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As Bakrid approached, we witnessed a spurt in what have become regular attacks by cow vigilante groups against cattle traders, beef consumers and butcher communities across India. After Una, where gau rakshaks attacked Dalit cattle carcass skinners, Dalits resisting this caste-imposed forced labour have cried out: “Gai nu poonch nu tume rakho; ame amra zameen apo! harka, chamra tame rakho; hume hamari zameen apo!” (you keep your cow’s tail, skin, bones; give us our land!). They have faced increased attacks by gau rakshaks and upper castes. Gau rakshaks have also begun to attack citizens using leather goods.
Joining the monitoring and surveillance networks on cattle slaughter and beef, is the Lala Lajpat Rai University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Haryana (my alma mater), with its as yet unpublished in the public domain lab report, “confirming cow beef” in biryani in Mewat. In 2015, Haryana followed closely on the heels of Maharashtra, enacting the Gauvanshsanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, with stringent penalties for cattle slaughter, transportation of cattle for slaughter and possession of beef. Right from its earliest avatar — the Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955 — the burden of proof of innocence, is placed on the accused.
Whilst the veracity of the tests and related procedures have to be interrogated, the state steadfastly asserts to having strictly implemented the law, using technologies to test for species differentiation in cooked meat.
Cut to Telangana: Pleas to prevent harassment of cattle traders, transporting bulls and bullocks during Bakrid, elicited a stony silence from the Telangana government, despite state slaughter laws permitting trade, transportation and slaughter of bulls and bullocks, certified “fit for slaughter”. The same state, however, lent tacit support to gau rakshaks, with its public announcement on September 9, via the department of animal husbandry, requesting citizens to be alert to cow slaughter, because of “increased meat consumption” during Bakrid.
The debate here is not about whether meat samples tested positive or negative for cattle meat, or whether “cow slaughter” is happening or not: It’s about the state’s intent to criminalise food cultures and livelihoods (in this case beef and its connected livelihoods), and by doing so criminalise entire communities, comprising 50 per cent of India’s population. By stating that the law is aimed at protecting cows, their progeny, indigenous cattle breeds and the bovine economy, it camouflages the state’s intent to use the law to defend a dominant notion of Indian culture.
As veterinarians and animal scientists we know slaughter does not drive down animal numbers, but actually supports their reproduction, as evident in the case of India’s buffaloes. We also have mounting evidence to show how slaughter bans actively depress cattle rearing.
It is farmers who sell their unproductive cow, bull or bullock, and not cattle traders who steal or forcibly purchase an owner’s animal. Small and marginal farmers and landless labour, comprising 80 per cent of India’s rural population, own 70 per cent of India’s 190 million cattle and 108 million buffaloes. Farmers unable to feed, water, graze and manage their bovines, for reasons ranging from drought to collapsing milk markets, sell their animals. If not bought by another farmer, they are spared from slow starvation death, when purchased by traders for slaughter. The farmers right to sell is critical to sustain livelihoods and nurture the livestock economy.
Far from protecting the cow, obstructing all post-farmer downstream economic activities via a slaughter ban, spells the death knell for India’s disappearing cattle economy: Cattle beef is a critical part of food cultures and a cheap source of protein, its skin is the basis of India’s thriving leather industry valued at $11 billion, generating 95 per cent of India’s footwear needs, and its offals, used widely in the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, provides an “unproductive” animal a robust market value, and the farmer an income.
Maharashtra farmers blame the slaughter ban on bulls and bullocks for massive declines in resale value of bullocks. Prices fell by 40-60 per cent forcing farmers to abandon their animals and forego money they relied upon in distress situations. Farmers purchasing drinking water through the drought of 2015, could not buy water for their animals, bemoaned their plight of being burdened with unproductive animals.
States with cattle slaughter bans, propose increased public investments for gaushalas, and persuading farmers to rear unproductive animals for dung and urine. A farmer spends Rs 60,000 to maintain a cow/bullock, and she earns only Rs 20,000 annually from its dung and urine. Moreover, assuming 1/3rd of India’s cattle are unproductive, we are talking of a public outlay of Rs 6,363 billion annually or Rs 53,00 per citizen to shelter these cattle — all in the name of “culture”. Enhanced public investment in safe, state-of-the-art slaughter procedures and stress-free transportation are priorities, rather than slaughter and beef bans, and gaushalas reported to be concentration camps of slow death.
Lets not forget, the same culture (and state) is silent on one of India’s best-kept secrets: Caste continues to inform the composition of India’s workforce involved in the disposal of cows and their offspring. Excluding Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, all other “castes” refuse to dispose their dead bovines. Dalits and Muslims comprise 45 per cent and 55 per cent respectively of the 2.5 million workforce,engaged in downstream activities connected to dead bovines: flaying curing and carcass removal/recovery, skinning, tanning and processing of hide, offals and production of leather goods. Paradoxically, in this flourishing industry, where caste hegemony forces Dalits to be engaged in “removal and recovery of carcasses”, which is the worst paid set of activities, upper castes control the vast earnings derived from India’s expanding leather and beef industries.