The Centre’s ill-advised move to ban sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India has nudged sworn political rivals on to common ground. On Monday, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote to the prime minister and all the chief ministers that the Centre was making a “covert attempt to usurp the powers of the state legislature in the guise of rules under a Central Act”. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee described the decision as “a deliberate attempt to encroach upon the state’s powers”. She called it an “attempt to destroy the federal structure of the country” and promised to challenge it “legally”. Meanwhile, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court on Tuesday stayed the ban for four weeks. The court has also asked the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government to respond to the issues raised in a PIL. The issue of federal rights, flagged by both Vijayan and Banerjee and political parties like the DMK, is certain to figure in the court proceedings and the Centre will be hard-pressed to explain its move. Its attempt to smuggle in the contentious political demand for a ban on cattle slaughter by changing the rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 may not withstand judicial scrutiny.
Vijayan and Banerjee rightly argue that the Centre’s notification amounts to overreach. The notification issued by the Union Ministry of Environment indeed encroaches into the domain of state legislatures. Animal slaughter has been regulated or prohibited by state laws, in response to local social, economic and cultural preferences. The Centre has respected the diversity of aims in legislation because the spirit of federalism demands it. It is ironic that a government under a prime minister who pointedly promised to promote “cooperative federalism” has now sought to upset the balance in Centre-state relations. Prime Minister Modi, who was Gujarat chief minister for over a decade, has on many occasions spoken of the need for the Centre and the states to respect each other’s rights and duties. The government’s pushing through of the GST, by getting the states on board, is also an illustration of the spirit of cooperative federalism. Earlier, the government’s decision to disband the Planning Commission and replace it with a think tank, the Niti Aayog, reflected its belief that the centralised planning process gave limited leeway to the states. The devolution of more tax revenues to the states was seen as a clear intent on the part of the Centre to empower the states. The cattle slaughter notification threatens to undo much of the good work done by the Centre in promoting the principle and practice of federalism.
The Centre must step back and recognise that the opposition from Kerala and West Bengal is a warning. Similar concerns have been raised in the Northeastern states, where, too, bovine meat is part of the diet. Public policy cannot be set without factoring in the country’s diversities.