In the recently concluded budget session of the Gujarat assembly, the Vijay Rupani-led government passed considerable legislation directly affecting the public. Among all of the steps it took, the amended Gujarat Animal Preservation Bill awarding life term in cases of cow slaughter and the transportation of beef, stood out.
Whenever the BJP has found itself on shaky ground, it has turned to Hindutva for help. On the day this bill was passed, hundreds of saffron-clad Hindu priests from across the state, sat in the visitors’ gallery of the Gujarat assembly. Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja even paid obeisance to them from the Treasury benches of the House while speaking on the Bill.
Chief Minister Rupani’s speech that day on making Gujarat a “vegetarian” state and promoting local cow breeds, set the tenor for the BJP’s political campaign ahead of the assembly elections. The party cadre wasted no time in celebrating the legislation: the Gujarat BJP unit conducted cow worship sessions in districts and at the BJP headquarters the following day.
Clearly, the BJP’s plan is to galvanise the Hindus and win them back.
The Bill includes a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh for cow slaughter. It was last amended in 2011 when Narendra Modi was the chief minister, to introduce stringent punishment for beef and cow trafficking.
The cow has been at the centre of the political narrative in Gujarat since last July when four Dalits of Mota Samadhiyala village in Una taluka of Gir-Somnath district were publicly flogged by alleged cow vigilantes on the suspicion of cow slaughter. Investigations proved otherwise. The incident led to unrest among Dalits, and the sub sect among them which skinned cattle for a living, which announced it was giving up the practise.
In the run up to the bill, Rupani first announced at a public function in Saurashtra on March 12 that the government would introduce legislation to make the current law on the ban of cow slaughter tougher; he repeated it at a few other public events before the bill was tabled in the assembly.
The original bill introduced in the assembly had proposed to increase the maximum punishment for cow slaughter from seven years to 10 years imprisonment. However, a day before it was to be passed in the assembly, the BJP chief whip Pankaj Desai moved an amendment to the Bill raising the punishment from 10 years imprisonment to life term.
Asked about the change in the bill just before its passage, Desai said, “The government might have been advised to increase the punishment (up to life imprisonment) and therefore, I was instructed to move a modification to the Bill.” Jadeja had posted pictures of cows on his Facebook account before the bill was tabled in the House and declared that he would be speaking on the bill.
A significant number of saints who visited the assembly were from the influential Swaminarayan sect. A large section of its followers are Patidars, the backbone of the BJP’s vote bank in Gujarat which over the last few years has had major differences with the BJP, as was reflected in the quota stir led by Hardik Patel. Their endorsement of the bill could swing votes in the BJP’s favour.
The law could also please the huge cattle herding community of Maldharis and Rabaris as well as the Jains and get them to back the BJP. Many Maldhari OBC community leaders were present in the assembly premises, that day.
After the passage of the bill, Rupani, in one of his tweets said, “To Indians, the cow symbolizes all other creatures. The cow is a symbol of the Earth, the nourisher, the ever-giving, undemanding provider.”“Protection of Cows is the single-most important principle towards saving the whole world from both moral and spiritual degradation,” said another Rupani tweet.
Rupani also declared on Twitter that, “…Gujarat Government understands the importance & values of the Cow and that is the reason for the bill.”
There were other significant bills in the session like the one on regulation of school fees and the Gujarat Land Code bill that would clear titles for nearly 7.5 lakh families but the political spotlight remained on the cow.