Given the sharp rise in the incidents of vigilantism, even lynching of people suspected to be aiding cow slaughter, it was always clear the central government would need to condemn such acts and, more important, that states would strengthen their policing. Unless accompanied by quick police action, after all, condemnation by the political establishment means little. While the prime minister had said, last August, that many of the self-styled gau rakshaks were nothing but criminals, this didn’t stop the crimes—he had said “some people indulge in anti-social activities at night, and in the day masquerade as cow protectors”. But since this was not accompanied by tough action in the states, he had to repeat his warning last month.
Despite the PM’s views, however, the central government came out with rules, in May, which prohibited the sales of bulls/cows/bullocks/buffaloes, among other animals, in animal markets if they were going to be slaughtered by the buyer. In one stroke, this gave second wind to vigilantes since, now, even transporting buffaloes or bullocks could be construed to be illegal. Though the central government kept repeating it had not put any ban on eating buffalo meat, since transporting these animals for slaughter was illegal, it amounted to an effective ban. Apart from encouraging vigilantism, it also dealt a big blow to the meat industry and to dairy farmers since bulls are of little use to them in this era of farm mechanisation and culling of old cows is critical once they stop giving milk or their yields fall below a certain level. Around 15 million cattle and buffaloes are killed every year—apart from the money that dairy farmers lose if they can no longer sell them for slaughter, just feeding the animals adds around Rs 30,000 crore to their costs every year.
The new rules raised a furore, more so since Muslims form the bulk of those in the meat/leather trade. But, after saying that the rules would be amended in view of the representations received, the government did little. With the Supreme Court now staying the operation of these rules, the government has one more chance to fix them. The SC, however, cannot let the matter rest here. In a 1958 judgment (Hanif Qureshi vs state of Bihar), it ruled in favour of a ban on the slaughter of cows and their calves until they stopped producing milk; and in the case of a bull or a bullock, it ruled against killing till they were useful for draught purposes. In 2005, it got worse—in Gujarat vs Kassab, a seven judge bench ruled 6:1 in favour of a more complete ban. It cited Article 48 that talked of the government endeavouring to prohibit ‘the slaughter, of cows and calves and other such milch and draught cattle’ and said that while it was true Article 48 was a directive principle, these were put in the Constitution so that the government would strive to achieve them. It then cited studies to show the useful life of cattle/buffalo was almost indefinite. It concluded that “cow and her progeny constitute the backbone of Indian agriculture and economy …increasing adoption of non-conventional energy sources like bio-gas plants justify the need for bulls and bullocks to live their full life”. While the judgment is quite out of sync with reality, unless it is overruled by a larger bench, the gau rakshaks can cite SC in their favour.