By Sandeep Sahu
Years ago, while on a trip together to Manoharpur in Keonjhar district to report on the gruesome killing of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, an Australian journalist had asked this columnist a question that was as hard to answer then as it is now. “Why are you Indians so hung up on beef?” asked the Aussie journalist. “There are two reasons; one religious and the other economic. The cow has a sacred place in the Hindu religion and that’s the reason a Hindu abhors the idea of killing it for its meat. The second reason is cows have been an integral part of the agrarian society and hence Indians consider it economic hara-kiri,” I replied feebly, not sure if the answer would convince him or even whether it was right.
In the years that followed, I have read enough material, all from authentic sources, to find that beef eating was very much prevalent in sections of Hindus since the ancient times. Why, tribals and dalits in our very own Odisha do eat beef even to this day. In the process, the belief that all Hindus detest beef went out of the window. As I dug deeper into the issue, I found that the majority of cattle that make their way into slaughterhouses are sold by Hindus who have no use for them after they become old and become a drain on their scarce resources. They see wisdom in cutting their losses and selling their ageing cattle to the butcher. The reasons are purely economic and have nothing to do with religion.
The ‘Jibe Daya’ argument also does not hold water. Why is our compassion for animals restricted only to cows? Why do we have no compunctions about killing goats, sheep, lambs, fish and even buffaloes for meat? One can understand – and even support - a campaign against slaughter of any animal. But why should our outrage be restricted only to killing of cows? Would it more humane – and more Hindu – to allow ageing and infirm cattle to die uncared for? And once it does, how does one dispose of the carcass? Burn it or dig a pit and bury it? Both of them would cost money that a poor farmer can ill afford. No wonder, most cattle owners depend on a dalit to take away the carcass and never bother about what he does to the dead cattle.
The born-again crusade against cow slaughter has its genesis in the particular brand of Hinduism that the ruling party at the Centre, which also rules several states in the country now, seeks to promote and propagate. The Hinduism that has survived the vicissitudes of centuries has place for all kinds; those who are strict vegetarians and those who eat meat, including beef. But in the particular brand of Hinduism sought to be imposed on the vast country by the Hindutva brigade, one can kill and eat the meat of any animal and still remain a Hindu, but not beef. Though I have never tasted the stuff myself, I have never quite understood how eating beef makes one a lesser Hindu or a non-Hindu?
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Even assuming that Hindus have to shun beef to keep their religious identity, how can one deny the right to eat beef to non-Hindus in India which, when I last checked, was still a secular country? The hypocrisy of the anti-beef brigade baffles me. They would campaign against beef in north India, but would remain silent about it in the north east. A BJP candidate for a by-election in Tamil Nadu actually promised ‘the best quality beef’ to his voters, if elected!
It is dangerous enough to allow cow vigilantes a free run in a country as vast and as varied as India. But it gets positively scary when elected governments join the burgeoning ranks of ‘gau rakshaks’. The zeal with which the newly elected government in Uttar Pradesh has gone about closing slaughterhouses and abattoirs in the state – both legal and illegal - has serious implications for the body politic. As the lynching of Akhlaque Ahmed in Dadri earlier and Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan now have shown, it encourages vigilante groups calling themselves ‘gau rakshaks’ to go berserk and mount murderous attacks on those in (or suspected to be, as in the case of Pehlu) the cattle trade or suspected of eating beef (as in the case of Akhlaque). But more importantly, it is also a serious infringement of the citizen’s fundamental right to eat what it wants.
It is the government’s job to make sure no citizen goes hungry. But when it starts deciding what a citizen can or cannot eat, it is getting into forbidden territory. And when a government makes it its priority no 1, it is a recipe for disaster.