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Beef, bans and the BJP

India is the world’s second largest beef exporter after Brazil; however the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) and its affiliates have been pushing for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, as the animal is considered sacred by many Hindus. India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, called for a countrywide prohibition on beef, stating, “how can we accept that cows should be slaughtered in this country? We will do our best to put a ban on this, and we will do whatever it takes to build consensus.” The same month (March) the state of Maharashtra extended a ban on the slaughter of cows to bulls and bullocks while another state Haryana made cow slaughter and beef sale non-bailable offences. Jharkhand and Rajasthan are reportedly considering similar legislation. All these states have BJP-led governments.

Similarly, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court issued a ruling banning the consumption of beef across the state. The direction was passed on 9th September 2015 in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Advocate Parimkosh Seth seeking to make the slaughter or killing of bovine animals an offence punishable under Section 298-A  and possession of such slaughtered animal an act punishable under Section 298-B of the RPC (Ranbir Panel Code). A Division Bench of the top court in the state comprising Justice Dhiraj Singh Thakur and Justice Janak Raj Kotwal passed the order.

The ruling follows bans on slaughtering the animals and selling their flesh, which were recently introduced in several Indian states, a move critics say discriminates against Muslims and other religious minorities. Minority groups and activists say the beef bans hurt India's secular fabric and personal freedom.

 The High Court order is a reiteration of a section of the 1932 Ranbir Penal Code, which declares the voluntary slaughter of any bovine animal such as ox, bull, cow, or calf shall be punishable with maximum 10 years imprisonment and also be liable to a hefty fine. The fine may extend to five times the price of animals slaughtered as determined by the court. Possession of the flesh of slaughtered animals is also an offence punishable up to one year and a fine up to ₹500. The ban was imposed stringently from 1932 to 1947, but waned afterwards. In her acclaimed book Kashmir: Hindu Rulers and Muslim Subjects, the historian Mridu Rai remarks on the ban on cow slaughter imposed by Dogra rulers in Kashmir:

“it was deemed by non-Muslim rulers as critical to their own dharma (religion), and so to their sovereignty relying on its protection… So it is said Maharaja Ranbir Singh slit a woman’s tongue for beating a cow which had torn some clothes she had hung out to dry. In Gulab Singh’s time, cow slaughter was punishable with life imprisonment.”

Kashmir society is up in arms at the ban. It is seen as religiously-motivated interference. The issue has divided the ruling coalition partners (Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Bhartiya Janata Party), with PDP saying the prohibition cannot be accepted, Tariq Hameed Karra, PDP leader and Member of Parliament said such legislation, enacted in 1932 by then autocratic Dogra ruler, “has no relevance in today’s democratic setup.” While the BJP welcomed the court’s order and is pressing for strict implementation. However, most political parties of Kashmir are opposing the ban in a state where the Muslim population stands at 70 percent. Muslim clerics and Hindu radicals have threatened counter agitations. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) warned of an economic blockade of the Valley with VHP state president Leela Karan Sharma proclaimed that if any attempt is made to discuss this legislation in the Assembly, “we would starve the people in Kashmir by enforcing an economic blockade” and a street movement in Jammu if the Assembly allowed a discussion on a bill seeking to lift the ban on cattle slaughter in the state. Kashmir’s Muslim clergy threatened action if the government interfered in Muslims’ “religious affairs” and declared the ban “totally unacceptable”. Newly elected president of Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Mohammad Bhat asked, “don’t we even have the right to have halal (allowed in Islam) food now? Even if the J&K Assembly implements the beef ban and the Indian Parliament supports it, it won’t be acceptable in Muslim majority Jammu & Kashmir”. It has become the biggest topic of conversation in the streets of Kashmir. In an act of defiance, protests and shutdowns, people in the Valley have slaughtered dozens of bovines on the streets. Religious leaders and resistance groups have warned of mass defiance if the High Court order is implemented.

Two senior officials of Jammu and Kashmir - former Additional Advocate General Vishal Sharma and the Deputy Advocate General Parimoksh Seth - have been sacked for their role in the controversial beef ban case.Mr Sharma, the government said, had failed to represent it adequately in court and was transferred to another department. However, no action had been taken against Mr Seth - who, as a lawyer, had filed the petition in court last year and pursued it even after being appointed deputy advocate general. Sources say the government had asked him to withdraw the petition or face action, but the leaders of the BJP, an ally of the ruling PDP, came out openly in favour of the ban.

Additional Advocate-General Vishal Sharma, government counsel in the case, has been removed from the Home Department for “failing to defend the case.” “Our stand is clear. We feel the decision taken by the High Court to ban beef must be strictly implemented,” BJP State president Jugal Kishore Sharma said. In Jammu, Mr. Sharma spoke bluntly, despite Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Peoples Democratic Party, an ally of the BJP, opposing the ban. “I don’t know what the PDP president said, but we will not allow any Bill to go through the Assembly to revoke the ban on the slaughter of bovines,” he said.

The opposition National Conference and two other parties have said they would introduce three bills in the state assembly to amend the 1932 law. The BJP has said they will not allow introduction of the bills.The BJP ensured that the public interest litigation (PIL) petition, submitted by lawyer Parimoksh Seth, who is also Deputy Advocate-General, was not withdrawn, despite the government’s insistence.

After Muslim clergy urged people to defy the ban during the Eid-ul-Azha festival, the government blocked the internet for three days. They defended the measure claiming it was taken in apprehension of communal tension. The step by the authorities was aimed at thwarting organised plans to violate the court order and the posting of the pictures or videos of bovine slaughter (sacrifice) on social media that may spark communal violence. This move was widely criticised by opposition parties. Former Chief Minister of Kashmir Omar Abdullah said, “the irony of listening to Prime Minister Narendra Modi lecturing about connected digital India in his visit to USA while we are totally disconnected … the PDP-BJP regime is pushing people of the state to the wall”.

Muddasir Ramzan studied English Literature. He was born in 1990 in Kashmir, India, where he resides. He can be reached at muddasirramzan[at]gmail[dot]com.