Is ban on cow slaughter, ‘majority appeasement’?

There are plenty of hints that Karnataka is hurtling towards the hustings once again: a high-decibel Congress padayatra on the illegal mining issue followed by a high-profile Rahul Gandhi visit; an execrable series of “sadhana samaveshas” by a BJP government which spews “development” like a mantra; loud whispers of a JDS tieup with BJP once again, with the unthinkable actually becoming a reality in Chamarajanagar; the launch of new Kannada news channels belonging to the BJP and JDS and so on and so forth.

All those straws in the wind can get blown away, of course, but if there is one substantive issue that is setting the political theatre on edge, it is the proposed ban on cow slaughter by the B.S. Yediyurappa government. The “historic” Karnataka prevention of slaughter and preservation of cattle bill, 2010, was passed without debate in mid-July when the opposition was on a dharna. After that, it has been a circus of deft electoral posturing.

First the governor H.R. Bhardwaj held back the bill on the ground that some provisions had inter-State implications. (This prompted the BJP to demand his resignation.) The JDS chief H.D. Deve Gowda met the President Pratibha Patil in early August, urging her not to give her consent to an emotive issue which was part of the sangh parivar’s agenda. The BJP too met the President, and yesterday, the Congress followed suit.

The BJP, which otherwise has little use for Mahatma Gandhi‘s idea of India, conveniently falls back on the father of the nation (and its other pet hate B.R. Ambedkar) to explain its rationale. It says the ban is already in force in seven-eight (mostly BJP ruled) states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, and in such cradles of democracy as Iran and Cuba. It says the Supreme Court has upheld the ban. And, it says allowing the slaughter of a sacred animal goes against the beliefs of Hindus.

For their part, the Congress and JDS trot out a variety of dietary and economic reasons opposing the ban, chiefly the fact that it is a cheap meat for poor people, especially among Dalits, Muslims and Christians. The leader of the opposition Siddaramaiah has said the State has no business proscribing certain meats. Karnataka Congress chief R.V. Deshpande has talked of the damage to the leather industry. Former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy has spoken of a potential law and order situation if the ban were to enforced, and said the bill could be misused to harass minorities.

The BJP’s stand is posited on its farcical concern for “compassion”—cruelty to the cow—when most animals are malreated. Do all Hindus worship the cow (when India’s biggest beef exporter, Al Kabeer, is owned by a Hindu)? Do all Hindus support the ban? Do all Hindus spurn beef? Do all Hindus want to be stuck with animals, howsoever sacred, beyond their utility?

Professor D.N. Jha of Delhi University wrote in “The Myth of the Holy Cow, that in no major scripture…:

“…is killing a cow described as a major or grave sin, unlike drinking liquor or killing a Brahmin… It is only in the 19th century that the demand for banning cow-slaughter emerged as a tool of mass political mobilisation by right-wing Hindu communalists”.

Also, a ban tests the Constitution on two fronts: the freedom to live and act (and eat) as one wishes (provided that doesn’t infringe on other people’s rights), and the right to “carry on any occupation, trade or business”. Could a ban on cow slaughter spark competitive demands for a ban on slaughter of other animals which are part of the diet, like say pigs?

Questions: To overturn a political stereotype, does the BJP’s plan to ban cow slaughter, in the name of “beliefs and aspirations of Hindus”, amount to “majority appeasement” that plays with individual dietary taste and constitutional freedoms? Is the political temperature being artificially pumped up by all sides to encash their political votebanks when the time is ripe? Are elections nigh?