The BJP juggernaut rolls on in the North East. The party, which has been gathering momentum after its thumping election win in Assam and a less spectacular victory in Manipur, is now looking to repeat its performance in Meghalaya, the hill state where elections are due next year.
But the BJP's victory march may encounter a roadblock because of the party’s relentless pursuit of its Hindutva agenda.
The Centre’s obsession with protecting the cow, the strict norms laid down for the sale and purchase of cows and buffaloes has frightened the Christian states of the North East, where beef is a staple and the only protein available in rural homes.
The three main tribes living in Meghalaya — Khasis, Jaintias and Garos — are mainly Christians and eat beef.
Since Independence, the tribal states of the region have not been asked to implement the provisions of the "beef ban" bill, which the majority of other states had implemented through state legislatures. Nothing has changed in the region.
Beef is still readily available, but in politics perception is reality. The fear that the BJP at the Centre may bring in beef restrictions through the back door is very real across the North East, particularly Meghalaya.
"Naturally, there is a lot of concern about the government's obsession with protecting the cow. As beef is a staple in Meghalaya, people are afraid that the day may come when their food habits are restricted,’’ said RG Lyngdoh, vice-chancellor, Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong. He said that the local population would have been more agitated if the state wasn't currently in election mode.
"Now the entire issue is getting muddied because of election rhetoric. The BJP is blaming the Congress for spreading rumours and trying to take advantage of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals bill to spread fear among the people,’’ he added.
The Meghalaya Assembly recently passed a unanimous resolution against the new bill. The state has been under Congress rule for over a decade. People want change and the BJP has been gathering its strength ever since it swept Assam. The BJP has been working assiduously in Meghalaya, with party functionaries flying down from Delhi nearly every month to talk to groups of citizens or having small town hall meetings.
Despite people’s initial concerns about the BJP promoting Hindutva, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a big push to development in his 2014 election campaign, the mood in Meghalaya changed dramatically. Many of their former apprehensions were quelled and citizens began looking to the BJP to provide both development and good governance.
However, stories of cow vigilante groups rampaging across north India have frightened people. The Centre’s introduction of the new rule for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulations of livestock markets) Rules 2017, have brought back the original apprehensions about the BJP being a Hindu majority party, which could dent the BJP’s growing support base in Meghalaya.
Though every BJP leader who visits the state has been reassuring the people that the cattle sale restriction bill would not be introduced in Meghalaya, there are few takers. The old suspicion that the BJP is anti-Christian and anti-Northeastern tribal groups and is bent on stopping the consumption of beef, is gaining ground.
The beef consumed in Meghalaya comes from other states. The beef is brought up to Guwahati by train and then taken "on hooves" through the three hour trip to Shillong. Recently, when a government-owned farm in Meghalaya ordered some milch cows for breeding from Tamil Nadu, the train carrying the cows was stopped in Orissa. Those escorting the animals were attacked by an irate mob. Thankfully, nobody was killed.
"These kind of incidents add to our anxiety,’’ said James Warjiri, a retired government employee. "We realise that though the new order may have no bearing in Meghalaya, the impact will certainly be felt in states from where we source the animals for slaughter. We fear that in days to come, the strict conditions under which cattle and buffaloes are bought and sold will impact the markets. Once this happens, transporting cows or buffaloes for slaughter to Meghalaya may become increasingly difficult. Prices will go up and what is now the poor man’s meat will become much more expensive.’’
In rural areas smoked beef is plentifully consumed. Beef is the cheapest of meats, and rural folk dry the beef on their fireplaces and eat it with rice. Pork is the most popular meat in these areas but is expensive. So is mutton, though chicken is relatively cheap. Beef is simple, nourishing and inexpensive. Smoked beef can be stored for months.
Despite apprehensions about the "beef ban", there have been no major resignations from the party in the Khasi areas. However in the Garo hills, there have been a spate of resignations from the BJP, including that of Bernard Marak, district president of the West Garo hills.
Despite the worries about the new rules brought in by the Centre, it is far too early to write off the BJP in Meghalaya.
Much will depend on whether the party can convince the people that the new laws will never be implemented in the North East.
Updated Date: Jun 24, 2017 15:00 PM