Cow has become a hazardous subject to be handled cautiously, capable of igniting the frenzy of a mob to lynch or deny nationhood by being verbally deported to another nation. The image of this docile animal has been strategically used to polarize people to achieve ulterior purposes.
Cow has been historically used as an identity symbol to distinguish from Muslim rulers by the re-emerging Hindus of 19th century, who followed the consciousness of medieval period which proscribed beef eating, pertinent only for upper caste Hindus. The shift to preservation of cattle is associated with agrarian expansion of which caste Hindus where the major benefactors. The influence of Buddhist principle of ahimsa and its cooption is also argued to be another strand that endowed the moral dimension to this preservation angle. Cow protection historically therefore has less to do with ‘holiness’ of cows but more with economics. (See, ‘The Myth of Holy Cow’ by D.N Jha; W Norman Brown, “The Sanctity of Cow in Hinduism”, EPW, February 1964).
Analysis on the objective and rationale of cattle preservation/cow protection laws could provide an impassionate sense of laws logic and contrast it with the current high-pitched hyperbole on ‘holy cow.’ The legal regime is located in two major fields, Constitution of India and States laws under Entry 15 of the Seventh Schedul. There are few relevant judicial decisions connected with the prevailing issue.
Constitution of India, besides Entry 15, deals with the topic of cows in Article 48. While speaking in Constituent Assembly on current Article 48, Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava reflected the Assembly’s attitude in the following words, “[w]e have practically substituted this article for the article which other Members wanted from a religious point of view. It is now simply a utilitarian measure but still a measure in which the religious sentiments of crores of people are involved.” The Directive Principle of State Policy urge the states to ‘endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.’ The tenor of the directive is writ large in the mandate to the states. The objectives are agriculture and animal husbandry. The prohibition of slaughter is of cattle that have one common character, productiveness. It is both arduous to locate holiness of cows in Article 48, and unreasonable to force the States to legislate to prohibit slaughter of cows because it is sacred, as Article 48 is not drafted to protect the ‘divine cow’ but an agricultural benefaction.
There is also a very plausible contextual explanation for the placement of cattle protection norm in Directive Principles of State Policy. It was a time when the demand for cow protection were gaining momentum and getting violent. Given the liberal façade of the Constituent Assembly, it was difficult to bring the non-secular cow protection directly into the basic document that they strategically positioned it in Directive Principles. Entry 15 that give the mandate of ‘preservation, protection and improvement of stock and prevention of animal diseases; veterinary training and practice’ to States to legislate, leave it upon the States to decide the content of the laws in ursuance of the directive under Article 48 and within the legislative competency under Entry 15.
Out of 36 States and Union Territories of India, 29 States and Union Territories have laws prohibiting slaughter of cows. Out of which except three, Indian National Congress have prime authorship. Majority of these Act are title as cattle/animal preservation as opposed to six which have prohibition of cow slaughter in its title. The nomenclature distinction is highlighted only to augment the point of focus of these legislations. Of all the cow related laws, it is the Delhi legislation, that was fully drafted by the Bharatiya Janatha Party, though the Rajasthan and Gujarat laws have seen amendments in respective laws during BJP regime tightening up existing laws by enhancing punishments and also prohibiting export of cows for slaughter out of state.
The Delhi legislation covers cows and calves of cows of all ages, bulls and bullocks. The law titled Delhi Agricultural Cattle Preservation Act 1994 has the declared objective to ‘provide for the preservation of animals suitable for milch, draught, breeding or agricultural purposes,’ which ostensibly stands far from the holiness of species. There are certain state laws that specifically target to prohibit slaughter of cows and not the wider range of agricultural cattle like the Punjab Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act 1955, Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act 1955. Both these enactments have similarly worded objectives that is, ‘to prohibit the slaughter of cow and its progeny in ...’.
The above analysis is taken up with an idea to indicate where the law stands. The cow slaughter laws may be a compromise to placate the hardliners but it has so far not endorsed the religious sentiments outwardly, nor these laws permit trading of human souls for those of cows. The laws of India so far hold the life of humans valued than cow.