By Meenu Sethi
The controversial "beef ban" imposed by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the brouhaha around it in the media needs no introduction. Today India has different rules for different states for production, possession, and consumption of beef, not to mention for trading and the movement of bovines.
Undisputedly, the cow is regarded as a sacred animal in Hinduism and is also considered to be the abode of various Hindu deities. Its close cousin, the buffalo, however, is not that fortunate. The buffalo is used as a sacrificial animal in many temples across India and this practice has not been banned by the Supreme Court.
Things start to get more confusing when one starts looking at the implementation of bans in various states of the country. These range from an outright ban on the slaughter for production of beef to ban on transportation of the animal outside the state. In some states such as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, even the possession of beef is a punishable crime; while in states like Sikkim and Kerala, there is no ban.
Even worse is the fact that although the penalties for violation of these laws are clearly stated and vary drastically from one state to the other in terms of prison sentences and fines, there have been various cases where vigilantes known as "gau-rakshaks" (literally meaning cow protectors), have taken the law in their hands. They have publically beaten up people found in violation of these laws, even leading to deaths despite victims pleading and showing the correct documents of purchase and transportation of cows.
Equally perplexing is that fact that in spite of this row over beef, India was the second largest exporter of beef in the world in 2016 after Brazil, especially of frozen beef, according to a March 2017 report. Most of this meat is from the Asian water buffalo, which is classified as beef by U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the economic gains from beef export are beyond the scope of this article, it is interesting to note that although meat consumption in India is increasing, that of beef has been falling over the years, down 44.5% in 2014 from 2000. India's buffalo meat exports, on the other hand, have been growing at an average of nearly 14% each year since 2011, and fetched India as much as $4.8 billion in 2014. Last year, India for the first time earned more from the export of buffalo meat than it did from Basmati rice.
So why is the beef or the beef ban so important in the context of Indian politics? Is the present government deliberately shifting the narrative from bigger problems such as poverty, malnutrition and unemployment and abusing the religious sentiments of the people?
While the cow has been a matter of debate (whether to slaughter or protect?) for centuries in the Indian political amphitheatre, this "sacred animal" is now moving like a bull in a china shop, impacting livelihoods, and scaring and causing fear in minority communities . This religious fanaticism and cow vigilantism is causing more damage to democracy rather than protecting the rights of animals. And now with debates and political rhetoric shifting to vegetarianism and alcohol bans, isn't the right-wing BJP government treading on individual choices?
A case to consider here is the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf state. The country has shown remarkable economic growth and urbanisation, mainly due to the policies of the government that effectively uses its vast oil reserves and the large migrant pool. What is not known though is its tolerance for migrants of different nationalities and religions. While Islam is the largest and the official state religion, the government shows a much higher level of tolerance than many of its neighbours in the Gulf and the Muslim world. Roughly 89% of the UAE's population is non-national; based on the Ministry of Economy census in 2005, 76% of the total population was Muslim, 9% Christian, and 15% others (mainly Hindu).
Though there is a lot of discussion in the foreign media regarding the intolerance of Dubai authorities to public displays of affection or alleged human rights abuses, what is not common knowledge is the fact that in many major supermarkets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is a section which sells pork and pork products. These sections are usually isolated by a transparent plastic curtain and a signposted—"For Non-Muslims."
If the UAE, despite being a monarchy and Muslim country, shows religious tolerance towards non-Muslims, that too temporary migrants, why can't the world's largest democracy, which has the word "secular" written in its Constitution, do it for its non-Hindu citizens?
The Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist and author, Amartya Sen in the chapter on minority rights and inclusive priorities in his book The Idea of Justice says:
"The role of democracy in preventing community-based violence depends on the ability of inclusive and interactive political processes to subdue the poisonous fanaticism of divisive communal thinking. This has been an important task in independent India, especially since the multi-religious and secular policy was born in a period of huge communal strife and violence in the 1940s, a period that was short in the number of years but long in casting a huge shadow of vulnerability."
It is up to the citizens of India, Hindus or not, to decide if they are going to take pride in their secularity, one of the basic pillars of their democracy or if they are going to succumb once again to divisive communal politics.