The ongoing discussion over cow slaughter and vigilantism is not new. The issue has been raked up ever since early 1950s, but unfortunately, what we see today is distasteful and unacceptable, to most.
In India, 24 states have their own laws on animal welfare and prevention of their slaughter. These laws have evolved, and what was initially aimed as a protective measure, with the changing socio-political scenario, has now become a tool in the hands of propagandists. As a result, law or no-law, cow slaughter and anything ancillary to it, has acquired the potential to play mischief and destroy the social harmony.
The bigger question is, what does the law say in this regard and have we failed as a democratic and diverse society by enacting laws which can be so easily misused by a few, in the name of cow welfare?
Useful cows, useless cows
In India, laws banning animal slaughter started taking shape at a time when the nation was still realising its freedom and sovereignty.
The objective of the law makers then, therefore, was to achieve for its citizens a decent standard of living, including of course, adequate food for all.
Hence, in the 1950s when the Constitutionality of the Bihar Preservation and Improvement of Animals Act, 1955; the U.P Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955 and the C.P and Berar Animal Preservation Act, 1949, came to be challenged before the Honâble Supreme Court of India in the case titled as Md. Hanif Quareshi & Ors. vs. State of Bihar, the then Chief Justice of India, Justice S.R. Das, speaking for the majority, had observed - âTotal ban on the slaughter of cattle, useful or otherwise, is calculated to bring about a serious dislocation, though not a complete stoppage of the business of a considerable section of the people who are by occupation butchers (kasais), hide merchants and so on.â
Interestingly, the five-judge bench did uphold the Constitutionality of the said Acts inasmuch as banning slaughter of cows of all ages and calves of cows and buffaloes was concerned, but not without observing that a total ban on the slaughter of useless cattle, which involves a wasteful drain on the nationâs cattle feed, âwould deprive the useful cattle of the much needed nourishmentâ.
In effect, the bench also held that the total ban on slaughter of she-buffaloes, breeding bulls and working bullocks (cattle and buffaloes) without prescribing any test or requirement as to their age or usefulness, was infringement of Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution and hence void.
However, this practical categorization of bovine into useful and useless, and the consequent permission for slaughter of âuselessâ cattle, so certified by the competent authority, was subsequently struck down by a larger Bench of the Honâble Supreme Court in the year 2005 in the case of State of Gujarat vs. Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab Jamat.
A seven-judge Bench upheld the total ban on slaughter of cattle, irrespective of age and usefulness, as Constitutional. Besides the importance of bovine to the economic system and the âreasonable restrictionsâ under Articles 19(5) and 19(6), this Judgment also elaborates on Articles 47 & 48, 48-A and 51A(g) of the Directive Principles of State Policy, which provide for preserving and improving the breed of cattle.
Enabling cow vigilantism
What is it in the 2005 judgment and State Laws validated consequent thereto, which hurts us as a diverse nation?
The Honâble Supreme Court exercised âreasonable restrictionsâ while curtailing rights of an individual under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 25 of the Constitution. A nation which not just differs in topography but also in its food habits, India cannot afford to have laws uniformly applicable to all. Any law impinging upon a personâs right to livelihood and choice of food, can easily dilute the social structure and cause disharmony.
Today, about 24 Indian States have completely banned slaughter and consumption of cows and their progeny within the State. These state laws also penalise both, slaughter as well as consumption of bovine, thus leaving ground for the malicious minds to wreak havoc, like the incident at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh.
Another seemingly innocuous but dangerous trend incorporated in the state law of Maharashtra is the appointment of âcitizen watchdogsâ in some cities. As part of an order passed by the Bombay High Court directing a committee to use citizen watchdogs to help enforce the beef ban, these âcitizen watchdogsâ are being assigned the job of overseeing that no incident of cow slaughter takes place. However, in the garb of this, these watchdogs have been found to be deliberately indulging in use of undue force and intimidating means.
Law doesnât safeguard cows from real problems
The 2005 judgment details the importance of cows and their progeny to the Indian economy. The state laws banning bovine slaughter also speak in the same line. Admitted, that cattle overall are the backbone of our agricultural system, but what seems to have not counted much with our law makers is the scarcity of cattle feed. With expansion of towns and cities and the resultant shrinkage of pasture land, our cattle have been left to feed upon waste material. Can the existing laws ensure that the cattle are not poisoned to death by intake of these waste materials?
Lawmakers further contend that milk is not the only commodity given by cows, in particular, and that cow-dung is another useful commodity which can be obtained irrespective of the cowâs age. Be that as it may, however, would it not be unjust to expect from a cow owner to maintain the âuselessâ (unhealthy and old) cows, only for cow dung production, by expending on their feed and upkeep.
On the contrary, assume a situation where we have those useful cattle - which are milching, breeding or capable to carry agricultural activities. An owner who expects good produce and thus good income from his/her cattle would obviously feed and nourish them properly and adequately.
Assault on individual liberty
There is no denying the fact that India still reels under mal-nutrition and shortage of food supply to the masses. The steep rise in prices of food grains and pulses, has added to the woes of the less privileged, who are mostly into blue collar jobs - requiring immense physical labour. We must not overlook the fact that while for the privileged protein supplements are aplenty, for the lesser mortals what remains to be rich diet is - cheap meat.
The embargo of âreasonable restrictionsâ has often played a major role in breaking logjams while interpreting and enacting laws. However, can the same litmus test be applied with something as sacrosanct and guarded as food?
Besides, any person may get implicated for use/consumption of beef, in absence of proper safeguards and ambiguous terminology of certain State Laws banning bovine slaughter. The media is flooded with news reports of men and women being hounded in the name of beef consumption and cow slaughter. So, what about a personâs liberty who has been implicated on the pretext of beef consumption or cow slaughter? Would he/she be compensated by the state concerned, in the event the charges are not proved?
The Indian Penal Code definitely has provisions under which these trouble-mongers can be punished but the poor neither has the means nor the assistance to rise against a State. This being the scenario, it is expedient for our lawmakers to ensure that no one feels prejudiced and harmed because if that is allowed to happen, it would amount to failure of the entire nation.
The writer is a practicing advocate at the Supreme Court of India.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.