Quick exits are on from the Meghalaya BJP with the North Garo Hills district party president Bachu Marak becoming the latest to resign on Monday, four days after West Garo Hills district president Bernard Mark made an exit from the party on the issue of beef ban.
"The BJP is dishonoring our culture. We planned to celebrate three years of Narendra Modi government with nakham bitchi (dry fish soup) and a beef party. This is something we have during funerals, birthdays, marriages etc. For me it is my food habit is first and the party comes at last. Beef is our traditional food. I have quit the BJP becuase it is anti-Garo, anti-Christian and anti-tradional food habits. I have not decided on joining any other party yet but I might contest as an independent if required," Bachu told Firstpost from Tura.
If you are not a die-hard foodie then you probably have not heard about Doh masi kylla, Doh masi syrwa or the Doh thad dung. These are all Khasi dishes with beef as the principal item. But how long will these dishes titillate the taste buds of connoisseurs of food is the question.
A million questions have sprung up in the country's North East since the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules, 2017 was notified by the Centre on 23 May. Will beef disappear from the plate? Or will it be hard to sustain in cattle business any longer? What will happen to the traditions that are incomplete without beef?
The notification clearly mentions what comes under the definition of "cattle", saying it "means a bovine animal including bulls, bullocks, cows, buffalos, steers, heifers and calves and includes camels."
The concern in the region is natural as the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are high beef consuming states. More than the notification itself, it is the lack of clarity on the order and the ensuing politics of beef that have added to the confusion that was already existing. With the BJP at the helm at the Centre and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as its ideological parent, things got further complicated with many rushing to preconceived conclusions.
The notification fuelled such raging debates across the country that the government was forced to come out with a clarification four days after the notification was issued.
"The basic purpose of the Rule is to ensure welfare of the animals in the cattle market and ensure adequate facilities for housing, feeding, feed storage area, water supply, water troughs, ramps, enclosures for sick animals, veterinary care and proper drainage etc... The prime focus of the regulation is to protect the animals from cruelty and not to regulate the existing trade in cattle for slaughterhouses,"
"It is envisaged that welfare of cattle dealt in the market will be ensured and that only healthy animals are traded for agriculture purposes for the benefits of the farmers. The livestock markets are intended to become hubs for trade for animal for agriculture through this process and animal for slaughter will have to be bought from the farmers at the farms," the Ministry of Environment and Forests said in its clarification.
"The notified rules will remove the scope of illegal sale and smuggling of the cattle which is a major concern. The specific provisions apply only to animals which are bought and sold in the notified livestock markets and animals that are seized as case properties. These rules do not cover other areas," it said.
The clarification said that the notification was issued after the Supreme Court directed that rules with regard to Livestock Market and Case Property animals be notified under Section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1960, while giving its verdict on the Gauri Maulekhi versus Union of India and others case on the smuggling of cattle from India for the Gadhimai Festival held in Nepal.
However, the clarification did little to convince people of the government's envisaged intent. There is also no surprise for this environment of uncertainty.
Rise of cow vigilantism
The terror of the so-called gau rakshaks that started in September 2015 with the alleged lynching of a 60-year-old Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh's Dadri district continues even now. Not only Akhlaq, another man, Pehlu Khan, was also allegedly killed by cow vigilantes in Rajasthan's Alwar district.
There is a spate of incidents involving alleged gau rakshaks, like the beating up of Dalit youths in Una for skinning a dead cow on 11 July, 2016, the brutal beating of a Dalit family in Kappa, Karnataka by 30-40 members of the Bajrang Dal, for allegedly possessing beef among many such occurrences.
It is largely believed that the cow vigilantes are emboldened by the fact that a BJP government is in power at the Centre. Although the party is trying hard to dissociate itself from these incidents, the government's effort to streamline the cattle trade is now seen as an attempt to do away with cattle slaughter altogether.
Political slugfest over beef row
Thanks to the selected targeting of citizens by unscrupulous elements, the politics over beef have now become an open game where each political party is trying to score over another. The new notification only added further ammunition to the already existing gau rakshak syndrome.
Tripura, with a Left Front government in power, was the first state in North East India which refused to implement Centre's notification.
"Before the government issued the statement, the party also stated that it is against this notorious rule of the Centre. This notification is against the agriculturists. When the animal is of no use for the farmer what will he do? He won't be able to feed the cattle or shelter them. There is already a high rate of suicide among farmers in the country. This notification is nothing but an extra burden on the farmers," Bijan Dhar, secretary of the state committee, CPM Tripura told Firstpost from Agartala.
"Lakhs of people are economically involved in this activity, be it the cattle market, selling meat, cattle transportation and leather. By exporting meat and animal products, the Centre and the states are earning crores of rupees. So many livelihoods depend on this animal trade," he said.
"In Tripura, there is a certain section from the scheduled caste who work as skin collectors. Many people will go jobless if this notification comes into force."
The CPM leader viewed the moved by the Centre as an astutely political one.
"It is a political motive to enforce restrictions on the food habits of certain sections. The Centre cannot dictate the likings and dislikings when it comes to food, be it of any community (read Muslims). This a basic right. The RSS is trying to use the Central government and proceed towards forming a Hindu rashtra (nation). This is a state subject but now it is directly going to the hands of the Centre. It took the decision arbitrarily without any discussion. The Tripura government has taken a stand and the cabinet has passed a resolution accordingly," Dhar said.
The Opposition Congress in Arunachal Pradesh is up in arms against the BJP government at the Centre for taking out such a notification.
"In Arunachal Pradesh, 99 percent of the people are non-vegetarians. There are a lot of rituals among the tribals, including marriages, traditional ways of treating illness, where cow meat is essential. This is part of our culture. We eat a lot of cow meat. The BJP and RSS are trying to force their ideologies on us. We will not allow that," said former Arunachal Pradesh Congress president Padi Richo.
The veteran Congress leader was so furious that he went on to the extent of making outrageous claims that if beef is banned in the North East, the eight northeastern states including Sikkim will "sever" from India and form a separate "sovereign" nation. He was also critical of Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, an MP from the state.
"Rijiju is saying that he doesn't have beef. He is not telling the truth to please the RSS in Delhi. Can he say that in public in Arunachal Pradesh? This is plain double standard. The government has to reconsider its decision. Or else, what will happen to Narendra Modi and BJP after 2019?" Richo asked.
Assam Congress president Ripun Bora was in favour of maintaining the sanctity of the constitutional fabric at any cost.
"Our Constitution has given us certain fundamental rights. The base of our Constitution is secularism. It is a constitutional obligation to respect all caste and creed and hurting the sentiments of other caste and creed is not allowed. It is the fundamental right of the people to have any type of meat they want to have,"
"For many, it is part of their culture. When no one has opposed worshipping cows by the Hindus why should one oppose what other religions are doing with cows? This kind of imposition will create hatred and division in the society," the Assam Congress chief said.
"We will oppose this move through public perception and through democratic forums like the state Assemblies and Parliament," Bora said.
Congress MP from Golaghat constituency in Assam Gaurav Gogoi viewed this whole move as a conspiracy of the BJP.
"Through this notification, the government is seeking a backdoor route to start a beef ban in the North East. This notification will hurt the farmers who want to sell their aged cattle when they are no longer yielding milk. This will harm the rural economy and only strengthen more cow vigilantism by gau rakshaks, who will continue to take the law into their own hands. We are in talks with different state units of the Congress and we are watching the government to see what steps they take next," Gogoi said.
Shillong Lok Sabha MP Vincent H Pala even wrote to Modi, informing him that this notification will cause immense hardships to the people in the North East, particularly those associated with the trade and farming.
"I have not gotten any reply from the prime minister so far," he said.
Unmoved by the intense criticism that it is facing, the BJP is going all guns out to defend itself and the Central government.
"The Centre gave no notification that there should be a beef ban in India. Even the Kerala and Rajasthan High Courts said that there is no ban. What the notification said is that there have to be farms for bovines in the line of poultry farms from where it could be procured for food. It is going to be regulated but there is no complete ban. I think it is a miscommunication primarily. Instead of protesting people should read the notification. Nowhere it is written that beef is banned," said Assam BJP general secretary Dilip Saikia.
The BJP leader was particularly harsh on the Congress for the stand it had taken on the issue.
"Congress is doing all kinds of stunts for political gains. They want to make the country unstable by taking recourse to divisive politics. The Congress has no issue as of now as the BJP is giving good governance. Congress should do some positive politics and not indulge in its cheap version," Saikia said.
The notification caused such tumultuous reactions that a couple of members even resigned from the BJP in Meghalaya.
"BJP is a political party. There are many who join with the soul intention of getting tickets. If they think they won't get one they find a non-issue to exit. This is the nature of politics. There are clear guidelines that the states should only regulate cattle sale. This is done to prevent cruelty to animals. The Opposition parties are spreading false propaganda. BJP is for sabka saath, sabka vikas," said Meghalaya BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh from Shillong.
Despite its clarifications, even the BJP's allies are not quite comfortable with the text of the notification.
"I have raised the issue with the prime minister. We cannot allow our beliefs to be compromised. It is not a ban as such but making it tougher for the trade to take place. The hurdles that are being created are not going down well with the common man. This should be brought up in Parliament. This should be debated and we are hoping that Parliament would ensure that it won't become a law," said Tura MP and National People's Party (NPP) president Conrad Sangma.
The NPP is part of the National Democratic Alliance and shares power with the BJP in Manipur.
Number of people consuming beef/buffalo meat in 2011-12 in the northeastern states
These findings are from the National Sample Survey Office's 68th round of Household Consumption Expenditure survey:
Arunachal Pradesh: 2,54,462
Concern among general people
The political hullabaloo notwithstanding, the notification has managed to worry the people of those northeastern states which have a close association with beef as a part of their culture and existence.
"Meghalaya is already facing a huge revenue loss as cattle that are actually imported from neighbouring Assam for consumption in the state are illegally smuggled out to Bangladesh. Meghalaya cannot produce the amount of beef that is required for its domestic consumption. Nearly 80 percent of the state consumes beef as it is a Christian-dominated state,"
"By virtue of being tribals, we consume meat. However, beef is a taboo for those who follow the tribal religion," H Hamkhein Mohrmen, minister at Unitarian Union Northeast India and a social worker at Jowai in Meghalaya told Firstpost.
Even as the Border Security Force is doing its best and seizing cattle that are to be illegally sent to Bangladesh almost on a daily basis, the porous border and challenging terrain make it tough to contain such incidents. But what makes beef so popular in this part of the country?
"If you compare beef with fish, chicken or pork, beef is much cheaper. It is a primary food for the poor people. If there is a fest or a marriage, beef curry with rice is usually the main item because it is easily affordable for people in the villages. It is not outrageous to say that a marriage is incomplete without beef. Without meat, there is no meal in rural Meghalaya. The notification threatens to cause a huge impact on the society," Mohrmen said.
"The smuggling of cows to Bangladesh has gone up considerably since last year. The new notification has only complicated things. The Butcher Association of Meghalaya is already opposing it. A few days back traders at the local Garobadha cattle market openly defied the notification by conducting business as usual," he said.
"Lot of people are involved in this business. There are over 100 rural markets in Meghalaya and there would be five traders on an average dealing with cattle in each of them. The traditional rice and tea shops which you find in villages sell different types of beef curry, which is a major source of income for them. There are hundreds of such shops in Meghalaya. Without beef there would hundreds of such items less on the plate," Mohrmen said.
Jarjum Ete, who is currently the chairperson of the Arunachal Pradesh State Commission on Women, is unhappy with the notification.
"I simply oppose it. The communities who have been using the cattle are just not happy with the move. Beef is part and parcel of their food chain, cultural rituals and a main source of protein. People won't die without beef. But many take this notification as an imposition of the majoritarian Brahmanical values. We don't eat beef daily but it is a major food when there is a house warming party or a marriage. There are ritualistic sacrifices done with beef and it forms a major source of income for the farming community," she said.
The Itanagar resident viewed it as a complete infringement on their rights.
"All communities cutting across religions depend on beef. This move is an attempt to corporatise cattle rearing. They are taking away the opportunity from the poor people," Ete said.
Business must go on
With the new notification being circulated, many in the beef business are now preparing themselves to face the fallout.
"No amount of shouting will help. Ultimately what the administration or Parliament decides will happen. If the government decides to ban beef sale then we will switch over to mutton. If the mutton sale is banned then we will focus on chicken. If chicken is stopped then we will turn to fish. And if fishes are prohibited then we will shift to vegetables. But the business will go on," said Mujibur Rahman, proprietor, Mughal Garden restaurant in Guwahati.
Although the beef ban won't hurt the economy of the state as such, Assam Chamber of Commerce secretary general Sisir Deb Kalita wondered how the government will move forward without reworking on the notification.
"There is no blanket ban on beef and the government's seeking to stop cruelty to animals is well intended. But the social fabric should not be risked for that. Around Durga Puja, there are a lot of buffalo sacrifices that happen at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Does the government have a plan to deal with that? The concern is not limited to the minority community alone as has been largely projected," Kalita said.
Although the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act states, "Nothing contained in this Act shall render it an offence to kill any animal in a manner required by the religion of any community", getting a cattle for sacrifice will now become a hard task after this notification.
Whether the beef stays on the plate or not is a tough call to make immediately but there is no doubt that the BJP has got too much on their plate — to placate and pacify an angry public in the North East.
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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2017 16:28:01 IST