Your Beef is Our Food

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The High Court’s upholding of a century old ban on beef eating in J&K has provoked a deep sense of outrage in Kashmir. The Valley has already observed a hartal in protest against the ban. There has also been many a sacrifice of the cows to assert not only the right to practice one’s religion but also the individual’s right to exercise his culinary preferences. And so it should be. State has no business to dictate the dietary choices of the people, or impose the religious and cultural traditions of one community over the other. But this is what is now happening in India ruled by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. State after state is imposing beef ban and now even venturing to prohibit the mutton consumption on some days in a purported deference to the religious customs of the other communities – in this case the Jain community. Five states – Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra – have banned the sale of meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan from September 10 to 17. 

What makes this deference ironic is that there is no reciprocal respect for the Muslim customs. For example, an obligation for the other communities to observe fast for some days in holy Ramzan. But this is unlikely in an India envisioned by the champions of Hindutva who now rule India. For them, the practices and the beliefs of the majority community and the “Indian-origin religions” have to be privileged over religions like Islam and Christianity which are seen as foreign imports to the country.

This state of affairs is deeply troubling for J&K, the Muslim majority state. With the reiteration of the ban by the High Court coming in the wake of the prohibitions against the beef and mutton consumption in some other states, the people in Valley see it as part of a larger pattern in India and abetted by the central government. This has triggered an understandable reaction in Valley where the beef consumption has been traditionally low. Despite being the non-vegetarian capital of India, Valley isn’t particularly enamoured of the beef, with people exhibiting a sort of cultural aversion to its consumption. So much so, that cooking beef in weddings is a taboo and those who cook are generally looked down upon.

But paradoxically, despite being Muslim-majority state, J&K has been the first state which prohibited cow slaughter. The law against the practice was made in 1896 when the then Maharaja of Kashmir in the Ishtihar (advertisement) No 218, sanctioned by the state council resolution, banned transport, slaughter and even selling  of the beef in the state. Cows, according to the law are also legally protected from being slaughtered. There can similarly be granted no permission to run a beef shop.

Having said that, this is an old, regressive law which should have been done away with long ago. But the successive governments since 1947 have never mustered the courage to do so, fearing, perhaps, a hardline Hindu backlash in Jammu and thus contenting themselves with the observance of the ban in breach by Muslims in the state.  But such an approach is no longer justifiable. It is, in fact, ethically untenable and morally suspect. The need is to enact a new, progressive law to restore food choices to people.  This is not about upholding a particular religion, it is about endorsing the larger principle of endorsing an individual’s right to eat what he or she wants.

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