol for po­lit­i­cal mo­bil­i­sa­tion be­gan only in the 1860s. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thors, the first group to do this was not a Hindu one but a Sikh one — the Kuka, or Namd­hari, sect of Pun­jab. Hindu mo­bil­i­sa­tion around the is­sue be­gan only about a decade later, in 1882, after the Hindu leader Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Sa­maj pub­lished a text,

Gaukarunanidhi, con­tain­ing an emo­tional ap­peal for cow pro­tec­tion, or gau rak­sha. Soon after the pub­li­ca­tion of this text, he es­tab­lished the first branch of the cow-pro­tec­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Gau­rak­shini Sabha, in Pun­jab. Sur­pris­ingly, given the pitched emo­tional ap­peals that many Hin­dus make to­day, Dayananda Saraswati ar­gued a case for cow pro­tec­tion on economic grounds rather than spir­i­tual ones. But the spir­i­tual sym­bol­ism, too, was de­vel­op­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously — posters from this pe­riod con­tain the now-pop­u­lar de­pic­tion of the body of the cow as an abode of 33 crore gods and god­desses from the Hindu pan­theon.

As the cow-pro­tec­tion move­ment quickly gath­ered mo­men­tum, it be­gan to spill over into vi­o­lence. In a 1980 pa­per, the his­to­rian San­dria Fre­itag wrote that an 1888 judg­ment from the North West­ern Prov­ince (which in­cludes most of present-day Ut­tar Pradesh and Pun­jab) that de­creed that the cow was not a sa­cred an­i­mal served as a flash­point that re­sulted in a dra­matic in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of the pro­tec­tion ef­forts. Fre­itag noted that cow­pro­tec­tion ag­i­ta­tors vented their anger on spe­cific groups: “while in Aza­m­garh district ac­tiv­i­ties were aimed al­most ex­clu­sively against Mus­lims, es­pe­cially butch­ers; in Go­rakh­pur, the Nats, Ban­jaras and es­pe­cially Chamars were equally cas­ti­gated.” Other his­to­ri­ans have shown that the cow-pro­tec­tion move­ment and ag­i­ta­tions against cat­tle slaugh­ter served as cat­a­lysts for com­mu­nal ri­ots be­tween Hin­dus and Mus­lims — such as those in Aza­m­garh district in 1893, in Ay­o­d­hya in 1912 and 1913 and in Sha­habad in 1917.

But not ev­ery leader en­dorsed ag­gres­sive or vi­o­lent meth­ods of cow pro­tec­tion. In his 1909 book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote that the cause of cow pro­tec­tion should not take prece­dence over com­mu­nal har­mony, and that an ag­gres­sive ap­proach only led to more harm. “When the Hin­dus be­came in­sis­tent, the killing of cows in­creased,” he wrote. “In my opin­ion, cow-pro­tec­tion so­ci­eties may be con­sid­ered cow-killing so­ci­eties. It is a dis­grace to us that we need such so­ci­eties.”

From the 1920s on­wards, Gandhi be­gan writ­ing fre­quently on cow pro­tec­tion — but rather than gau rak­sha, he used the term gau seva, sug­gest­ing ser­vice to the cow. In th­ese writ­ings, he ar­gued that gausha­las and pin­jrapoles— terms re­fer­ring to es­tab­lish­ments that house cows — were serv­ing merely as de­pots for de­crepit cat­tle, when, rather, they should func­tion as ef­fi­cient dairies. Gandhi’s ad­vice to the cow-pro­tec­tion so­ci­eties of the time was that they “must turn their at­ten­tion to the feed­ing of cat­tle, preven­tion of cru­elty, and pre­serv­ing of fast dis­ap­pear­ing pas­ture land, im­prov­ing the breed of cat­tle, buy­ing from poor shep­herds and turn­ing Pin­jrapoles into model self­sup­port­ing dairies.”

Mean­while, sev­eral econ­o­mists and other schol­ars in the early and midtwen­ti­eth cen­tury sug­gested that cat­tle slaugh­ter would not harm the econ­omy, and that the ex­cess cat­tle that could re­sult from the cow­pro­tec­tion move­ment might even pose an economic prob­lem.

But the is­sue con­tin­ued to find po­lit­i­cal sup­port — so much so that as In­de­pen­dence ap­proached, cow pro­tec­tion was treated as an im­por­tant ques­tion of pol­icy. Po­lit­i­cal ar­gu­ments against and economic ar­gu­ments for cow slaugh­ter con­tin­ued after In­de­pen­dence.

Any hope that dif­fer­ing economic views could be ironed out was re­moved as the cow-pro­tec­tion move­ment gained po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum. In April 1979, the so­cial ac­tivist Vi­noba Bhave went on a hunger strike to pres­sure the central gov­ern­ment, led by Mo­rarji De­sai, to pro­hibit cow slaugh­ter through­out the coun­try. The same year, KN Raj and his fel­low econ­o­mist KN Nair pub­lished two ar­ti­cles in which they pointed out that the is­sue needed a nu­anced ap­proach — one that took into ac­count the vary­ing cat­tle pop­u­la­tions and their uses in dif­fer­ent states. Nair’s ar­ti­cle pointed out that cat­tle slaugh­ter in Ker­ala had not proved detri­men­tal to agri­cul­ture or live­stock devel­op­ment in the state.

Other nu­anced ar­gu­ments have also emerged over the years — such as that an­i­mals should be treated eth­i­cally even in­de­pen­dent of a ban on cat­tle slaugh­ter.

The is­sue con­tin­ued to flare up reg­u­larly. In 1995, the Maharashtra gov­ern­ment at­tempted to im­pose a ban on bul­lock slaugh­ter in the state — but re­versed its de­ci­sion in the face of wide­spread protests. Those who op­posed the gov­ern-ment ar­gued that the bill was anti-poor. They pointed out that slaugh­ter houses and an­cil­lary in­dus­tries pro­vided liveli­hood sup­port not only to Mus­lim butch­ers but also to sev­eral Dalit com­mu­ni­ties in­volved in the pro­cess­ing of skins and hides.

Though Hindu ac­tivists have fo­cussed on cow pro­tec­tion, politi­cians have of­ten blurred dis­tinc­tions be­tween an­i­mals for their own ben­e­fit. Ahead of the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, Naren­dra Modi raised the is­sue of cow slaugh­ter and warned of a “pink revo­lu­tion,” re­fer­ring to an ex­pan­sion in the meat in­dus­try. But with cow slaugh­ter banned in sev­eral states in the coun­try, and the ex­port of cows and cow meat also pro­hib­ited, the in­dus­try’s growth has been driven largely by buf­falo.

In­deed, even as the coun­try has con­vulsed in­ter­nally over the ques­tion of cat­tle slaugh­ter, the gov­ern­ment’s economic poli­cies over the years show that it recog­nises that meat — in­clud­ing bovine meat — forms an im­por­tant part of the ex­port econ­omy. The 1963 law that gov­erns the ex­port of meat and meat prod­ucts al­lows the ex­port of buf­falo. Other poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions put in place over the years, too, have per­mit­ted the ex­port of live an­i­mals and meat, in­clud­ing buf­falo. Th­ese rules were in force dur­ing the term of the Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee-led Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance be­tween 1998 and 2004, and re­main in force to­day.

Over the years, th­ese reg­u­la­tions have con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to the coun­try’s for­eign ex­change earn­ings with­out caus­ing any ma­jor dip in cat­tle num­bers, sug­gest­ing that slaugh­ter is likely not dele­te­ri­ous to the cat­tle econ­omy. Rather, In­dia con­tin­ues to have vast num­bers of cat­tle that it can­not look after: as per the lat­est live­stock cen­sus fig­ures, In­dia reports 5.3 mil­lion stray cat­tle. The states that re­port zero stray cat­tle — Na­ga­land, Megha­laya and Sikkim — are not from the “cow belt” or Hindi heart­land, where cow wor­ship con­tin­ues to be an emo­tive is­sue.

This makes ev­i­dent that ag­gres­sive cat­tle-pro­tec­tion move­ments do not nec­es­sar­ily lead to a pop­u­la­tion of cat­tle that is healthy and well cared for. Fur­ther, even as the po­lit­i­cal call for cow pro­tec­tion is louder now than it has been in decades, any move­ment that ig­nores the com­plex eco­nomics be­hind hu­mans’ re­la­tion­ships with cows and other cat­tle would lead to the suf­fer­ing of both people and an­i­mals.

Ahead of the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion, Naren­dra Modi raised the is­sue of cow slaugh­ter and warned of a ‘pink revo­lu­tion,’ re­fer­ring to an ex­pan­sion in the meat in­dus­try

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