Footprints: The Cattle Rattle

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Country: India
Year: 2015
Aspirations: to be the world leader in technology
Election issue: cow
(Tweet by Aisi Taisi Democracy, a political satire group)

IF Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his Mann Ki Baat radio programme, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal too has his own version, though they are thankfully not as time-consuming. The chief minister’s latest one is on communal riots, pegged on the recent murder of a 55-year-old farmer in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, on suspicion that he was involved in cow slaughter.

“A Muslim man was killed on suspicion that he had beef; a couple of Hindu boys have been arrested for killing him … who has benefited from this situation? A few political leaders only,” Kejriwal said in his trademark nasal tone on one of these radio spots. “These days it only takes a piece of meat to stoke communal fires.”

In the last few months, India’s news cycle has been dominated by beef politics. On the one hand, the BJP wants a comprehensive all-India ban on cow slaughter, and, on the other, there are people like my friend Kolkata boy Gautam Varshney who will do anything to resist such moves.

“The government has no right to decide on my food preferences. This is a personal matter. I have always had beef and will continue to resist any move to ban in this city,” he told me. “The issue actually is not about food only … it’s about intolerance … and it is spreading.”

Foodies tell me that Kolkata serves the best quality beef available in the country. “How can I not have beef biryani in Esplanade, haleem in many of the roadside restaurants? I have grown up with such food,” said Gautam’s friend, Akaash.

India does not have a central law on cow slaughter but nearly 24 out of its 29 states have various regulations prohibiting either the slaughter or sale of cows. West Bengal, Kerala and the north-eastern states have no such ban.

India is the world’s largest exporter of beef, the fifth largest producer of beef, and the seventh largest consumer of beef. But most of this meat comes from buffaloes, not cows. But more often than not beef is equated with cows only.

The culture of intolerance against a certain way of life is spreading. In the last few weeks, several authors have given up their Sahitya Akademi Awards in protest against the state’s encroachment into personal spaces and communal violence. “Fundamentalism, communalism, intolerance towards other castes are also reasons behind returning the Sahitya Akademi Award,” Mandakranta Sen, a prominent voice in Bangla poetry told ANI recently.

Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, not one to mince words, has a much more ‘fundamental’ argument against beef politics. Speaking at Banaras Hindu University recently, he said: “Cow is just an animal and an animal cannot be anyone’s mother, if I like to eat beef then what’s the harm in it … people worldwide consume beef, if I like to eat … who can stop me…?”

Though Muslims control the trade and the slaughterhouse business, many Hindus are a part of it. In fact, reports said that BJP MLA and Muzaffarnagar riot-accused Sangeet Som owned a meat-processing unit. Som refuted this allegation even though registry documents revealed that he did purchase land in Aligarh for a meat-processing unit in 2009.

The controversy on cow slaughter and meat ban during Hindu festivals perpetuates a myth that India is a vegetarian country. The most authoritative study on the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide was done by the Anthropological Survey of India (People of India survey) in 1993. It concluded that of the 4,635 communities, nearly 88 per cent were meat-eating and they ate all kinds of flesh.

Though the bulk of the meat that is exported is buffalo, campaigners want a total ban on all kinds of meat export, a $5 billion industry. The BJP’s sister organisations, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, allege that cow meat continues to be illegally sold and even exported under the guise of buffalo meat. An India Today report said that the booming meat export has triggered large-scale farming of buffaloes in Maharashtra and Punjab.

Other than affecting the meat industry, any kind of meat ban will affect the poorest first because for them any kind of livestock is like fixed deposit. They invest in them because they can sell them for unplanned expenses.

“The farmer is under no obligation to bear the responsibility of protecting the gau mata without any compelling economic rationale,” wrote senior journalist Harish Damodaran in The Indian Express earlier this year. Most farmers, he added, though, particularly those rearing crossbreeds for the commercial sale of milk, rarely keep cows beyond five lactations.

Harish explained that the moment milk yields fall below, say, 2,000-2,500 litres over any lactation — from 4,000-4,500 litres in the first three or four cycles — farmers seek to dispose of the animal. The reason is fodder and feed, which, for them, is as precious a resource as petrol is for car owners. They would want to reserve as much of it as possible for high-milking animals or the young heifers and calves that will produce in future.

Moreover, where would farmers dispose of their livestock if they are not culled? The country has 190.9 million cows and bulls, and an additional 108.7 million water buffaloes. But there are not enough shelters for them. So after their productive years, farmers tend to release them or smuggle them out of the country.

The cattle smuggling trade is worth $600 million a year and has been on the rise; cows and bulls are trafficked across the border to Bangladesh, where they are sold to beef-processing units, tanneries and bone-crushing factories. This year alone, the Border Security Force has arrested 400 cattle smugglers and seized 90,000 heads of cattle.

There are several other myths that the right-wing loves to perpetuate. “They say that the milk of the Indian cow has A2 milk protein and, therefore, they must be saved. But buffalo milk also has the same as does Indian goat milk,” an animal activist told me recently.

More importantly, for many poor people, beef is the only source of cheap protein.

“In India, the cow is actually no longer a scared animal, it is no longer a provider of milk, food and livelihood; the cow is now a tool for propaganda,” said satire group East India Comedy’s Azeem Banatwalla in one his shows on beef politics.

He is spot on.

The writer is associate editor with the Hindustan Times in New Delhi.
Twitter: @kumkumdasgupta

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