It may be no exaggeration to say that beef has featured more in India’s politics than in its cuisine. The Hindu right has always found meat in the demand to ban beef, discounting the perilous social and economic impact of meddling with food habits and preferences in a multi-religious and multicultural society. The latest to join issue with beef is the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra, which dusted up a bill the state assembly had passed 19 years ago and got President Pranab Mukherjee to sign earlier this week. The Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 1995, extends the ban on cow slaughter in the state to bulls and bullocks and imposes a fine of Rs 10,000 and a maximum prison term of five years for even possessing beef. With this law, the state not only seeks to dictate the dietary choices of a large segment of the population — including many Hindus — but also forces them to forgo a cheap source of protein.
The obsession with beef is a leftover of the communal politics of the last two centuries, when food was a marker of the religious divide and served as a pretext to mobilise communities. Historians have emphatically demolished the cultural-religious argument that beef-eating was alien to Hindus and was the import of Muslim rule. Moreover, migration and urbanisation have transformed the eating habits of Indians. Mumbai, a melting pot of cultures and communities, best symbolises this transformation. The Fadnavis government, instead of celebrating the diversity in Maharashtra cuisine, has revived a regressive legislation that negates its multi-religious character and distorts its agrarian economy. A direct outcome of the act is that it would now become economically unviable for farmers to rear cows. Milch cows that augment a farmer’s income could become a burden if he can’t sell bulls and bullocks, which are unproductive assets in the age of mechanised agriculture. So, the law, enacted ostensibly to protect cows, could force a decline in their population, a trend visible in states that have banned the slaughter of bulls and bullocks.\
The choice of Fadnavis, a comparatively young politician seen to be less weighed down by the baggage of the past, as CM after the BJP won Maharashtra, was seen as a move that would help the party reset its political priorities. That he chose to champion a polarising and anti-farmer law when pressing governance issues cry for his attention shows his government in unflattering light.