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Holy Cow

Almost two decades after the state assembly had passed it, Maharashtra finds a ghost from the past-the Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill coming back to life. Needless to say the consequences of this second coming are severe. The recent furore around the bill can largely be attributed to the reality that the cow is a key emotive issue in Hindutva politics. Under the new law the very possession of beef –much like, say, heroin or some other controlled substance – is now punishable with a prison sentence.

The new act has also banned the slaughter of all cattle with the exception of water buffaloes. Why water buffaloes are deemed slaughter worthy and other bovines are not, remains a mystery of sorts. This is probably because the “beef” that India exports is mostly buffalo and not cow meat. This law is also a matter of concern because such laws have historically been used to incite communal tensions and gather votes from discontented voters. As a matter of fact, India’s first large-scale riot was largely fuelled by the hot button issue of cow protection on Bakri Eid day in 1893. Not to be outdone by the Hindutva brigade’s love for the cow, the Rajasthan government, in a first of its kind move, went ahead and constituted a ministry of bovine affairs-ostensibly for the protection and preservation of cows.

Mahatma Gandhi did much to further this guilt by association, vis a vis beef, when he stated that-” the colonialists cannot do without it [beef] for a single day”. As a result of Gandhi’s championing, cow protection found its way into public policy-post independence. The bill will not only affect beef lovers in general but also severely affect the livelihood of meat traders. There are at least 900 licensed beef dealers in Maharashtra, and if each employs at least five labourers, potentially thousands of families would lose income streams in one fell swoop. Also under a dark shadow are the tanners selling cow hide and entire industries that use cow and bull by-products for making medicines and other consumer goods. Experts have pointed out that it’s perplexing that Maharashtra chose to ban bovine meat especially at a time when bovine meat consumption is falling across the country.
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