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Cows & Politics: A BJP Favourite

Politics and cows could be an entire book in the history of India. And recent developments in Assam have a chapter to add to it. In an attempt to refine the existing [Assam] Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, the Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma, tabled the new The Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021 on July 12 that regulates the sale, purchase, trade and slaughter of cattle in the state. On August 13, the bill passed after receiving a final nod from the Legislative Assembly.

The decision didn’t come as a surprise. The previous BJP government had faced a lot of criticism for illegal cattle smuggling across the 263 km long Bangladesh border. The union government reported that the Border Security Force had captured 476,035 cattle between 2016 and 2020 along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Additionally, Border Security Force Inspector General Rajesh Kumar revealed that between December 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020, a total of 24,060 cows were seized from the Assam-Bangladesh border.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Assam government came back to power on May 02, 2021, for its second consecutive term winning 60/126 seats. Though not a part of their manifesto, this is one of the first decisions the government took right after assuming office. While addressing the first session of the 15th Assam Assembly, governor Jagdish Mukhi said, “We all revere and worship the cow. It is a sacred animal as it nurtures us with life-sustaining milk. In fact, it is a symbol of the divine bounty of the earth. I am happy to inform you that my government plans to introduce the Cow Protection Bill in the next assembly session.”

The key features of the act are:

  • There is no distinction among cattle types and will include all-cow, bullocks, bulls, heifer, calves, male & female. In other states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh where a similar act is in place, includes only cow progeny.

  • Beef and beef products will not be allowed to sell in areas that are “predominantly inhabited by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and other non-beef eating communities or within a 5-km radius of a temple, Satra [Vaishnavite monastery] or other religious institutions belonging to the Hindu religion or any other institution or area as may be prescribed by the competent authority.”

  • Beef will also be allowed to sell only in places permitted by the government.

Violating section 5 [prohibition of slaughter of cattle without a certificate from competent authority], section 6 [prohibition of slaughter of cattle in places other than a slaughterhouse] and section 7 will result in 3-8 years of jail and/or a fine of Rs.3-5 lakhs. Repeat offenders will face double the penalties. Offences under this bill are cognisable and non-bailable, unlike the previous law.

The 1950 law permits slaughter on conditions such as the cattle being above 14 years or completely incapacitated and a certificate will be issued for the same. However, the new act will issue such certificates only if the cattle isn't a cow and its age is more than 14 years.

Cattle will be allowed to slaughter at duly licensed slaughterhouses after being issued fitness certificates. It prohibits the transport of cattle to, from and within Assam without valid documents. ‘Prohibition on the transport of cattle,’ that is section 7 of the act, states that transport of cattle without a permit is banned from Assam to states where cattle slaughtering is not regulated by law and ‘through’ Assam, reported The Indian Express

Many parts of the act are riddled with dubiety and improper definitions which made it subject to a lot of criticisms. Considering the diversity of India, and Assam in particular, the demarcation of areas that are "predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and other non-beef-eating communities", or "within a radius of 5 km" of any temple or Satra will be conflicted. Questions about the existing beef sellers in such areas or the onus of their relocation haven’t been addressed in the act.

“A stone can be laid and a ‘temple’ can be ‘built’ anywhere by anyone — so it becomes very ambiguous. This may lead to a lot of communal tension,” said the Congress opposition leader Debabrata Saikia.

Food habits are a matter of choice. Linking beef eating with religion is a massive generalisation and rules out the possibility of differing food habits.

Another point of contention lies in the fact that Assam is the entry gate to further North Eastern states which have a Christian majority population where beef is popularly consumed. Almost all cattle, and other goods, are transported to the aforementioned regions from Assam. It is predicted that the act might affect the supply chain in states like Nagaland and Mizoram. The Chief Minister of Meghalaya Conrad K Sangma had said that he will take up the issue with the Centre if the bill [now act] affects the state.

The bill was passed through a voice vote amidst sloganeering of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Jai Shree Ram” by BJP legislators and a walkout by the Opposition. The Opposition wanted the Bill to be sent to a Select Committee and alleged that the state might lose revenue in the cattle trade. Assam as a nascent BJP state has undergone tremendous changes; the Cow Protection Act being the latest and most prone to cause communal tensions. While cattle smuggling is rampant and regulations to curb this practice are required, it is this undertone of BJP’s Hindutva agenda that raises the possibility of disharmony in a state that has had a rich history of tribal and religious co-existence.

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