Beefing Up Intolerance In India
By Sai Madhurika Mamunuru
On 28th September, 2015, a 50 year old man named Mohammad Akhlaq was brutally beaten and killed by a mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, for allegedly storing and consuming beef at home. The slaughter of cows is banned in 11 states in India, with Maharashtra and Haryana among the most recent to join the list. The bill in Maharashtra received Presidential assent after being stalled at different stages of legislation for 20 years. The punishment for consumption of beef could go up to 10,000 Indian Rupees and five years in jail.
The cow, being associated with Lord Krishna and considered the giver of wealth and prosperity, is supposed to be held sacred in the Hindu religion. It is, therefore, easy to connect these recent developments with the ascent to power of a political party that is backed by Hindu nationalist groups. Indeed, critics of the ban have rightly blamed the BJP government for being religiously (and otherwise) intolerant. But, it is important to note that the power to legislate over the protection of livestock lies with the state governments not all of which have Hindu right wing parties in power.
Indeed, closer inspection of the implications of the ban will reveal that the ban harms those that it tries to protect. The economic rationale offered (if at all) for the ban is that livestock are a source of wealth and their consumption or sale because of an economic hardship marks a financial blow that a poor family might struggle to recover from. But, that argument is shaky because it does not account for the money that needs to be spent to keep old cows alive. It might actually be more beneficial to the farmer to sell it at a time that he deems fit.
Additionally, beef is significantly less expensive than chicken and fish and is therefore a cheap source of protein for all low-income families irrespective of their religious beliefs. The ban would also put small sellers, butchers and restaurant owners out of business.
Ironically, earlier in the year, India dislodged Brazil to be the largest exporter of beef in the world. Beef has also overtaken basmati rice as India’s own largest agricultural food export in terms of value. But the catch here is that most of India’s beef export consists of water buffalo meat (carabeef). It is, perhaps, then, not surprising that though the bans have been expanded to include buffaloes and bulls, water buffaloes have been systematically left out.
It is clear then, that the ban on cow slaughter in various states and the recent violence associated with it must be seen in larger trend of intolerance to diversity in opinion, beliefs, lifestyles and political stand points. Apart from creating a sense of fear, in otherwise peaceful communities, it is fundamentally hurting the economic lives of the poor while leaving those of the wealthy owners of slaughterhouses unharmed.
Addressing a prayer gathering on July 25, 1947, Mahatma Gandhi talked about how requests to ban cow slaughter must stop because “it will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.” Towards the end of his discourse he says something in connection to the treatment of Muslims in the country that I think rings true today (in relation to all minorities) more than ever before. “If you shake off cowardice and become brave you will not have to consider how you are to behave towards the Muslims. But today there is cowardice in us.”