As a Kolkatan, an ancient city in one of the few states where cow slaughter is still legal, beef isn't just an irresistible gastronomic option, it is also a part of my cultural identity. As a student in the late 90s, Park Circus and Esplanade were favourite haunts for cheap yet delicious rolls, biryanis, while a visit to the legendary watering hole in Park Street for a mean Chateau Briand was an indulgence saved for special occasions. It was much later that I woke up to other options in different parts of this vast country. Beef chilli fry from the backwaters, for instance, has remained for long a personal favourite.
Despite a conservative, middle-class upbringing, my identity as a Hindu never came in the way of gastronomical delights. At the same time, to say that there was never a tension between these two identities would be a lie. The subject was largely a taboo at home — despite my father's tacit support — and among close family circles. The overwhelming feeling when the subject came up for discussion — it rarely did — was one of polite disapproval. Not that it mattered to me.
The point of touching upon a personal angle is to show that when it comes to the subject of cow slaughter, an ambiguity and unease have always dominated the Hindu sentiment. The tolerance for cow slaughter even in a border state like Bengal which has historically been subjected to cross-cultural currents and intermingling of cuisines, is skin deep.
The concept of India — that came into existence since Independence as a modern nation-state based on Westphalian sovereignty within a so-called secular framework — has always found the question of cow slaughter troubling. For a majority of Hindus, the cow's sacredness is not limited to its totem of divinity. The cow is intrinsically linked to the Hindu identity through history and the familial bond that exists far exceeds the religious mandate that has anyway undergone changes over time.
A majority of the population reveres the animal, considers it sacrosanct and its culture is centred to a large extent around the deep familial bond that exists between man and animal. Another significant part of the population uses it as a cheap source of protein. How do you tackle this cognitive dissonance?
While putting together the building blocks of the nation as we know it now, the founding fathers of Indian Constitution — all men of great sagacity and profound knowledge — failed to tackle this issue with all honesty and by styling it as a directive principle instead of a fundamental right, effectively transferred the problem to their successors. The BR Ambedkars were tall men. And yet they refrained from translating their conviction (whatever it may have been) into words.
This tells us that discussion on this topic cannot be the subject of stark truth-falsehood binaries. The media has predictably thrown a hissy fit at Gujarat government's passing of The Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill on Friday that 'elevates' the offence of cow slaughter to homicide — punishable with life imprisonment at worst or 10 years behind the bars at best. There is not a shadow of doubt that the law is harsh. Some of the clauses are open to misuse.
And yet to snigger at the lawmakers as small men trying to drag back the country into medievalism or to look for a Hindutva motive behind Gujarat government's actions betrays a mindset which either suffers from a disregard for the complexities involved with our intercultural existence or prefers to ignore the weight of history.
One can understand the position taken by Congress which is in Opposition in Gujarat. Its spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil has described the amendment as "vote bank politics, triggered by the BJP's poor showing in the local body elections".
In his haste to sound 'liberal' from India's most 'secular party', Gohil may have forgotten what his party colleague, former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat, had said in 2015 while addressing a crowd during a religious festival in Haridwar in 2015, "Anyone who kills cows, no matter which community he belongs to is India's biggest enemy and has no right to live in the country."
The simple point that eludes the pontification from media though is that no political party can formulate its policies in a vacuum in absence of popular support. A lot has been written and said about the shutting down of illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh.
The illogical defence of UP government's action ignores the illegality of these operations. But more importantly, fails to reckon that this was BJP's campaign promise — one of the crucial planks that found mention in its manifesto and repeatedly raked up by party president Amit Shah in interviews and campaign rallies. This would signify — except to the most obtuse commentator — that action against these massively polluting units was rooted in public support. (Read about the NGT order and the extent of pollution unleashed by these units here).
Never mind their ideological compulsions, political parties are by definition political parties, not institutions packed with ideologues. Their policies must be rooted in popular sanction or they risk losing power and influence.
Therefore, while assessing the Gujarat amendment to cow slaughter law, we must take into account that the piece of legislation isn't a superficial construct imposed from top on unwilling subjects but one that is driven from within. It is the manifestation of a struggle that our founding fathers chose to ignore. It reveals the tension within our deeply conservative society as its tries to eke out a balance between tolerance and reverence, sacredness and profane.
Published Date: Apr 01, 2017 17:12 PM | Updated Date: Apr 01, 2017 17:52 PM