The recent, ghastly and brazen public slaughter of a hapless calf in Kannur by members of the Kerala Youth Congress is a watershed moment of sorts for the Indian society and democracy. It was ostensibly done to register a "protest" against the Central government’s new law banning the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter.
But what followed the slaughter was equally brazen, equally stunning. While the Congress party’s head of its Kollam unit said that the "beef delicacy will be packed and sent to the head post office for delivery to (Narendra) Modi", its tourism and devaswom minister K Surendran publicly ate beef to show solidarity with the slaughterers.
Coming in its wake are some rather confusing judicial pronouncements: While the Madras High Court has stayed the ban, another high court has asked the Centre to declare the cow as India’s national animal. At the moment, we can only wait to see how things will unfold.
But beyond courts, this public slaughter of the calf is perhaps the true indicator of a free fall in public life: of sacrificing even basic decency and the prized value of compassion at the altar of cheap political thrills.
Indeed, if the past record of the way politics and political discourse was conducted in India is an indicator, it's clear that this disgraceful event could be executed with such impunity because, well, "secularism is in danger" or "this is also how we’ll uphold secularism."
The late Nani Palikhvala’s prophecy more than thirty years ago has eerily, brutally rung true:
"India's besetting sin is secular fundamentalism. We interpret our Constitution as if it were an exercise in grammar. We are intelligent enough to know full well that we are abusing and mocking at the Constitution by merely construing it literally. We are so lacking in intellectual integrity that we pretend to have complied with the Constitution."
Indeed, Palkhivala was a tireless and life-long advocate of the 17th century British Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Taylor’s famous "Law of the Unenforceable", which is worth quoting at length:
"There are…moral duties that the law will enforce. But beyond the sphere of duty that is legally enforceable, there is a vast range of significant behaviour in which the law does not and ought not to intervene… this feeling of obedience to the unenforceable is the very opposite of the attitude that whatever is technically possible is allowable. All through history, men have needed it to preserve them from the temper which hardens the heart and perverts the understanding. For our generation, it is nothing less than the prime condition for survival."
(Convocation address to the Aberdeen University, Sir Thomas Taylor. Emphasis added)
More than more three hundred years since, the last sentence still reinforces the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In this case, forget about obeying the unenforceable, the Kerala Congress workers have both openly challenged and mocked even enforceable laws.
But the deeper point: What was it that gave them the confidence in the first place that they could even do this sort of a thing in public? A weak top leadership of the Congress party? Or its corollary, that perhaps the leadership would condone or support the dastardly act? The precedent, after all, had already been set by their own state leaders and the aforementioned devaswom minister.
Equally, the reaction of MB Rajesh, the CPM Member of Parliament, to this public butchering of the calf throws additional light: "It is a thoughtless act and it will only help Sangh Parivar outfits." Note that this honourable MP isn’t worried in the least about the sheerprofanity of this public slaughtering or about the law. And so, this logical question arises: if this act wouldn’t "help Sangh Parivar outfits", would it be okay to do it?
Even more revealing is the cancellation of a similar "beef festival" that had been planned in Congress-ruled Karnataka, following party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s condemnation of the incident. What are the chances of what would’ve happened in the state had Rahul remained mum?
The Congress has indeed come a long way. The journey from Rahul’s own grandmother adopting the 'cow and calf' as her party’s electoral symbol in in 1969 to the same party's workers publicly slaughtering a calf is the journey of the Frankenstein of the Congress party's secularism.
There's also another angle to the political dimension of this event: while the overt ploy seems to be to dare Modi, the underlying idea seems to be to intentionally hurt Hindu sentiments and perhaps provoke a backlash, much like how the Gujarat riots were provoked by burning alive 59 Hindu pilgrims in a train coach.
Politics of cow apart – though interlinked with it – we need to examine some very fundamental notions.
We can begin with the champions of the "right to food", who defend such public barbarism but remain quiet when the question of an animal's right to life is raised. This tangentially also raises the question, again of obedience to the unenforceable. To briefly examine this question, we can turn to a fairly representative verse from the Rig Veda, to which we can trace the tradition of regarding the cow as sacred since ancient times.
MAtA RudrANAm duhitA vasUnAm [She is the Mother of Rudra (Shiva)]
swas-AdityAnAmamritasya nAbhih| [She is the Daughter of Vasu (Elemental Deities representing various aspects of nature)]
pra nu vocham chikitushe janAya [She is the centre of Amrita (Ambrosia)]
mA gAm-anAgamAditim vadhishtha|| [She is the Adityas’ sister. (To folk who understand, I will proclaim it—kill not the cow, Aditi, the Sinless)]
Another word for "cow" in the same Rig Veda is the feminine noun, "aghnyA", which means "not fit to be killed; inviolable." This tradition over time expanded to numerous reverential volumes, both in praise of the cow and condemnation and punishment for killing it or eating its meat.
But then, it's equally clear that all of this is most certainly not a scientific fact and to a contemporary mind, sounds like nonsense designed to instil belief in the supposed sanctity of a specific animal at the exclusion of most others.
Yet the question remains: now that this belief has been demolished long ago, what better has replaced it? Not the least, compassion and respect for animal life as demonstrated by several "beef festivals" in University campuses in the last few years.
One can, of course, rake up the familiar argument about the special sanctity reserved only for cows and not for other animals by Hindus. To which we can refer to Padmashri Dr SL Bhyrappa’s observation: that all food is essentially derived from violence – whether vegetarian or otherwise.
The key point lies in the degree of violence. It takes a far greater degree for summoning violence within oneself to inflict voluntary and unprovoked cruelty to kill a living, breathing animal than to harvest crops, vegetables, etc. And perhaps no language has words to describe those who relish or inflict that sort of nonchalant cruelty as that Congress worker did in Kerala.
Then there’s also the question of the Indian Constitution, which explicitly includes a Directive Principle prohibiting cow slaughter. It can be argued that the reason behind this is economic and cultural. But there’s an undercurrent of what can be called tradition in the sense elucidated by the iconic Kannada litterateur and statesman DV Gundappa, who was also a contemporary of and an indirect contributor to the Indian Constitution:
"[Parliamentary] tradition is the public opinion of several ages; the opinion of the Parliament of 1969 is the public opinion of only that year, but tradition is the cumulative public opinion of 1969 years."
It’s also worth recalling that the same Gundappa was one of the most devout followers of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle years. In this light, Rahul's Congress needs to introspect on what precise noble aim it's trying to achieve by slaughtering a calf publicly. Indeed, a real far cry from the original Gandhi, who averred that "the spirit of kindliness towards [the cow] alone can put an end to" cow slaughter.
But even if we dismiss all of this, a more straightforward question needs to be asked: in the massively interconnected world of today, what message does this public dance of barbarism in Kerala send to other countries about India, its society, and its democracy?
Just as how Sir Taylor’s convocation address remains relevant even today, so does this verse of Lord Byron (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage). Just replace "Greece" with India:
Fair Greece (India)! sad relic of departed worth!
Immortal…though fallen, great!
Who now shall lead thy scattered children forth,
And long accustomed bondage uncreate?
A thousand years scarce serve to form a State;
An hour may lay it in the dust
Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 16:24:00 IST