March 08, 2015

Banning beef goes beyond religious connotations

When I mentioned it to him, a well-meaning political friend urged me not to touch the subject or write about it. “Beef is a sensitive issue,” he said, “it has religious connotations. And you are a Christian…”

I thought about it but decided to go ahead anyway. The manner in which the BJP-led government in Maharashtra has banned the cutting, eating and very possession of beef is disturbing. And to me, it is not a religious issue but a broader social and economic one – linked to the liberalism that is the bedrock of our Constitution.

Beef is a cheap meat. It is often called the “poor man's protein”. In Maharashtra it is eaten by Muslims and Christians, and by some Dalit communities that do not belong to religious minorities. As a magnet for economic migrants from across India, the Mumbai-Pune region is also home to many from the Northeast who consume beef.

By banning beef in such a draconian and absolutist fashion, the state government will only drive up prices of other meats. This will have an inflationary impact and will raise household food bills. It will affect livelihoods of traders and butchers who deal with bovine meat.

The decision is impulsive and political and has not considered the impact on agriculture and on the Maharashtra farmer. There are long-standing agrarian problems in the state. One of these is a whopping 61 per cent shortage in fodder, if one compares fodder required for livestock, largely cows and buffaloes, against what is available. With the ban, this fodder shortage will worsen. It will push up input costs for farmers.

Lastly, there is my concern about perceptions and inclusiveness. India is a ‘live and let live’ society. Beef is forbidden among most Hindus and the cow is held sacred. I respect that and am certainly not asking for beef to be served at state banquets or in the Parliament canteen. But to ban its use and consumption even in the privacy of a citizen’s home and kitchen?

It strikes me as odd that I can walk into a supermarket in Dubai – which is not a democracy and not a model for Indian society – enter a sub-section of the meats area and buy pork, which is forbidden in Islam. I have seen simple signs outside such demarcated areas that say: “Pork and pork products: For non-Muslims only”.

Can we not imagine something similar for beef in India? Do bans like this serve any purpose other than simply putting off some people – and contravening the spirit of the Constitution, as the BJP-led government in Mumbai is doing, even without amending it? The pursuit of an agenda of religious divisiveness does not start with grand pronouncements. It starts with relatively small events like these.

That is why I decided to write this piece. I plan to iterate its contents this week in the Rajya Sabha. I hope the Chairman gives me permission.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Leader in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, All India Trinamool Congress