Sati was abolished in 1829. The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act got passed in 1856. The historic proclamation by the Maharaja of Travancore, paving the way for the entry of so-called low castes into Hindu temples, was issued in 1936. Untouchability was declared an offence punishable in accordance with law under Article 17 of India’s Constitution, adopted in 1950.
All these reforms were brought about by men — Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, among others — who, apart from being guided by strong moral principles, had a clear sense of the current as well as evolving realities. This ability to respond to and facilitate social change was also part of a Hindu reformist tradition, whether manifested in the teachings of Basaveshwara or Dayananda Saraswati.
Sadly, that spirit of reform or adapting religious practices to changed economic and social realities is missing today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the issue of culling of cattle, where the dominant beliefs of religious and political leaders now are totally at variance with the present realities of farming. Article 48 of the Constitution — mandating a ban on the slaughter of “cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle” as a non-justiciable directive principle of state policy — has lent further respectability to this entrenched view that does not tolerate even selective culling of govansh.
It’s not that our Constitution makers were ignorant. But at the time of its drafting, there were hardly about 5,000 tractors in farms all over India, while the annual consumption of chemical fertilisers (in terms of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash) amounted to just over 41,000 tonnes. Artificial insemination of cows, as M S Randhawa has documented in his magisterial History of Agriculture in India, was only introduced as a 15-day training course at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute near Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, in 1946.
Cattle, in other words, was indispensable for agriculture. There could be no manure in those times without dung, no ploughing of land or threshing of crops without bullocks, and no breeding without bulls. Not for nothing, Article 48 saw prohibition of cattle slaughter as a means for “preserving and improving the breeds” and to “organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines”. It was clearly a secular, not religious, concern.
But cut to the present, when India’s yearly sales of tractors and fertiliser nutrient consumption are in the range of 5,50,000-6,00,000 units and 26-27 million tonnes, respectively. In 2016-17, more than 70 million artificial inseminations were performed, covering some 26 per cent of the country’s breedable bovine population — which a recent official National Action Plan for Dairy Development proposes to raise to 65 per cent by 2021-22. Also, thanks to the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, there were 21.86 crore active domestic LPG connections as on January 1, 2018, corresponding to an estimated coverage of 79.2 per cent. That has made dung cakes practically redundant as a source of cooking fuel even in rural India.
Had the above new realities been known then, would the wise men and women who were members of the Constituent Assembly have advocated a complete prohibition of cattle slaughter? Well, unlikely. Not only these enlightened political leaders, even the great Hindu reformers themselves would most certainly have mocked at the idea.
The difference between those reformers and today’s self-appointed guardians of Hinduism is that the former were truly connected to the soil. They — unlike today’s jet-set babas who seek patronage primarily from the high and mighty, and are even given Cabinet Minister status by some state governments — moved and lived amongst ordinary people, with a deep understanding of their material as well as spiritual problems and aspirations. They would definitely have commiserated with the sufferings of farmers forced to maintain unproductive cattle.
Make no mistake, a cow no longer giving milk or male cattle not required for draught and breeding purposes are a burden on the farmer. For him, it’s not just about the cost incurred in feeding and maintaining them, which comes to Rs 80-100 per day. It is also about opportunity cost —the diversion of scarce fodder, feed, water, and labour resources away from animals that are yielding milk or will do so in future. The “Hindu” farmer never had any issue with the “Muslim” butcher. The latter was actually doing a service by taking his unproductive animal and even paying him Rs 5,000-10,000 that could, in turn, be used to part-finance a new milch cow for Rs 25,000-30,000.
But today, the same farmer is unable to dispose of his unproductive animals, because of self-styled gaurakshaks — many of them far removed from actual dairying — who have made even transport of cattle a high-risk activity. The cow let loose by him, then, ends up eating the crop in other farmers’ fields. We have now farmers staying awake all night or spending Rs 50,000 and more per acre on barbed-wire fencing, just to prevent such anna pashu from entering their fields. Recently, there was the case of a farmer in UP’s Mahoba district, who committed suicide after seeing his standing wheat and rabi pulses crop ravaged by stray cattle.
Yet, none of this seems to have moved our religious leaders. Instead, farmers are being given sermons on the virtues of gobar and gomutra. (Can any gaushala run with the proceeds from just sale of cow dung and urine or their supposedly magical derivatives?) Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri, chairman of the Madhya Pradesh Gau Samvardhan Board, who has the rank of a minister of state, wants abandonment of cows by owners to even be treated as a penal offence. It’s hard to believe that a Sant Tukaram, Swami Vivekananda or Sree Narayana Guru would have been so oblivious to the hardships of farmers, leave alone insist that the cost of protecting the gau and Hindu Dharma be exclusively borne by them.
Hinduism’s past strength has been in reforming its beliefs and practices to keep up with the times. And permitting selective culling of cattle is minor reform, compared to the abolition of sati and untouchability, legalising widow remarriage or pushing the Hindu Code Bill. Remember, those too faced opposition, from men who believed that only they could speak for Hindus.