BIG STORY COW POLITICS BOVINE CARD
THE SAFFRON PARTY IS CAUGHT BETWEEN ITS COMMITMENT TO COW PROTECTION AND THE DESIRE TO EXTEND ITS ELECTORAL FOOTPRINT
On May 23, when the BJP-led NDA government issued a notification banning the sale of cattle for slaughter, three states erupted in protest: Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Though the ban includes cow, calf, bull, bullock, buffalo, heifer, steer and camel, the protests centred around the cow, as it is the protection of this animal that the saffron party is consumed with. And the prime mover of this new rule, according to sources, is BJP president Amit Shah, who has been unequivocal about his stand on cow slaughter. “One of the biggest challenges before India is how to save its cattle wealth from perishing,” Shah has told india today on numerous occasions. “If cattle wealth decreases, the prosperity of the farmer too decreases.”
The Sangh parivar has long advocated a ban on cow slaughter across the nation. However, it is also an integral part of the Modi government’s political and ideological plans for the future. As prime minister, Modi has not said much on the issue, but as Gujarat chief minister, he had made anticow slaughter laws more stringent in the state. Though the new directive is not just about cows, the BJP is happy to see it becoming a debate about cow slaughter. With only 7.5 per cent of Indians eating
beef, going by National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data for the 68th round, the party does not see beef-eaters as an electoral threat. Cow slaughter is forbidden in 18 states. The BJP now aims to fulfil the RSS agenda of making it ban nationwide.
The three states, which have a significant beef-eating population and where cow slaughter is allowed, saw the May 23 notification as an attempt by the central government to ban the practice indirectly. The directive makes it impossible for farmers to sell cows or the other animals mentioned. While the chief ministers of Kerala and West Bengal challenged the authority of the Union government in issuing the notification, the Madras High Court stayed its implementation for four weeks.
There was rebellion within the BJP too. In Meghalaya, which has the highest percentage of a state’s population eating beef, two BJP leaders quit the party. In Manipur, another BJPruled state, chief minister N. Biren Singh defended his party saying beef won’t be banned in his state and the central government was only trying to regulate the cattle market. Arunachal chief minister Pema Khandu announced his beef-eating habits on national television as did his party colleague and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju on social media.
In fact, the saffron party’s continued engagement with cow politics, which earned it rich dividends in most north Indian states (see graphic), has caused discomfort among party leaders in the eastern and southern states where the BJP plans to expand its base. In Meghalaya, where 58 per cent of the meat comes from cows and bulls, the ban might dent the BJP’s plans to capture power in the elections next year.
In its defence, the government claims the notification doesn’t ban the slaughter of cow or other animals, only tries to prevent smuggling to other countries and cruelty in cattle markets. According to opposition Hills State People’s Democratic Party legislator Ardent Basaiawmoit’s statement in the Meghalaya assembly earlier this year, over 8,000 cattle have been seized in Meghalaya in the past five years along the Indo-Bangladesh border. According to official data on livestock seized along the international border between January 2014 and December 2016, cows and bulls accounted for less than 11 per cent, of which some 40 per cent are bulls and another 40 per cent calves, 95 per cent of them male. These figures indicate that mostly unproductive cattle finds its way to cattle markets contrary to the general perception that large numbers of milch cattle are smuggled for slaughter.
The BJP, meanwhile, maintains the directive has nothing to do with cow politics. “That’s the reason we have included other animals in the directive,” says a senior BJP leader who is quick to point out that the new order is actually an implementation of a 2015 Supreme Court directive asking the government to stop cow smuggling and reform the cattle markets. “If the goal was to protect only cows, we would have applied the ban specifically on cows and bulls.” Murlidhar Rao, BJP general secretary in charge of several southern states, adds: “This directive doesn’t supersede the state laws. The government has only acted under the directions of SC. It has also issued a clarification that it is open to suggestions. Clearly, the controversy is being triggered and kept alive by vested interest groups.”
Election strategist par excellence that he is, Shah is aware that cow politics will lead to dissension in the northeastern states, which is why the issue is not being played up in the region. According to 2014 NSSO data, all northeastern states except Tripura were among the top 10 most frequent consumers of beef or buff in the country. Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram will go to polls in 2018 and all have a Christian majority population.
However, in states such as West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, Shah is confident that cow politics will help the party expand its base. In West Bengal, though 18.66 per cent people eat beef, the share from cows and bulls is just 1.68 per cent. “For years, the state has seen minority appeasement,” says a West Bengal BJP leader. “The stop on cattle smuggling and the debate over cow slaughter will help us consolidate Hindu votes.”
This may be why West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee took six days to formally react to the notification as she did not want to appear biased towards any community. She questioned the timing of the notification—a month before Eid—and then asked the police to take stern action against cattle smuggling. Unwilling
to let the BJP hijack cow politics, she has decided to distribute cows to poor farmers. But a report on border security tabled by a parliamentary standing committee on home affairs in the Rajya Sabha exposed her doublespeak. “The committee is particularly anguished to note that the West Bengal state government has failed to implement its own order dated 01.09.2003 that outlaws existence of any cattle haats within 8 kms of border area,” the report states.
In Kerala, which has a significant beef consuming population, including Hindus, the BJP plans to invoke Hindu mythology to lure Hindu voters. Shah made one such attempt when he tried to appropriate Onam as a Hindu national festival, offering greetings for ‘Vamana Jayanti’, only to have the Malayalees up in arms. Onam is a week-long festival commemorating the homecoming of mythological lower-caste king Mahabali, whose rule was ended by Brahmin boy Vamana, avatar of Vishnu.
Interestingly, opposition parties are reluctant to denounce the BJP’s cow politics outright. Gujarat Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki has demanded national animal status for the cow along with a nationwide ban on its slaughter. At the national level, the party distanced itself from the Kerala Youth Congress leader’s act of slaughtering a calf in public and distributing its meat on May 28. “This singular act of stupidity has helped the BJP garner sympathy,” says a senior Congress leader from the state. “He actually showcased the threat perception to the cow the BJP is so desperately trying to manufacture.”
BEEF HISTORY A beef-eating protest in Chennai after an attack on a student who organised a beef festival at IIT Madras