Governments of two states that have legislated against the consumption of beef are once again calling attention to the issue on the eve of Eid-ul-Zuha or Bakrid. The Haryana Gau Sewa Aayog has asked the state police to collect samples of biryani from Mewat and send them for testing. And following the rather belated but strong warning of the prime minister against vigilantism on behalf of cattle, Maharashtra has made it clear that private raiding parties will not be tolerated. Only the police are empowered to investigate charges of cows being butchered or transported. Haryana has specifically targeted biryani, a dish traditionally connected with the Muslim festival; while the Maharashtra order specifies that only goats can be legally transported and butchered, it draws attention to food habits associated with the festival. These moves may well be valid in law, but they unfortunately suggest that the state is bent on taking the joy out of the festival of one community. The threat of cow patrols invading private spaces to poke about in pots and pans does not set the mood for festivities.
Maharashtra has a brief history of raucous vigilantism, following the passage of a law criminalising the production, possession and consumption of beef. Thereafter, the high court exempted the consumption of beef brought in from outside the state from the ambit of the law, which prescribes a jail term of five years. In June this year, it set about recruiting a cadre of honorary animal welfare officers to act as its eyes and ears in its efforts to protect gau mata. When the police are already charged with the duty to move against those who break the beef laws, why was a cadre of snitches raised from the public deemed necessary? While Maharashtra appears to be proscribing public action now by warning against vigilantism, its record on illiberalism invites the suspicion that it is actually no different in attitude and intent from Haryana, which is pro-actively sending out biryani patrols to probe and pry.
If laws relating to beef must exist at all — and it is not blindingly obvious to the entire population that they must — then the police alone must have the mandate to enforce them, and certainly not as a blunt instrument against a particular community. This time, the festival of Eid has drawn the unhealthy attentions of two state governments to this trumped-up issue. Of course, other communities, including the historically disadvantaged and those located outside the geography of the mainstream, have traditionally used beef as a major source of protein. They have reason to wonder what the future holds for them.