The Politicisation of Consumption Practices

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This article aims to analyze Articles 48, and the events related to it and the nationwide beef ban by the current Central government. Beef ban, it’s legitimacy or the lack of it in different parts of the country, and cow vigilantism are issues which have come forward as reasons for various acts of violence throughout the country. Does this not imply as policing and surveilling by a government over its citizens and one which is deeply rooted in the hierarchal social order in Indian society? And if it does, why are so many people actively participating in these groups and acts of all forms of violence? Do our ideals of freedom of religion, social and economic liberty not imply in day to day life? Where is the Constitutionally promised ideal of secularism in all this?

Cattle have always been a very controversial topic in Indian societies. The religious and traditional importance it holds is for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. The recent violence against cow slaughter has been directed towards Muslims and Dalits(Christians), throughout the country.

Article 48 of our Constitution directs each state to prohibit cattle slaughtering. This article under the heading “Organisation of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry”, states that the state shall “organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. And this particular article came into being at the advent of our Constitution – 26th January 1950. The “Preservation, protection and improvement of stock and prevention of animal diseases, veterinary training and practice” is the 15th entry as a Directive Principle of State Policy of the seventh schedule of our Constitution. This enables states to govern themselves and their members when it comes to matters like cow slaughter.

24 out of our 29 states currently have an array of regulations on either the sale or slaughtering of cows. The states that do not have any restrictions on cow slaughter are Kerala, West Bengal, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, and Sikkim. Our export policy also only allows the export of boneless meat of buffalo, sheep, bird and goat meat.

Although these laws have existed for as long as we have been an independent nation, they have really only been brought out into the limelight, especially so since 26th May 2017, when the Ministry of Environment of the Indian Central Government led by Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) imposed a ban on sale and purchase of cattle at all animal markets across India, for all matters relating to their slaughtering. This was done so under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal statutes. But the ban on the sale of cattle has been suspended by the Supreme Court of India in its judgment in July 2017, which has been a relief for the Multi-billion dollar beef and leather industries. The Indian beef export industry is worth $4 billion yearly.

Nobody in the country can claim that the increase in these violent incidents since the election of BJP in 2014 is a coincidence. Human Rights Watch has reported that there has been a surge in cow vigilante violence since 2015. Cow vigilante violence which involves mob attacks, under the name of cow protection is targeted mostly at Muslims, and Christian Dalits, and this can be seen through statistics. Out of the 8.35 crore Indians who consume beef, 85% are Muslims and Christians and only 15% are Hindus. These acts of violence have turned into deaths.  And all the cow protection groups see themselves as protecting the law of their state by exercising violence. Many violent vigilante groups have gone so far to say that they feel ‘empowered’ after the victory of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party.

Bloomberg reported that cow vigilantes are stopping vehicles, extorting money and also stealing livestock on the street. Business Insider reported that vigilante attacks on vehicles like trucks which carry cattle have increased manifold in Maharastra. In places like Punjab, cattle transporters are charged money to avoid harassment of their trucks by vigilantes. There seem to be more than 200 such vigilante groups within the national capital region itself, and some of these groups have up to 5000 members. One vigilant went so far to say that cow vigilantism gives him ‘purpose in life’. Some of them claim that the police are corrupt and incompetent and hence they have to take matters into their own hands while some claim that they work in co-operation with the police. BBC news reported that many of these vigilantes attend training camps which are organized by the parent organization of BJP – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and that many of these groups are allied with the BJP.

The RSS, since its formation has been trying to transform the society from within. The imposing of the Hindu social order of hierarchy has always been on their agenda. For RSS, defending the Hindus means that they can attack people of Muslim and Dalit background based on food laws, which are only legitimately put forward by the Central Government. There’s a Hindu nationalist approach to the entire issue of cow slaughter in our country because there’s a particular group that performs these acts of violence against people of a particular religion and of people alleging to a specifically lowly place in the birth ascribed caste system.

BJP has denied any claims made by the Congress about banning beef in Meghalaya which is to go to polls in early 2018. The Vice-President of state BJP, JA Lyngdoh denied these claims and said these rules implemented by the Central government have been misinterpreted as a nationwide beef ban. Many BJP chiefs and officials have made statements saying that if the party comes in power in the North Eastern states, it wouldn’t implement the beef ban in those regions. Meghalaya which has an estimated population of 3.2 million people is a predominantly Christian state, which means the majority population consisting of tribes do consume beef. The CM of Meghalaya Mukul Sangma said that the notification on beef ban should be withdrawn, as they are an infringement upon the culture and the way of life for people.

The major assembly elections of 2017, which took place in the most populous and Hindu majority state of India-U.P., along with other states like Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur, showcase how the issue of cow slaughter has been taken up time and again by the BJP government to divide the people and to consolidate Hindu vote banks in regions where Hindus are a majority and also by denying any claims to banning beef in more Christian or Muslim predominated regions. States which earlier had other governments, like Manipur are now BJP ruled. Also, beef is not banned in Goa and is available to tourists and locals at their dispositions to consume and sell.

There are many things which are extremely controversial about these events, statements, judgments and their timing and really make one wonder about the state of affairs in this country. First of all, if the rules are put forward to prevent cruelty, why hasn’t it been extended to all animals, and just to cattle? The reach of anti-cruelty laws being limited to just some animals, which directly allows the government to choose and categorize its subjects on whom the actions will be applied speaks volumes about our constitutional ideals of secularism and liberty. On top of it, the invoking of a separate act on top of state laws, to allow the central government space for making sure its laws are implemented throughout. The prescription of food items for its subjects or citizens by the government is in direct contradiction with its Constitutional promises of social and economic liberty to all.

Secondly, the invoking of animal cruelty laws right before the Bihar Legislative Election in 2015 has been called an election which was between those who eat beef and who are against the slaughtering of cows. The hegemony of the majority is legitimised by polarising the state into two very clear, bounded groups which don’t intersect and are in tandem with the mass opinion. This goes on to take forms of violence all around the country right before major state legislative elections.

Thirdly, many vigilantes believe that their actions are legitimised by the government and that they are in accordance with the Hindu social order. The Illegality of their violent vigilante actions is almost never thought-provoking and rather focus is thrown upon the acts against the animals, although the fundamental right of freedom of religion, and therefore food practices relating to it exists for humans and not animals.

Fourthly, moderate beef eating states account for 444 Lok Sabha seats in the assembly, while high beef eating states account for only 99 seats. When the BJP government came to power in 2014, it won 262/444 seats while managing only 20/99 seats in the respective regions. Hindu majoritarian states like UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharastra, where the beef ban is legal and the acts of violence in terms of cow-protection are very high are in direct contradiction to BJP’s stand in the areas like Meghalaya and Goa, where Hindus aren’t the majority. This consolidation of Hindu vote banks is a form of exclusionary politics that isn’t new to BJP or Narendra Modi.

Conclusion: The 2017 suspension of beef ban all over India by the Supreme Court, although a rule hasn’t really been seen functioning in the country. The people who consume beef are still afraid of consuming it. If beef was to be still allowed in regions comprising of mostly Christians or Muslims, then why did the BJP government allow for the invoking of the nationwide laws against animal cruelty. The state laws and Article 48 of the constitution have been in place for decades and there wasn’t a problem of ‘unprecedented’ heights relating to cow vigilantism till the BJP government came in power. This isn’t the first time a faction of Narendra Modi’s government has used religion and caste as a medium to divide and influence people for consolidating vote banks, and this won’t be the last, simply because we keep choosing this government, and will probably do so again in Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura in early 2018.

Also Read: Beef, BJP and Meghalaya; A plate full of Masala!


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