Last week Gujarat adopted a draconian law against cow slaughter, making it punishable with a 14-year jail term. This is on the heels of a clampdown on abattoirs in UP. Over in the Jharkhand capital, licenses of mutton and chicken shops haven’t been renewed. Voices are growing from Hindutva organisations in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and other BJP-ruled states for a blanket closure of meat shops. Taken together there are worrying signs of a rise in food bigotry, cow vigilantism, harassment of legitimate meat businesses and competitive fundamentalism.
It’s important to note that cow slaughter was banned in all these states even before the current NDA government took office. Gujarat for example had imposed a complete ban not just on slaughtering but also on transporting cow and progeny in 2011. Today if it were simply a matter of improving the implementation of all laws, incidentally including such bans, it wouldn’t necessarily be such an adverse development. A clampdown on illegal slaughterhouses would be welcome if it meant a more modern, compassionate and hygienic meat industry.
Unfortunately this is not the message that goes out when Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani says he wants to make Gujarat vegetarian, his government decrees veritable life sentences and Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh talks of hanging those who kill cows. Or when legitimate UP enterprises that account for over half of India’s $5 billion worth of buffalo meat exports are threatened. It’s not just precious foreign exchange but lakhs of jobs that are at stake in an economy characterised by jobless growth. Even if one wants to institute bans on cow slaughter, this cannot be equated to the taking of a human life. Such conflations amount to religious fundamentalism which will breed conflict and violence – Pakistan next door is a good example of how it plays out. The vigilantism and violence seen from Dadri to Una could now get worse, endangering social stability and harmony.
Some months ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi had come down heavily on such vigilantes, calling out the majority of ‘gau rakshaks’ as anti-socials who proclaim themselves cow protectors only to cover up their misdeeds. Yet, in conflicting signals, legitimate meat businesses are suffering and non-vegetarianism is facing an aggressive Hindutva attack. Both Centre and BJP-ruled states need to send a more coherent message, about respecting individual liberties and protecting legal businesses.